A Somber Take on the State of The American Newspaper  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   June/July 2005

A Somber Take on the State of The American Newspaper   

A former Knight Ridder editor decries the impact of profit pressures.

Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk By Davis Merritt
Amacom
256 pages; $24.95

Book review by Eugene Patterson
Patterson is a former managing editor of the Washington Post, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the Poynter Institute Board of Trustees.     


Amacom is the exotic name of the publisher of Buzz Merritt's gloomy book on what used to be Jack Knight's newspapers. The imprint derived its name from its parent, American Management Association. Most fitting.

The downhill management that's burnished the profit while it's dulled the quality of those proud papers is a case study of what can happen when newspapers take their stock public, as Jack Knight did in 1969. He gave his friend Nelson Poynter an advance tip on his intention and asked, "Whaddaya think about that, Nelson?"

"Jack, I think it'll be fine," Poynter replied, "as long as you're alive."

Knight himself was shortly to grumble of "losing control of your destiny" when you take that step.

I need to disclose here that much as I've admired the records of Punch Sulzberger and Otis Chandler and C.K. McClatchy and Bernard Kilgore from a distance, my hero publishers have been Nelson Poynter and Katharine Graham, for whom I worked, and my close friend Jack Knight, who twice offered me jobs when I needed work.

I encountered the excellence of Knight's journalism firsthand as a United Press correspondent when I worked abroad in the 1950s alongside the extraordinary reporters he fielded from his old Chicago Daily News--Ernie Hill and Peter Lisagor, Bill Stoneman and George Weller and Keyes Beech. Then I met the bluntly honest Knight himself and marveled at a mind so demanding and unafraid behind the intelligent glitter of those amused and knowing eyes.

Buzz Merritt writes that Lee Hills was 36 in 1942 when Louis B. Seltzer of Scripps Howard's Cleveland Press found Hills to be a "restless young executive" whom Knight might want to hire in Akron. Knight told me that what really happened was that the priggish Seltzer objected to Hills' avid pursuit of a woman and, after firing him, recommended him to Knight. Knight grabbed him at once to be city editor of the Miami Herald and credited Seltzer's prudery as "handing me one of the best hires I ever made." Hills and Knight together went on to build the Knight newspapers that set what Merritt calls "the gold standards" for journalism in America, though they were not "among the better financial performers."

Knight met just once with Wall Street stock analysts. When they raised questions about the financial performance of his newly public company, he snorted, "You are not going to tell me how to run this company." Knight Ridder executive Alvah Chapman translated that: "He told them to go to hell."

Yet by 1974 the pressure to grow led Knight to merge the north-south axis of his newspapers with the east-west markets of Ridder Publications, which, Merritt writes, "were rated as effective business operations but, at best indifferent journalistic products."

Knight people were reassured because the merger actually was a Knight acquisition of control through stock holdings and board seats. They assumed Knight's "fierce independence from commercial concerns and local autonomy for editors" were to be the operating principles of Knight Ridder, Merritt says, with a stout wall maintained between news priorities and the business side.

But time would show that no such balancing of the clashes between such an odd couple proved possible, given the pressure for ever-rising profits entailed by public stock ownership. "Newspapers owned by quality-driven corporations were drawn inexorably toward the standards of profit-driven companies," Merritt writes.

Merritt was the first Knight editor to enter this maelstrom when he was chosen as editor of the Ridder paper in Wichita.

With Knight's able Jim Batten succeeding Hills and Knight as news-trained CEO of Knight Ridder, nervousness over command of the chain was damped down. But with Tony Ridder's elevation to the top spot after Batten's premature death in 1995, old-line Knight editors started an exodus. Merritt started himself toward the door with a column he wrote to his Wichita Eagle readers in January 1996, when he'd been forced to make meat-ax cuts in distribution to achieve a profit increase that corporate headquarters demanded. "If you and I owned the Eagle, we might make a different decision," he wrote. "But you and I do not own the Eagle. It is part..of a publicly held company that is owned by shareholders all across the nation. En masse, shareholders represented by institutional investors and mutual funds have no conscience. They care only that the company..maintain a level of profit, and that the levels rise each year."

Merritt doesn't misunderstand the free market economy, which places the numbers ahead of the public service obligations of newspapers. "Market analysts exist," he wrote, "to advise people on how to make the most money possible, not on how to create a better society."

He found that small fractures in the wall separating the news and business sides had grown slowly over the last decades of the 20th century toward a time that would "turn newsrooms into marketing divisions and editors into accountants."

Merritt's conclusions in "Knightfall" are unrelievedly somber. "[W]e may not need newspapers in our media mix at some point in the future," he writes. "But we will need newspaper journalism."

"Radio couldn't kill newspapers, nor could television, CNN and its copycats, or, as yet, the Internet. But greed can kill newspapers--and thus newspaper journalism--and is in the process of doing so. ..

"What's going on is serial suicide on the part of the companies that own most of America's newspapers. .. If something doesn't change in newspaper corporate boardrooms," Merritt goes on grimly, "the source of the information that Americans need to govern themselves at all levels will be an unreliable and constantly shifting array of broadcast and Internet outlets that are often irresponsible, untrained, understaffed and driven wholly by profit or ego. That information will be incomplete, unverified, and laced with the poison of partisan bias and narrow interests, if only because it has not been subjected to a rigorous editing process.

"When, as has happened, public service and democratic obligations become secondary to profit considerations when actual survival is not at stake, vital aspects of American life are put in great peril."

Merritt does not say "if." Speaking from the belly of the beast, he says "as has happened."

Even in the face of his powerful evidence, one searches for hope.

Newhouse and Cox newspapers have managed to stay closely held and independent of Wall Street pressures. But fine newspapers owned by families in towns like Louisville and Raleigh, Minneapolis and Des Moines, had to be sold to chains due to varying pressures. The New York Times and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal sold two-tiered stock to the public but still manage to maintain family control. But so did the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe until their owning families felt they'd be best off to sell. Nelson Poynter kept the St. Petersburg Times independent by giving it to an educational institution, but not many other owners will take that route.

As for the publicly owned chains that now own most newspapers, it's hard to see how the corporate Humpties can be put together again. Trying to take them back to private ownership now might, among other problems, put them in play for a hostile takeover.

Hope really resides in the newspapermen and women who have always understood they work for a goal higher than the counting house and can put up with managements of varying worth as they always have in order to gain their precious access to a printing press. They'll just go on working with their hats on, the Lord willing, and answering to themselves. As Max Ways wrote many years ago, a newspaperman must warm himself by his own fires.

It's just lonelier now that Jack Knight is no longer alive.

###