The Archives

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jack Knight ordered his staff to print the truth. The result was success for his paper and its city. Those days are long, long gone.

John S. and James L Knight as the Miami Herald
building on Biscayne Bay opened in 1963
Day-old newspapers have always been throw-away items, supremely useful as garbage can lining. 

Who knew that newspaper companies would become equally disposable? 

I got to thinking about this when I read in The New York Times that a company called Digital First Media is up for sale. The story described Digital First as a “struggling collection of 76 daily newspapers” from across the country. 

Among the papers are such once stalwart names as The Denver Post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the San Jose Mercury News. It was the last name that caught my attention for reasons I’ll get to after I wallow in a bit of newspaper nostalgia.

My generation identified newspapers with the men who owned and ran them: Hearst, Patterson, McCormick and the rest. Although many of the founders’ names remained on mastheads when I entered the business in the 1970s, ownership had passed to heirs who lacked the fire (or in some cases, the brains) to keep control. 

By the 1980s, corporations owned most major papers and a lot of smaller ones. Many old hands warned about the creeping influence of narrow-minded accountants who emphasized quarterly profits and stock prices over crusading journalism. 

The old hands were right. I stayed in the business long enough to see the effects of corporate penury, not only on journalism but on the journalists who got tossed out like tattered scraps of old newsprint. 

But I got into the business in time to catch the final glimmer of the glory days, and the brightest was during my time at The Miami Herald. 

Back during Miami’s first era of dizzying growth, The Herald worked hard to burnish the city’s tropical-paradise image and cashed in on the bonanza of land-boom advertising that followed. 

Then in the 1920s, the entire region was staggered by devastating hurricanes, followed by The Great Depression. The vacuum created by fleeing tourists and homesteaders filled rapidly, as casinos and bordellos displaced cabanas and beach umbrellas. 

Prospects for recovery appeared dim for both The Herald and its home city when John and James Knight came to town in 1937. The Knights, scions of an Ohio newspaper family, had the money to rescue the paper. 

More important, they had a vision that would help do as much for the city. 

They hired the best editors and reporters they could find, and Jack Knight gave his staff a simple mandate that stands as the best damned definition of journalism I’ve ever heard: “Get the truth and print it.” 

The Herald began a long, distinguished tradition of exposing corruption and making life miserable for the corrupt. The paper won its first Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for its fearless exposes of organized crime.

The tradition of tough, honest journalism embodied by the Herald and the Knights’ other papers across the country was very much alive when I was hired to work in the Herald’s Fort Lauderdale bureau in 1978.

But the final phase of the Knight era had already begun: In 1974, the aging Knight Brothers merged with the Ridder newspaper group to form Knight-Ridder. The former Knight papers formed the solid core of the new company, and the Herald building on Biscayne Bay became the chain’s national headquarters. 

I know nothing about the corporation’s internal politics, but influence seemed clearly to shift from the Knight faction to the Ridders after Jack Knight died in 1981. By then, Miami was again struggling with a tarnished reputation. The region was still growing, but not many newcomers could read English. 

In 1995, Tony Ridder became chairman of Knight-Ridder, and in 1998 the chain’s headquarters moved from Miami to Ridder's home base in San Jose, California, where he had been publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. 

I was long gone from The Herald by then, but the praises of San Jose, awash in the prosperity of Silicon Valley, were sung loudly enough to be heard by anyone who’d listen. This new era, the Ridder Era, began with great promise. 

It lasted a mere eight years.

With the entire industry reeling from deep losses in readers and advertising, Ridder arranged to sell all 32 Knight-Ridder newspapers to the McClatchy Co. in 2006 for $4.5 billion. McClatchy immediately began selling off as many of the properties as it could for whatever they'd fetch. 

As a result, Knight-Ridder ceased to exist. 

The McClatchy Co. did keep the Miami Herald, or at least the name. The new owners sold the paper’s Bayfront building to a Malaysian development company that planned to replace it with a casino. 

The paper’s staff and circulation were downsized to fit the current profile of print as an Internet adjunct. What remained of The Herald was moved to a government surplus building in nearby Doral. 

Abandoning the iconic Bayfront offices the Knight Brothers built along with the city they embraced probably makes as much sense as the rest of it, especially to people who think primarily of newspapers as brands to generate profit. 

I used to disparage such people but they’re not worth the trouble now, as it’s clear they won’t be around the business much longer. Unfortunately, the business will probably be gone with them. 

Digital First Media’s newspapers had all once been independent or owned by major chains but were scooped up in recent years by investors who thought there was still money to be made in the print-news business. That prospect is now so slim that there’s real concern about whether a buyer can be found for Digital’s news portfolio even at a bargain price. 

The Times story noted that a sale had been expected because the Digital chain is in turn owned by a hedge fund. I’m not entirely certain what a hedge fund is, but I’m pretty sure I’d rather work for Jack Knight. 


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.