Silent No More  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Silent No More   

A distinguished band of Knight Ridder alumni takes a stand.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's an extraordinary list of names.

The roster of those who signed the open letter from Knight Ridder alumni (75 so far) is a staggering collection of journalistic talent.

The true measure of how impressive this lineup is? It's impossible to single out a few without doing an injustice to many, many others. Check out the list and you'll see what I mean.

Their message is important, too. These are proud journalists who have watched in agony as the once great newspaper company, buffeted by the demands of Wall Street, has made budget cuts at its newspapers with an eye toward short-term profits as opposed to long-term health. (Knight Ridder has a lot of company in that regard.)

The final straw was the demand from big investor Private Capital Management, unhappy that the cuts weren't deeper and the profits weren't higher (a mere 19.4 percent last year), that the company put itself up for sale. It wasn't long before it did just that.

Suddenly the barbarians were at the gates. Suddenly the much-maligned Tony Ridder didn't seem nearly as menacing as the prospect of a takeover by someone interested only in profits, lots of them, with absolutely no background in or commitment to journalism.

Journalists are not joiners by nature. And their craft forces them to stay out of the fray, to record events rather than participate in them.

But the plight of their beloved newspaper company was enough to galvanize the alums into action. Jim Naughton, a former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor and Poynter Institute president, led the charge, contacting scores of Knight Ridder veterans and hammering out a communiqué with input from some seriously first-rate wordsmiths.

"We are silent no more," they said in their open letter. "We will support and counsel only corporate leadership that restores to Knight Ridder newspapers the resources to do excellent journalism. We are prepared collectively to nominate candidates for the Knight Ridder board. We wish to reassert John Knight's creed."

Will they be able to take back the company? Sounds like an uphill struggle. Knight Ridder spokesman Polk Laffoon IV told Editor & Publisher that the effort was "well-meaning" but impractical, since 90 percent of the stock is "institutionally held." Private Capital Management, which started the current ruckus, owns nearly a fifth of the shares.

But it's certainly worth a shot. So much is at stake.

Knight Ridder, like Knight Newspapers before it, was something special, a newspaper company that cared deeply about quality journalism. Not that it didn't care about making money as well. Media companies are not, as Sam Ervin would say, eleemosynary institutions. And you need to be financially healthy to afford to do great journalism.

But that was the difference. The primary goal was the journalism, not the money.

It was my good fortune to see the greatness of Knight Ridder first-hand when I worked at the Miami Herald in the 1980s, first as an associate news editor overseeing national and foreign news, then as city editor.

The amount of talent, energy, drive and ambition in that newsroom was astonishing. On a major story, the paper was ready to go one-on-one with anyone — and win. The depth and breadth of the paper's daily report was truly impressive.

From a distance, I watched in amazement and admiration as Gene Roberts & Co. transformed the Philadelphia Inquirer — my first newspaper, and a very bad one under different ownership — into one of the nation's finest.

I'm sure those who have done time in the Charlottes and Detroits and San Joses and Grand Forks have similar experiences to recount.

Many of us have been bewailing the impact of Wall Street on American journalism for quite some time, without much impact. It's not likely the Naughton-led insurrection will derail the onslaught of untrammeled capitalism.

But sometimes you just have to take a stand. The notion of greed-mongers with no stake in quality journalism and the First Amendment further eviscerating once-great newspapers and/or selling them one by one like so many cartons of detergent is simply too much to accept.

Congratulations to Naughton and his band of journalism luminaries for stepping up.

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