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McClatchy Buying (Most of) Knight Ridder

Mercury News: Knight Ridder sold to McClatchy. McClatchy Co. announced today that it will acquire Knight-Ridder for approximately $6.5 billion, and plans to sell 12 of the San Jose newspaper company’s 32 papers, including the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times. The deal was valued at $67.25 a share — $40 of that in cash and the rest in McClatchy shares. The Sacramento-based company is also assuming $2 billion in Knight Ridder debt. McClatchy chief executive Gary Pruitt called the deal “a vote of confidence in the newspaper industry.”

This is a sad day in many ways, at best bittersweet.

I joined Knight Ridder in 1988, moving to the Detroit Free Press (since acquired by Gannett) from a Kansas City paper that later became part of Knight Ridder. In 1994 I joined the Mercury News, where I stayed for more than a decade.

Moving to Knight Ridder was a deliberate career move. I was joining a company that visibly cared about journalism, about the honorable craft of helping citizens understand their communities, nation and world — being an annoying watchdog for the people, keeping an eye on powerful interests and, to a small degree where possible, keeping them more honest.

The Mercury News from 1994-2000 was exhilarating. We were one of the few American newspapers that was growing — we were building something wonderful, an organization that for a time did some of the best tech coverage of any news operation, and we all knew it. The bubble burst, and the Merc bowed to business reality by abandoning its ambition. Yet even today the paper boasts some of the best journalists I’ve known anywhere, people who did not give up, who will never give up.

Under Tony Ridder, Knight Ridder did make many cutbacks that I found disturbing. But I know he cared about journalism, and he spent more on his newsrooms than rival media companies like Gannett or MediaNews — much more. Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau has distinguished itself as just about the only news organization that dared to stand up to the Bush administration’s press bullying during the Iraq war, telling the truth and being joined after the fact by the New York Times, Washington Post and others that should have been leaders, not followers in telling truth to power.

I hope McClatchy’s obviously sound instincts, in business and journalism, continue with the enlarged company. Having met and chatted with some of their senior folks, and admiring the journalists I know there, I’m fairly confident that McClatchy will do well. But it faces the same economic pressures that forced Knight Ridder to cave in to speculators and other investors for whom journalism is an abstraction — an unfortunate cost of being in business — and certainly not a priority.

I’m not nostalgic for what many newspapers have become: empty journalistic vessels working mostly for the advertisers and shareholders, only vaguely interested in serving the people of their communities. But when newspapers do their best, they are vital parts of those communities, and we need quality journalism more than ever.

No industry has a guaranteed right to exist, much less thrive. Capitalism and basic human change assure that. Maybe newspapers are going to disappear sooner than later (they will disappear eventually). We need to find ways to preserve what they do best — when they’re convening the community conversation, watchdogging the powerful, telling truth so an informed citizenry can make good decisions. If newspapers don’t evolve, quickly, we’ll have to find other ways of serving the public and each other. I hope they do evolve, because they are institutions that matter.

1 Comment on “McClatchy Buying (Most of) Knight Ridder”

  1. #1
    on Mar 14th, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    KR-McClatchy: Blogosphere Chimes In: Google Newspapers?…

    : A sampling in the wake of news that McClatchy will buy Knight Ridder, then sell a dozen dailies: John Blossom: “,,, for the time being McClatchy is off to a promising if noisy start to as good a strategy……