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Suits, Money and Knight Ridder 

Decline of Observer explained. Kind of.

KNIGHTFALL: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk
By Davis Merritt (Amacom, 242 pages, $24.95)

This is the story of a death. The deceased, as identified by author Davis "Buzz" Merritt, was newspaper journalism, an indispensable part of American democracy and a noble calling that is never to be confused with what passes for journalism in other media. The cause of death, according to the autopsy performed by this veteran insider, was unbridled corporate greed. This obituary is presented through the tale of one newspaper company, Knight Newspapers, which has since morphed into the very different and allegedly inferior outfit known as Knight Ridder, publisher of The Charlotte Observer, among others. The author spent 42 years with Knight and Knight Ridder, climbing to the top editorship of the company's Wichita (Kansas) Eagle before being pushed out the door six years ago.

I must confess that for personal reasons I was predisposed to find this book interesting. For a little more than 10 years, starting in the late 1960s, I worked in the Charlotte Observer newsroom. When I arrived there, Buzz Merritt was still a fresh and well-regarded memory, having only recently left the Observer newsroom for bigger things in Washington, Florida and Kansas. I knew, admired and worked with many of the folks he praises in his book — C.A. Pete McKnight, the Observer's remarkable editor for many years; Jim Batten, an Observer reporter who went on to become chief executive of the entire Knight Ridder empire, and Dave Lawrence, the best boss I ever had back when he was editor of the Observer.

To Merritt, this cadre of superbly dedicated journalists was among the last of a proud line of truly dedicated guardians of the heart and soul of one of America's great newspaper companies the old Knight Newspapers organization, which was once reputed to be as indifferent to the bottom line as it was protective of its first-rate journalism. The road to hell for the company, Merritt tells us, was paved first by Knight's decision to go public in the late 1960s and then by its marriage to a sleazy, money-hungry slut of a company called Ridder Publications.

What looked at first like a Knight takeover of Ridder has turned out to be the reverse as the old Ridder clan now rules the roost, from the chief executive's job in San Jose to the publisher's job in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the last of the old Knight guardians have been pushed out. It's all part a new, broad and evil bottom-line obsession among publicly owned American newspapers, according to Merritt.

As is often the case with refugee reporting, the truth is not quite so one-sided. Long before Knight bedded Ridder, Knight Newspapers, Inc. was as poorly managed as Ridder newspapers were poorly edited. Knight's bottom line was anemic by the standards of publishing and its employment practices were at best shortsighted.

In those days, The Charlotte Observer, to name but one telling example, was mainly a colony, serving as a cash cow and training ground for the Miami-based Knight corporation. The newsroom door revolved constantly as editors, by design, came and went, leaving morale, continuity and community ties in shambles. When Dave Lawrence arrived from Philadelphia as editor, he was starting to correct the problems when Corporate send him packing to a bigger job in Detroit. His local replacement, Rich Oppel, came in from Tallahassee and promptly reversed Lawrence's march away from elitist isolation.

Outside the inner circle, staffers were poorly paid and mostly unheard unless we raised career-threatening hell. When I finally departed for the Chicago Tribune, purely to make more money as my kids approached college age, I more than tripled my pay for doing exactly the same writing job. As someone once quipped, the Observer was a good place to work if your parents could afford to send you.

Buzz Merritt doesn't seem to recognize this downside nor does he realize that the managerial failings by Knight's old purist regime made the company ripe for a takeover by the dreaded suits. Indeed, he almost boasts of the days he spent, as a ranking editor, waging war against the "bad guys" from sales, marketing and accounting.

The lesson to be learned from Merritt's well-written book is not that newspapers need to go private again and not that we journalists need to rise up and smite the evil suits. It is instead that journalists need to adapt to the realities of today and to figure out how to win out without selling out. It not only can be done, it is being done, even inside Knight Ridder. It's just that Buzz Merritt, with his focus on the past, can't quite allow himself to see it.

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