Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk

Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk

by Davis Merritt



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814408544
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 03/25/2005
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.28(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.02(d)
Age Range: 17 Years

About the Author

Davis 'Buzz' Merritt spent more than four decades with Knight Newspapers and Knight Ridder, retiring in 1999 as Senior Editor of The Wichita Eagle. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.

Read an Excerpt


By W. Davis Merritt


Copyright © 2005 W. Davis Merritt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-0854-0

Chapter One

Building Toward Merger

"Jack, I think it will be fine-as long as you are alive." - Nelson Poynter to Jack Knight, 1969

While Lee Hills immersed himself in the two major newspaper operations in Miami and Detroit and also conferred with Jack Knight on corporate matters, the company expanded for the first time since 1944, this time buying The Charlotte Observer in 1955. It was a purchase that Jack Knight was cool about but Jim Knight and Hills favored, Jim Knight because of a friendship with the owning Johnson family, Hills because he was convinced the company needed medium-size papers as training and recruiting grounds. Jack Knight, who at sixty was more interested in the larger papers and concerned about overextending Hills and other executives, including himself, grumpily agreed to the Charlotte purchase. But, in a move that startled insiders, he named Jim Knight as president and publisher rather than himself. Thus Charlotte was "Jim's deal," and Jack rarely showed up there. So Hills and Jim Knight were once more teamed in the rebuilding of a newspaper.

Shaping Up Charlotte

In 1954, C. A. (Pete) McKnight, a native of Shelby, North Carolina and a Davidson College graduate, had taken a leave of absence from the editorship of the afternoon Charlotte News to head the Southern Education Reporting Service (SERS), a Ford Foundation agency that would monitor enforcement of the freshly minted Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation order. One of his reporting trips for SERS was to Detroit, where he met Hills and they talked not only about school desegregation, which both strongly favored, but also about The Charlotte Observer. Hills asked McKnight to put on paper his views about what needed to be done there. The bottom line for McKnight: Substantially raise the paper's level of journalism. That matched the views of Jim Knight and Hills and, in a move that shook both Charlotte newsrooms as well as the community, Pete McKnight became the new editor of the Observer.

After sizing up the Observer from inside, McKnight knew he needed better leadership and persuaded the highly respected and valued Tom Fesperman, managing editor of The Charlotte News, to become his number two man at the rival Observer. It was a stroke of genius that ensured a resurgence in the Observer's quality while dealing a fatal blow to the News, which would surrender totally four years later and be purchased by Knight Newspapers.

Hills's other aspiration for The Charlotte Observer, making it a training ground for what he knew would be an expanding company, also was realized. Long-time staffer Jack Claiborne, in his 1986 history of the Observer, calculated that more than a dozen McKnight-Fesperman recruits from the 1950s and early 1960s became editors or publishers of Knight-owned, and later Knight Ridder-owned, newspapers. Dozens more went on to outstanding reporting, editing, and photography careers within the company and at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines, as well as dozens of smaller newspapers and magazines.

One of those hires, a young reporter from McKnight's alma mater, Davidson College, was Jim Batten. McKnight tabbed Batten early as his possible successor at the Observer. Batten was the total package: He possessed a calm but determined demeanor wrapped in a natural, not contrived, Southern courtliness. He had high intellect; a deft touch with people; a crisp, authentic writing style; and an imposing physical presence. Most important for McKnight and Hills, he cared a great deal about the world around him and understood a newspaper's obligation to make that world better.

They constructed a personal development regimen that would take him to the Washington bureau, to Detroit for what had become known as Free Press boot camp, to the editorship of a newspaper, and ultimately, to the leadership of the company. While it was clear to many of his peers very early that Batten was on a corporate fast track, the negative aura of "The Chosen One" never attached to him because he never acted the part in any way.

Another of McKnight's early hires, Larry Jinks (later executive editor of The Miami Herald and editor, then publisher, of The San Jose Mercury News) also worked for a time as senior vice president for news for Knight Ridder. Rolfe Neill, hired as a business reporter in Charlotte, was editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and assistant to the publisher of the New York Daily News before returning to Charlotte as publisher. Charles Kuralt, who would became famous as the face and voice of CBS television, was one of their hires at The Charlotte News before McKnight and Fesperman wound up at The Charlotte Observer. Another hire was the fledging John S. Knight III as a reporter at The Charlotte News. It was a hire that caused Charlotte News management some pause and aroused great derision at the rival Observer, but it was a start for the grandson of the founder.

By the early 1970s, papers in Providence, Dallas, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville (North Carolina), Anderson (South Carolina), Akron, Portland (Oregon), Charleston (South Carolina), Bradenton (Florida), and Wichita were also headed by McKnight-Fesperman hires from that period of rejuvenating the Observer. The Charlotte operation had, indeed, become the company's most productive training ground.

The big papers in Detroit, Miami, and Chicago were talent sponges, and the rapid Knight-Hills improvements made them hunting grounds for the nation's larger newspapers. Hills began to put heavy, organized emphasis on maintaining a pipeline full of promising people. Full-time personnel people, armed with batteries of tests, were hired at most of the newspapers, and local editors were charged with seeing to their training by moving them through a series of newsroom assignments on almost a yearly basis. Clearly, the company's business was becoming too large for even Jack Knight's hefty brown briefcase. A corporation was beginning to take shape, and with its emergence came concerns: If the company grew too large, would local autonomy suffer? Could journalistic standards and the Knight mission be maintained? Were there enough truly dedicated and talented people around?

Practicing Journalists

Knight and Hills, despite the distractions of growth, set a tone that kept the company's priorities straight-they did journalism.

Knight continued to write his influential "Editor's Notebook" for the Sunday editions of his papers, a task he performed with only a handful of interruptions for thirty-nine years. In the last fifteen of those years, the column became widely influential beyond the Knight papers in which it appeared, and in 1968 Knight was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "the whole volume" of his work.

Hills, even with several newspapers to oversee and growing corporate responsibilities, continued to think and act like a working reporter. In 1955, with the United Auto Workers Union, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors embroiled in high-stakes contract negotiations, Hills personally took on a delicate job of reporting and writing. The labor situation was threatening to both the city and the Detroit Free Press, and since the negotiations were behind closed doors, Hills had to call on his deep sources on both sides and staff reporters to produce a daily, unsigned column called "A Look Behind the UAW-Auto Curtain." The column kept rank-and-file people on both sides informed in ways the company and union bosses would not, squelched rumors, and finally predicted, correctly, that a settlement would be reached. "Behind the Curtain" was hailed as a major factor in keeping things cool and those most affected well informed, and it won for Hills and the Detroit Free Press his second Pulitzer Prize.

The decade from 1955 to 1965 was one of digestion. With a dozen newspapers and a sharply limited corporate structure, it was time to build upon the existing foundation rather than add more newspapers. In those ten years only two newspaper transactions occurred, both in the nature of the inevitable. In 1959, Jack Knight gave up on his Chicago dreams. The City of Big Shoulders was a hectic newspaper battleground. Knight's Chicago Daily News, an afternoon publication without a Sunday edition, was pitted against the all-powerful morning and Sunday editions of the Chicago Tribune, plus Marshall Field Jr.'s Sun-Times and Hearst Corporation's Chicago American. While Knight and his Chicago executive editor, Basil "Stuffy" Walters, had built the Daily News into a paper with more than 600,000 circulation and a reputation for tough journalism and smart content, its fiscal stability and future were threatened by its lack of a Sunday edition. All across the nation, cities large and small were losing second- and third-ranked newspapers, particularly afternoon ones. Television, urban traffic patterns changed by suburban growth, and the hollowing out of urban business districts contrived to make any afternoon newspaper's future questionable. Knight negotiated to buy The Chicago American for its Sunday position but was rebuffed. Then the American was sold to the Chicago Tribune, and the game was over for Knight. He sold the Chicago Daily News to Marshall Field for $24 million, fifteen years after he bought it for $2.1 million.

Meanwhile in Charlotte, the Observer juggernaut was rolling over the afternoon Charlotte News, whose owning family capitulated, selling to Knight Newspapers in yet another example of the dominant newspaper business trend of the decade-one-owner cities.

Except for those two financial events, however, the decade was one of quiet building of talent and improvement of the existing newspapers rather than the acquisition of more of them. When the Chicago Daily News was sold, Hills became executive editor of Knight Newspapers, a title that finally reflected the scope of his responsibilities. In Miami, the triumphant Herald was feeling the pinch of an outmoded building, and Jim Knight was planning a new one, on Biscayne Bay.

Turning Points

While the quiet journalistic development of the mid-1960s led to growing recognition for Knight Newspapers' aggressive reporting and courageous editorial stands, its business side was gaining a reputation as old-fashioned, disorganized, and falling short of its financial potential. This negative was tolerable as long as the Knight brothers, Hills, and a few others were the controlling shareholders; the company was making a handsome, if not maximized, profit. But, as Jack Knight approached his seventy-third birthday, other forces were building in addition to the weight of years on his shoulders.

A turning point for Knight and the company occurred suddenly in 1967. For several years, an old Akron friend from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Eddie Thomas, had been urging Knight to start stepping back and to develop a succession plan for the company, something for which Knight had little appetite. In 1967, at Knight's insistence, Thomas became the company's first outside director. Charles Whited, in his 1988 biography of John S. Knight, tells of one meeting where JSK asked the new board member, "What have you got to say about us?" The exchange went as follows:

"If Goodyear operated its finances like you do, we'd have been out of business years ago. You're so out of date, I don't see how you get along at all. You need a full-time expert on financial affairs.... You've gotten away with things so far because nothing has been too pressing. You're not up to date, Jack."

"Are you finished?"

"No. You're also way behind in the way personnel is handled.... Your hiring is haphazard. I don't see a lot of training to speak of.... It's a new ball game, Jack. Get somebody in here who knows finance, who knows personnel, put them in charge, let them organize."

"Is that all?"

"No. You've got a deficiency in selling.... You seem to have the attitude that people have got to read your newspapers. Well, they don't have to read them. I think you can do a better selling job.... "

Knight smiled. "You certainly have been frank with us."

Within a few months, Jack Knight announced to the board that he was stepping down as chairman and CEO, handing those jobs to brother Jim. Hills was elected president. Jack Knight remained as chairman of the executive committee and, of course, editorial chairman. A corner was turned and an operating structure and succession philosophy that would mark the next two decades was established. Key to both was the pairing of people with journalism backgrounds and business backgrounds in the top positions, each being a check on the other. JSK, still the primary shareholder, was succeeded as chairman and CEO by brother Jim, a business-side person. Hills, with a strong journalism background, was president. The design was to ensure that neither of the necessary ingredients of good journalism dominated the mix for too long and without strong advocates for each.


Despite Thomas's criticism, some progress was already under way on a more up-to-date management operation. Byron Harless, a Tampa psychologist, had been hired as a consultant for personnel planning and development, and Knight and Hills had talked about a succession plan. One person emerging on the succession horizon in 1967 was Alvah H. Chapman Jr., who had been hired in 1960 by Jim Knight as assistant general manager in Miami.

Chapman had been a spectacular organizational success, doubling The Miami Herald's business and introducing both rigor and technology to its processes. He was able to move quickly, he said in a 2002 interview, because, "as [Jim Knight's] assistant, I could do anything, go anywhere. Nobody knew what my job description was, and I didn't care to write it down. So ... [I could] talk to anybody, get any figures I wanted to about any of the operations, and just kind of meddle around all I wanted to.... It was a great way to learn the business."

His hiring was another of those spontaneous events characteristic of Knight Newspapers' operations during the period. It was not willy-nilly or frivolous, but neither was there any particular grand design at work. Jim Knight decided he needed an assistant to manage day-to-day affairs of the newspaper while he focused on the design and construction of a huge new Herald building. Chapman, whom Knight knew through Southern Newspaper Publishers Association activities, happened to be at loose ends, having just sold his ownership share in the Savannah, Georgia, newspapers.


Excerpted from Knightfall by W. Davis Merritt Copyright © 2005 by W. Davis Merritt. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

"Author's Note

Introduction: Will Newspaper Journalism Survive?

Part One: Morning

1: Why This Matters

Newspapers and Coat Hangers

Journalism and Democracy: Fully Interdependent

How a Democracy Decides

Journalism's Role in Public Judgment

Opposites Attract

Concerns and Conceits

But How to Define Quality?

Effect on Public Life

2: The Heritages

The Ridder Path

The Intersection

The Knight Path

Lee Hills and the Supremacy of the Newsroom

Losing an Heir

3: Building Toward Merger

Rebuilding a Newspaper

Practicing Journalists

Turning Points

Finding Alvah Chapman

Dependence and Independence

The Deal Is Done

4: Wichita: A Marriage Made In…?

"Scorched Earth" Policy

A Ride Around Town

A Modest Start and a Modest Goal

No Place at the Table

Another One?

Good Journalism with Good Journalists

A Coda

Part Two: Midday

5: Introducing Change

From "Separation of Power" to the "Publisher System"

6: External Change: Boomers, Wall Street, and Technology

Change One: Boomers or Bust

Change Two: The Wall Street Syndrome

Cyclical, Top to Bottom

On Deaf Ears

Change Three: Technology

The Internet

Market Fragmentation

7: Internal Change: Creeping Corporatism and Catastrophe

Change Four: Leave Autonomy Alone

Creeping Corporatism

A Matter of Tone

One Size Fits All

Change Five: You Get What You Pay For, Maybe

The Publishers' Revolt

The Erosion of Newspaper Quality and MBOs

Change Six: People and Purpose

8: Change Seven: Breaching the Wall

Why a Wall?

Cracks and Gaps


Where's My Bazooka?

A Coda

9: Change Eight: Lie, Cheat, Steal

Post-Watergate Syndrome




… And Trust

"Who Do I See About…?

Tips for Coping

Part Three: Evening

1: Doing the Journalism

Batten: Exemplar of Great Journalism

Three Mile Island


Kentucky Basketball

Hurricane Andrew

Margins of Excellence

"An Incredible and Spectacular Honor"

A Coda

11: Saying Good-bye

A Philadelphia Story

A Columbia Story

A Miami Story

A San Jose Story

12: Wichita … Saying Good-bye

Public Journalism

From Collegiality to Confrontation

"No Matter What It Takes"

We Didn't Mean That!

13: What Now?

Migrating Faster

Going Private

Corporate Reform

Talk Differently to the Street

How Big Is Big Enough?

Nonprofit Alternatives

The Final Coda



About the Author"

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A daily newspaper can be regarded as a business not intrinsically different from making coat hangers or carpets. But to do so is to disregard the central role of newspapers and quality journalism in the democratic life of our communities and nation. Buzz Merritt presents a detailed social analysis of the trends that have undercut journalism’s critical role in public life. To understand where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go, invest some time in Knightfall."

— Maxwell McCombs, Jesse H. Jones Centennial Chair, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin

"Knightfall lifts the thin veil of corporate respectability from the long, steady suffocation of America’s newspapers. Merritt’s compelling case study is Knight Ridder — yet the same sad story is playing out in print and broadcast newsrooms across the land. The slow but sure victory of outlandish profits over civic health endangers us all. To respond, we must understand. Start here."

— Geneva Overholser, Professor, Missouri School of Journalism, former editor, Des Moines Register

"Merritt presents a sweeping account of the changes in journalism that are having an impact on the role newspapers play in our democracy. No one is in a better position to explain why than Merritt, whose views are informed by more than 40 years as a journalist. He is both an insightful professional and a dedicated citizen."

— David Mathews, President, Kettering Foundation

"The story of the newspaper business in the 20th century is like a Sophocles play where the protagonists can see that their actions will lead to doom, but they are powerless to stop. Buzz Merritt built his career in the middle of this real-life tragedy, and his well-written case study helps us to understand the entire industry."

— Philip Meyer, author, The Vanishing Newspaper

"Knightfall is a troubling and revealing account of what happens to journalism when it is yoked to the insatiable demands of Wall Street. It will resonate and reverberate in newsrooms, and should be required reading for anyone concerned about journalism and the future of democracy. Buzz Merritt’s status as an insider gives this hard-hitting book unusual credibility."

— Gilbert Cranberg, former editor of the Des Moines Register’s editorial pages; George H. Gallup Professor Emeritus, University of Iowa"

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Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
mramos on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Davis Merritt is a retired reporter and upfront mentions his background and association with the organization he is writing about. In this book he examines the trend of media outlets to dismiss public service obligations in favor of entertaining the public in favor of entertaining the public and profit. He analyzes the 1974 merger of Knight Newspapers and Ridder Publications, Inc., as an example of journalistic decline and discusses consequent broader societal implications. This book is worth reading and should be required reading for all journalism students.