Paint It Black  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

Paint It Black   

Little-known Canadian newspaper magnate David Black acquires Jack Knight’s first paper. Posted June 8, 2006

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


It's the big exclamation point.

It's the final nail in the coffin of Knight Ridder.

Yesterday McClatchy, which is spinning off 12 of the 32 papers it will acquire when the deal to take over Knight Ridder closes, sold the Akron Beacon Journal.

The Akron Beacon Journal was where it all began. This was Jack Knight's first paper, the initial building block in constructing the magnificent newspaper company that Jack and his brother Jim put together.

And McClatchy is selling the paper to..David Black?

Not exactly a household name, not even to the most devout newspaper junkie, the most deeply hooked Romenesko addict. So it's hard to get a good read on what Black's ownership means for Akron. One top newspaper business guru describes him as "something of a mystery."

Black's company is privately held Black Press, based in Victoria, British Columbia. It owns about 100 weeklies and shoppers and the like in western Canada and the western United States, as well as a couple of dailies. Its largest property, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (circulation 62,000), is dwarfed by Akron (circulation 137,000).

But here's one thing we do know about him: The guy has moxie.

Gannett owns the larger paper in Honolulu, the Advertiser, which had been in a joint operating agreement with the Star-Bulletin. But it wanted a monopoly in paradise. So in 1999 it decided to pay the Star-Bulletin's owner to shut the paper down.

The citizens of Honolulu went bonkers, the Justice Department blocked the deal, and when the dust settled Black owned the Star-Bulletin.

That was just the beginning of the adventure Lucinda Fleeson recounted in AJR. Since the Star-Bulletin had been in a JOA with the much larger Advertiser, it didn't own any printing presses. No problem: Black bought he island's largest commercial printing press. And the fun continued: He had to start up advertising and circulation departments from scratch, not to mention find offices for the staff.

Five years later, going head-to-head with the nation's largest newspaper company, the Star-Bulletin is still in business.

When the deal went down, Black made it clear he didn't have to be the top dog in the islands. "I can continue forever if I'm making money," he said. "I don't have to make much. A dollar would do."

Black's victory in Akron came as a surprise, since in the late betting the favorite to pick up the Beacon Journal was Advance Publications, known to most of the English-speaking world as Newhouse. Newhouse, which, like Black Press, is privately held, has been one of the field's good-news stories in the past decade or so, as it has improved many of its once-lackluster dailies. And being privately held, it has not been whipsawed by the vicissitudes of Wall Street like its publicly held brethren.

On the other hand, Newhouse owning Akron wouldn't have done much for the "multiplicity of voices" crowd, since it also owns Cleveland's Plain Dealer down the street.

The top brass in Akron said all the reassuring things yesterday: A focus on community journalism, no layoffs, no changes at the top, no effort to jettison union contracts.

Back in 2001, the Beacon Journal went through a devastating round of budget cuts, which included the first layoffs in the paper's proud, Pulitzer-laden history. Valarie Basheda, at the time AJR's managing editor, traveled to Akron to take the paper's temperature.

One thing I remember vividly from the piece is "the shrine."

It's not really a shrine, of course; it's more like a conference room. But its walls are adorned with photos of and quotes by Jack Knight. In the piece Basheda wrote of a young reporter who loved that place because he could "feel the spirit of Jack Knight there."

One of Knight's quotes showcased in the shrine goes like this: "We believe in profitability but do not sacrifice either principle or quality on the altar of the countinghouse."

David Black, take note.

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