"Knightfall": Profile of newspaper chain lacks key interview

"Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism is Putting Democracy at Risk"
by Davis "Buzz" Merritt
Amacom, 256 pp., $24.95

The biggest surprise from the book "Knightfall" was that nowhere does there appear a picture of P. Anthony (Tony) Ridder with devil horns drawn on his forehead.

I kept expecting it with every page I turned.

Since 1995, Ridder has been the chairman and CEO of Knight Ridder, the newspaper chain that owns 31 dailies in 28 U.S. markets, including a 49.5 percent share of the voting stock of The Seattle Times (The Seattle Times Co., owned by the Blethen family, retains majority control of the voting stock and of the newspaper.)

The author of "Knightfall," Davis Merritt, says there are no "pure villains" in the book, but Ridder comes close. He's depicted as the force behind all that is wrong with the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, symbolic of the greed that eats away at newsroom budgets in many U.S. newspapers and harbinger of a threat to democracy itself, given its reliance on newspapers for information people need to make informed decisions.

But the devil never gets his due. Ridder refused to be interviewed or provide other materials to Merritt. And in the end, that makes this an unsatisfying book, much like a news story where an important source refuses to tell their side.

For 23 years, Merritt was editor and senior editor at The Wichita Eagle, a Knight Ridder newspaper. He rarely mentions Ridder in the book without noting Ridder's lack of newsroom experience.

For people in newsrooms — and I was one of them for more than 30 years — this is intolerable in those who run newspapers. If not some experience, there needs to be in newsroom leaders at least an appreciation of what it takes to report and present the news — not a total dedication to the bottom line, which is what Merritt sees in Ridder and his corporation today.

It wasn't always like that, according to Merritt. He started his journalism career in the late 1950s with Knight Newspapers. The tone of the company was set by owner John Shively (Jack) Knight, who believed in aggressive reporting, courageous editorial stands and independence for his editors. That made for good newspapers, he believed, and good newspapers made profits.

But in the 1960s, family-owned chains started going public to ward off inheritance taxes and to raise money for expansion. Both the Knight papers and Ridder Publications went that route in 1969. In 1974, the two companies merged.

It's hard to find any evidence in Merritt's book that anyone with the name of Ridder is capable of practicing good journalism, the kind that brought respect to the Knight papers. But the Ridders knew how to turn a profit. While the Knight business operations in 1974 had a reputation of failing to reach the financial potential of the newspapers, the Ridders faithfully cranked out profits.

For a time, all seemed to go well. Editors and managers from the Knight side mostly took over the running of the papers. The chain won 38 Pulitzer prizes between 1980 and 1993. Its newspaper division and the papers themselves were led by highly regarded journalists.

Then things started to change. Under pressure from shareholders and Wall Street analysts, profit margins for the corporation rose. In the 1980s, they had been between 7.8 and 15 percent. From 1995 to 2003, the average was 17.8 percent, with several years over 20 percent.

Asked to make cuts in their newsroom budgets to meet the profit expectations, many of the top editors left the company instead. And the number of Pulitzers started falling: From 1994 to 2003, the Knight Ridder papers won only nine of the top awards in journalism.

Merritt makes a good case for why all this is important to Americans: Democracy depends on reliable sources of information, and newspaper journalism provides the most reliable. Advertising and circulation sales, the newspaper economic model for decades, have enabled them to build newsroom staffs larger than other media.

When demand for profit eats away at these staff numbers, Merritt says, all who live in a democracy are at risk. If newspaper journalism doesn't survive long enough to make a profitable transfer to the next technology — probably the Internet — then "the source of 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."

Merritt argues that the biggest threat to newspaper journalism isn't new technology, as many believe, but greed. The pressure to hit certain profit numbers at Knight Ridder isn't because the papers are on the brink of extinction; it's about satisfying shareholders' ever-growing demands. Unless some way can be found to free newspapers from this demand — and Merritt seems pessimistic — then democracy itself will be the loser.

John B. Saul is a former deputy metro editor at The Seattle Times.