As a fan of the Berkeley Daily Planet, I was worried when I learned that Knight Ridder was starting a free daily newspaper in the East Bay. I had just finished reading Davis Merritt’s new book, Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk. The story he tells does not inspire faith that, when Knight Ridder moves in, good journalism will prevail.
Himself a former Knight Ridder editor, Merritt draws on a store of personal experiences to make his point: that selling newspaper stock on Wall Street undermines newspapers’ ability to operate in the public interest.
When newspapers become public companies, the business side sets profit goals, and editors have to meet them. They try: They plump up their “sof t” coverage of food, fashion, lifestyles, homes, and cars to appeal to baby-boomers and advertisers. They cut hard news, especially foreign news. They cut staff.
As Merritt tells the story, the staff cuts were the hardest changes for top Knight Ridder editors to take when demands for higher revenues sharpened in the 1990s. Starting in the mid-1990s, seasoned Knight Ridder editors and publishers began jumping ship.
Merritt understands the anguish of the editors who left—he was one of them. He had spent a year away from his job as editor of the Wichita Eagle in the mid-1990s to promote the idea of “public journalism,” and when he came back, he found his world “totally changed.”
Knight Ridder executive Jim Batten, supporter of journalism in the public interest, was near death, leaving Knight Ridder chairman and CEO Tony Ridder free to realize his own vision for the company. What Merritt saw disturbed him: “Creeping corporatism was at its height, with every news decision having a marketing subtext.”
As newsprint costs soared, the company still wanted Merritt to produce a 22.5 percent return in 1996. He could not see where the money would come from.
“There was no fat left; we had cut through muscle and maybe chipped some bone in preparing the 1996 budge t….”
He made the decision to cut circulation outside of metropolitan Wichita: 10,000 readers learned they would no longer receive the paper.
Explaining the decision, he wrote in a column, “If you and I owned the Eagle, we might make a different decision. We might conclude that continuing to circulate in those distant areas, even at a loss, was important to us as a matter of conscience, and important to the affected people, to Wichita, to the state, and to the moral imperative of keeping people informed in a democracy. We could choose to accept less profit.
“But you and I do not own the Eagle. It is part of Knight-Ridder, Inc., a publicly held company that is owned by shareholders all across the nation.”
Merritt was swiftly eased out of the top job and into a senior editor’s slot. He retired early two years after that.
Other top executives departed with more sound and fury. Jay Harris, chairman and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, resigned in 2001 with a parting blast. Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Harris granted that good journalism had to be underwritten by good business but asked, “What is good enough in terms of profitability and sustained year-to-year profit improvement?…
“When the interests of readers and shareho lders are at odds, which takes priority? When the interests of a community and shareholders are at odds, which takes priority? When the interests of the nation in an informed citizenry and the demands of shareholders for ever-increasing profits are at odds, which takes priority?”
I remember e-mailing that speech to my journalism students, or, I should say, the students in my journalism classes. Only a few of them want to be journalists. In a worrisome sign of the times, they’re more interested in public relations and advertising. Some would like to go into magazines and television, but few want work for newspapers. Like others in their generation many don’t even read newspapers.
Desperate to reach younger readers, newspaper companies across the country are taking a new tack, as Editor and Publisher reported recently: free dailies filled with snappy news (and, of course, ads)—dailies like Knight Ridder’s new East Bay venture.
Announcing its launch of the East Bay Daily News, Knight Ridder promised, in its press release, to offer local news—always a good thing; there’s plenty to go around, and I expect Daily Planet readers could read both the Daily Planet and the new daily and still not get enough.
But Knight Ridder also promised to “offer results—low-cost advertising programs that are affordable for even the smallest businesses.”
That sounds like the Daily Planet’s advertisers to me. Even newspapers published in the public interest need to pay for themselves, eventually. I worry about the effects Kni ght Ridder’s competition could have on the Daily Planet’s modest income.
I remember the independent bookstore that a young man who loved books started up not long after I moved to Bloomington, Ind. For the first time, the town had a bookstore bigger than a hole in the wall: It was almost like being back in Berkeley.
Within a couple of years, Borders had moved in—right next door, offering its books at the cut-rate prices the bookstore chains can afford. Within months, the independent was dead in the wate r. In place of Morgenstern’s bBooks, selected with some understanding of what the community is like, we have a corporate outlet.
That’s the logic of the marketplace.
Does the logic of the marketplace have to rule newspapers? Merritt suggests not. He off ers alternatives—companies that refuse Wall Street’s demands for astronomical profits; newspapers published by nonprofit foundations; boards of directors that include representatives who would defend journalism.
There are many other alternatives, some of them being explored by the growing independent media movement. What these alternatives have in common is a concept of journalism, not as consumer product, but as empowerment. In the eyes of the indie movement, corporate journalism is a contradiction in t erms. The best way to fix corporate journalism may be to nurture newsrooms of our own.
That is what Becky and Mike O’Malley have done in Berkeley. I’ve known Becky since we worked together in the Bay Area Writers Union in its earliest days, and I understand the O’Malleys’ commitment to journalism. After reading Merritt’s Knightfall, I can’t say I have the same faith in Knight Ridder.
Carol Polsgrove, a journalism professor at Indiana University, is the author of It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun? Surviving the ‘60s with Esquire’s Harold Hayes (RDR Books).
KNIGHTFALL: KNIGHT RIDDER AND HOW THE EROSION OF NEWSPAPER JOURNALISM IS PUTTING DEMOCRACY AT RISK
By Davis Merritt
AMACOM, 256 pages, $24.95?Ì