Thursday, May 19, 2005

A sad newspaper tale:
(Warning, this is the longest post I've ever put online. I thought reviewing this book was worth a bit of copy, though....)

I'm a junkie for newspaper books. I have a stack of them on my bookshelves, and have probably read and returned or given away several more, books about the histories of great newspapers and newspaper people. So I was not disappointed by Knightfall, Knight Ridder and how the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism is Putting Democracy at Risk.

It's a wonderful tale of how two newspaper companies (Knight and Ridder) came together to form one of America's largest media companies, and how the joining of two very different news philosophies formed the current company. (This chapter, Chapter 3, Building Toward Merger is online.)

Unfortunately for author Davis (Buzz) Merritt and other former Knight editors, the merger didn't have the happiest ending. According to Merritt, Knight's philosophy favored the news over profits, and Ridder's papers were money machines first. It'll be fine, said the Knight folks; as one of them, Jim Batten, told Merritt soon after the merger in 1975, he had given up editing to work in corporate because "somebody has to watch the bad guys". Batten became CEO of the company, but died of a brain tumor in 1995.

For Merritt, the bad guys won. There were no Knight heirs or other Knight-trained leaders to take over, the Ridder family was large, and P. Anthony Ridder became CEO and chairman upon Batten's death.

How did this affect journalism at the papers? Merritt gives lists of Pulitzer Prizes won by KR papers as proof that it was negative: in the 1970s, KR papers won 32 Pulitzers, while the big 5 (NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Wall St. Journal, and AP) won 35. In the 1980s, it was 12 for KR papers, 52 for the bigs. From 2000-2004, KR papers have won only 4.

As well, KR papers lost a slew of top editors in the 1990s. In my experience, it was shocking: at the Miami Herald, we lost: Publisher David Lawrence, who stated publicly that he could not face any more budget cuts. Editor and long-time KR exec. Doug Clifton, who considered retirement but went to the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he said ownership had an entirely different attitude: "They didn't do budgets". His successor Marty Baron, who left after a year (and a Pulitzer) for the Boston Globe.

They weren't all. San Jose Mercury News publisher Jay Harris left in a highly publicized move after being told in a memo from the new KR VP for news, Steve Rossi, that the newsroom 'had a sense of entitlement'.
That sense of entitlement is explored from the other side, too, in the pressure for excellence despite dwindling resources that has forced reporters at one paper after another to make mistakes leading to erosion of the public trust.

Merritt, editor of KR's Wichita Eagle for many years, felt the budget pressure, finally learning that 'Tony (Ridder) is no great fan of yours'. After taking a leave to write a book, Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough he decided to retire when faced with even more cuts.

There's more to this book than just the sad story of a newspaper company gone wrong, though. Merritt, an advocate of public journalism, laments the effect that the dumbing down of newspapers has on the public's awareness of important issues. He cites Phil Meyer in The Vanishing Newspaper who says that 'harvesting' of newspaper companies for the short term profit to stockholders can result in newspapers too weak to be saved for the future. There's a long discussion of the question of whether publicly-traded media companies can endure. Should newspapers be owned by foundations? Can they endure otherwise?

John S. Knight said ' not sacrifice either principles or quality on the altar of the countinghouse.' Too bad this philosophy has been overtaken by Wall Street's demands in too many big media companies today.

Merritt mentions blogs in the book. He calls them a 'challenge - to the news-and-opinion franchise', but favors the 'everybody needs an editor' side of the blog question, saying 'The blog world may be journalism's first meritocracy...but it is also a ready platform for fools and knaves...unencumbered by...accuracy, fairness and accountability.' He admits, though, that they 'are part of the public conversation that often has immediacy and authenticity.'

It's interesting that much of the discussion about newspapers these days predicates that newspapers remain printed sheets of paper, the format we all grew up with. I love those printed sheets myself. (Or as Garrison Keillor said yesterday in the announcement that he'll be doing a column for Tribune Media Services, "I am an everyday newspaper reader. I would walk a mile to get one. I would no sooner get my news from TV than I would buy bread at a gas station. As for radio, it has its merits, but you can't swat a fly with a radio.")

Wouldn't it be something if those lamenting the financial difficulties and circulation losses of newspapers would think about an alternative? There are millions of possible readers out there that don't think spending time every day reading large pieces of folded paper is a worthwhile use of their time, but will spend hours reading blogs and news sites. When will journalists concede that the Web version of their paper is just as important to their future employment as the paper it's printed on? Will they see that important investigative and community news work can be done for other media? Stay tuned. The past is fascinating, but the future is very different. Let's hope that the highest ideals of journalism can be saved, whether or not newspapers are.

(A coda: after all this, it's interesting that Knight Ridder papers are doggedly progressing in the blog world, with the new fulltime blogger at the Philadelphia Inquirer doing Blinq, the new Good Morning Silicon Valley blog, and more to come, I think, on a Type Pad platform. Maybe a company that is known for cost cutting (and which took some heat about their Blogspot blogs a while back) can find a way to use them to progress their journalism.)


  • Dear Elisabeth,

    Thank you for your wonderful contributions to democracy.

    Re your review above, which print papers (hopefully also with e-versions), say the top 5 or 10, do you think have the most integrity and follow Knight's values?

    A second question. When you get up in the morning, or capture a half hour amidst your busy life, to which news sources do you turn first?


    Yours very truly,


    By Anonymous Christian, at 1:51 PM  

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