Knight Moves  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   October/November 2006

Knight Moves   

And the birth of a new institute for the future of journalism

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


I haven't worked in a newsroom since 1992. That was five books, four learner's permits, three surgeries, two houses and one journalism school ago.

Yet a large part of my self-identity remains tied up in the fact that I was a Knight Ridder editor. All these years later that gives me the same feeling of pride you see in the beer-gutted geezers who lumber out of the dugout on Old Timers Day, faces aglow. Yup, he may not look like much now, but once upon a time the guy could play.

I came to Knight Ridder in early 1981 via the Miami Herald. The top floor of the Herald Building, that big, ugly box on Biscayne Bay, housed the corporate offices. But they'd been seeing much less of the company's visionary founder, John Shively Knight, since his retirement five years earlier.

Jack Knight and his younger brother, Jim, carefully built a media empire newspaper by newspaper, starting from their base in Akron, Ohio, and culminating in a 1974 merger with the Ridder chain. And in his office overlooking the back side of Miami Beach, Jack batted out his influential weekly "Editor's Notebook," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

But even with Jack away from the premises, his spirit surely inhabited the place. Perhaps the most tangible aspect of his legacy was the Herald's strong corps of editors, led at the time by John McMullan, a man who brooked absolutely no nonsense because, well, Knight Ridder editors didn't have to. Jack Knight wanted it that way.

Tough, opinionated editors were a company tradition, and I had many as mentors while running through a succession of positions at the Herald. They gave me the tools I needed to get to my second Knight Ridder posting, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspapers in Georgia, as executive editor in 1985. I left when professional wanderlust kicked in, but after a series of side trips I bounded back to Knight Ridder a third time, as deputy managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News. There I worked for two more editors, Bob Ingle and Jerry Ceppos, who came of age in Miami, in Jack Knight's shadow.

By then, however, Jack Knight had been dead a decade, and there was no evading the mounting business-side pressures, even at papers that cared as passionately about editorial quality as Knight Ridder's did. The Knight brothers had taken their company public, and that access to cash had allowed further expansion and diversification into other media. But I've often wondered whether they would have made the same decision had they known the extent to which Wall Street would inflict unreasonable profit expectations on publicly held newspaper companies. As I said, Jack Knight did not like being told what to do.

In the end, of course, those relentless pressures proved the undoing of Knight Ridder. Unable to levitate the company's share price enough to satisfy institutional investors, Chairman and CEO Tony Ridder instead appeased them by breaking up the company that the Knight brothers (and on the Ridder side, Tony's own forebears) had built. Like KR employees and alums everywhere, I watched a company I loved disemboweled, overnight. And for what?

But let's return a moment to Jack and Jim Knight. In 1940, to honor their father, the brothers established a modest charity to offer aid to needy, Akron-area college students. This fund grew over time, and as the Knight Foundation it would become one of the nation's largest philanthropies after various bequests from the Knight family. Along the way it refocused its mission to help 26 Knight Ridder communities and to promote journalistic excellence.

Maryland's journalism school has been a major beneficiary of that generosity. The Knight Foundation endowed our Knight Chair in Journalism, now held by Haynes Johnson. It underwrites our Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, now in its 19th year. It is a major funder of J-Lab, Jan Schaffer's institute dedicated to interactive journalism. And its support helps us continue to publish this very magazine.

A few weeks ago, the Knight Foundation announced that it will donate $5 million to help Maryland's journalism school build a new, state-of-the-art facility.

That building will be called John S. and James L. Knight Hall.

As part of this important partnership, we are establishing here the Knight Institute for the Future of Journalism. Through our various Knight-funded ventures, the institute will work to ensure that as journalism evolves, in its many fascinating and unpredictable forms, it will do so maintaining the professional values and watchdog principles essential to our democratic society.

Talking about his aspirations earlier this year, Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said, "Jack Knight's exhortation, spoken in Akron, Ohio, some 40 years ago, still rings true for us today. Describing the role of newspapers, he said then and we hold now that 'We seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.' We hope to live up to that passion!"

We do too, and we are proud to be partners with the Knight Foundation.

As I say, once a Knight Ridder editor, always a Knight Ridder editor.

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