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by Nanea Kalani, Business as Usual editor


Knight Ridder, Inc. is the nation’s second-largest newspaper publisher. The company, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., oversees 32 dailies in the United States and publishes more than 24 non-daily newspapers, as well as shoppers and special publications, according to its Web site, knightridder.com.

The likely sale of Knight Ridder triggered the Society of Professional Journalists to call for “an urgent conversation about how to preserve public-service journalism,” according to a January SPJ newsletter. SPJ believes that “those directing the production of news have an ethical obligation to readers every bit as significant as their accountability to shareholders.”

Knight Ridder’s profit margin is at a healthy rate in comparison with most businesses, according to a recent analysis by the accounting firm of Morgan Stanley. But, from its shareholders’ standpoint, it is not as profitable as some competitors, and its profits are not increasing.

Within the journalism community, there is broad consensus that Knight Ridder should not be allowed to fall into the hands of those unwilling to guarantee the continuity of public-service journalism, according to the SPJ statement. “We acknowledge,” the statement continued, “that newspapers cannot serve their democratic role unless they stay in business, but the increasing corporate pressure to squeeze additional returns out of already profitable newspapers has skewed the balance between journalism and commerce.”

Knight Ridder CEO Anthony Ridder, has tried to deflect shareholder pressure with efforts to cut costs by reducing national and foreign staffs, according to a National Public Radio news story by David Folkenflik. However, analysts have indicated that this reduction, by undermining the quality of the newspapers published, may have the opposite effect, causing a decline in readership and advertising and thus a decline in revenues and profits.

The consequences of the cutbacks are evident to readers, according to James Naughton, former editor at The Enquirer: “Knight Ridder’s current leadership is focused more on the business aspects of journalism than on the news-gathering aspects,” Naughton said

Naughton has formed a group of Knight Ridder alumni who own shares. The group hopes to nominate candidates for the company’s corporate board to influence who gets to buy Knight Ridder, according to Folkenflik.

However, Polk Laffoon, Knight Ridder’s chief spokesman and corporate secretary, says Naughton’s group won’t win. “The fact of the matter is that 90 percent of Knight Ridder’s stock is owned by large financial institutions,” Laffoon said. “And they’re going to vote for people that they think will run the company with the same kind of financial goals that they have.”

SPJ believes that journalists in particular have an obligation to invite discussion on this topic. “We call on reporters, editors, columnists, and editorial writers to write about the planned sale and solicit ideas from community leaders and readers who have a significant stake in the civic-minded management at their local newspapers.”

SPJ asserts that such dialogue would send a message to investors not to ignore the social value of their investments and would also help journalists fulfill their ethical responsibility to be accountable to their readership.



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