Gannett Co., publisher of USA Today and 100 other newspapers, has purchased the Detroit Free Press from the Knight Ridder Inc. chain and sold the Detroit News to MediaNews Group Inc., publisher of the Denver Post, the companies announced yesterday.

Knight Ridder and McLean-based Gannett also exchanged four other newspapers, with Gannett's Idaho Statesman in Boise, the Olympian in Olympia, Wash., and the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald going to Knight Ridder, while Knight Ridder's Tallahassee Democrat and an undisclosed amount of cash go to Gannett.

The Free Press, Michigan's largest paper, with a circulation of 347,447 daily, and the afternoon News have been partners in a joint operating agreement since 1989, though their news operations have remained separate. Their Sunday edition, however, is a combined paper with a circulation of 682,798, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The papers have had a contentious labor history, including a five-year strike in the 1990s that led to significant circulation losses.

The effect of the deal will be to make Gannett and MediaNews, headed by William Dean Singleton, partners in the joint operating agreement -- with Gannett the general partner and MediaNews the limited partner -- and for Knight Ridder to leave Detroit after 61 years.

"We feel the need to go our own way," P. Anthony Ridder, chairman of Knight Ridder, said in a written statement. "In all of the cities where we have newspapers, we run the business. That is the arrangement that works best for us."

MediaNews is expected to move the News to morning publication next year, and the Free Press will become the sole publisher of the Sunday edition, officials said. They will publish separate Saturday editions.

"Two daily newspapers, competing editorially in the city of Detroit. That's the bottom line of today's transactions," Gannett chief executive Craig A. Dubow said in a written statement. "Detroit is the winner here, and Gannett is proud we were able to make this happen. We believe in this community."

Singleton expressed similar sentiments. "Like Gannett, we believe in Detroit and in two newspaper voices," he said. "So, stand by for some robust competition between newsrooms, as well as a renewed spirit of cooperation in the back office."

Singleton has built his chain, which now includes 39 papers, on cost-cutting and in competitive environments.

Gannett said David L. Hunke will become president and publisher of the Free Press. He has been president and publisher of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.

MediaNews Group announced that David J. Butler will become publisher and editor of the News. Butler was editor of the MediaNews' Daily News of Los Angeles.