KR Alumni: Good journalism is good business

OK, one more on this navel-gazing subject and then I’ll move on to something else.

I thought you might find this piece, about a letter that former Knight Ridder journalists circulated over the last few days, interesting in light of the current situation in which the corporation — and, more relevantly to you and me, its newspapers — find t hemselves.

Here is their statement, as reported by Editor & Publisher:

    John S. Knight, a founder of the company known today
as Knight Ridder, believed –- and proved — that excellent journalism is
good business. The undersigned, all alumni of Knight Ridder, have lived
that creed.
    As did the late Jack
Knight, we believe profit is not merely nice but necessary. Knight
Ridder routinely has generated double-digit operating profits -– such as
last year’s 19.4 percent. We understand the obligation of an
institutional investor to maximize return on investment. An investor
for whom double digits are insufficient is free to sell Knight Ridder
stock. An investor who instead demands the sale or dismantling of
Knight Ridder merely in the name of a larger profit margin is engaged
not in good business but in greed.
did Jack Knight, we speak out of confidence in, not fear of, the future
of the good business of excellent journalism. There is durable value in
businesses that treat their citizens, their communities and their
employees with respect. New technology is an ally of, not a threat to,
trustworthy and nimble media. Competition gives rise to innovation and
efficiency, much as recent declines in print circulation have been
accompanied by increased electronic readership.
Ridder is not merely another public company. It is a public trust. It
must balance corporate profitability with civic purpose. We oppose
those who would cripple the purpose by coercing more profit. We abhor
those for whom good business is insufficient and excellent journalism
is irrelevant.
    We have watched
mostly in silent dismay as short-term profit demands have diminished
long-term capacity of newsrooms in Knight Ridder and other public media
companies. We are silent no more. We will support and counsel only
corporate leadership that restores to Knight Ridder newspapers the
resources to do excellent journalism. We are prepared collectively to
nominate candidates for the Knight Ridder board. We wish to reassert
John Knight’s creed.

The signers, all of whom are listed at the link, include some highly prominent former journalists and executives who have left the KR ranks in recent years. The group said they "are prepared collectively to nominate candidates for the Knight Ridder board," candidates who see the newspapers’ mission as they do.

Corporate’s reaction, expressed in E&P by KR spokesman Polk Laffoon, was that "This is a fine gesture and a well-intentioned gesture by good and honorable people." He went on to say that "Unfortunately, the reality is that more than 90% of
Knight Ridder shares are institutionally held and more than a third of
them are held by three institutions."

Mr. Laffoon, vice president for corporate relations, was quoted by The Philadelphia Inquirer as saying:

"I wish there were an identifiable and strong
correlation between quality journalism as we all define it and strong
and growing newspaper sales. If that were the case, we would not only
know how to meet some of the challenges we would face today, but we
would thrive on doing it. I wish it were that simple. Unfortunately it

So now you’ll want to know what I think, as a current employee of a Knight Ridder newspaper. Well, on that subject, I’ll quote the composite character played by Eric Bana in "Black Hawk Down" — based, incidentally, on a series of stories by Mark Bowden, a former reporter for The Inquirer. Mr. Bowden is one of the "alumni" who signed the above statement.

Mr. Bana was speaking to an actor portraying a real-life hero of the battle of Mogadishu, Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann:

"You know what I think? It don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that (expletive) just goes right out the window…. Just watch your corner; get all your men back here alive."

Good advice, that, even if no literal bullets are flying. Nobody in San Jose or on Wall Street is asking what I think, and my situation — and those of the people and pages for which I’m responsible — will pretty much be the same whatever I think. We’ve got plenty to deal with right here, addressing the issues of importance to all of us in South Carolina, and trying to put out better journalism each day that we do it. That’s my mission, and that’s how I intend to occupy my time while all the big money people work out their politics and all that stuff.

When I’ve got something else to say about it, I’ll let you know.

12 thoughts on “KR Alumni: Good journalism is good business

  1. Bob McAlister

    Brad: I tried to say the same thing about you guys in my blog, though not as eloquently. I admire all of you who defend your profession at considerable personal risk. You do it because you think quite correctly that journalism is business, but more. I’ve have my share of squabbles with modern journalists because my job is different from yours. But for whatever it’s worth, I’m with you on this one. I will say this publicly one time and will deny that I ever said it: I admire you.

  2. Brad Warthen

    Thanks, Bob.

    And Lee: Say what? Hang on, let me go back and read the post again. No, I was right, your comment was completely off the subject.

    It has never been within my power to "give up" a tax break. It does happen to be our long-standing editorial position that legislators should consider all sales tax exemptions (if that’s what you’re talking about) as part of comprehensive tax reform.

    In fact, Associate Editor Cindi Scoppe (who does most of our writing on tax issues) touched on this as recently as Tuesday. In lamenting the fact that lawmakers consistently refuse to provide one of the most obvious forms of property tax relief by letting local governments charge impact fees for new development, she explained why that is:

    The reason is the same as the reason legislators are keeping their distance from the list of special sales tax exemptions: They believe they have a better chance of surviving politically if they raise everybody’s sales tax by 2 cents than if they try to take a special benefit away from a highly motivated, highly organized, well-financed special interest that is determined to keep that benefit.

    Basically, she was saying she’s tired of lawmakers’ unwillingness to take on any industry in the name of reasonable tax reform. If you’re tired of it, too, talk to legislators, not to me.

    Now, do you have anything to say about the subject at hand?

  3. Lee

    As usual, Brad, we can’t really tell what your centrist position is on tax breaks for THE STATE.
    Do you think newspapers should not be exempt from sales taxes?
    Do you think The State should accept tax breaks and kickback incentives, when the funds come from sales taxes?
    What about Columbia annexing The State facilities, to bring them back into the city tax base they fled when they moved out behind the football stadium?

  4. Brad Warthen

    I’m being perfectly clear. You seem to want me to make an official statement on behalf of the newspaper as a business that pays taxes. I don’t have the power to do that. I can only share my editorial viewpoint:
    — All exemptions should be on the table. If lawmakers want to pick ours along with others to eliminate, that’s up to them. I happen to believe the most egregious exemption is the cap on car sales taxes — a position that is completely at odds with that of car dealers, upon whose advertising the newspaper depends. But that’s what I think. The sales tax exemption on newspapers would be one of many you’d look at — and to me, it’s hard to say which breaks in that second tier should be lifted first — after you dealt with the car cap.
    — It is also my long-held and oft-stated position that state law should be changed so that cities can annex more easily. A newspaper shouldn’t be (and to my knowledge, isn’t) in a position to dictate whether it should be annexed or not. There’s too much of a conflict of interest there. If the city were more clearly in charge of the decision, you wouldn’t be asking me that question; you’d be asking the city. And that’s the way it should be.
    That won’t satisfy you, of course, since your purpose in posing the question is the same as one who asks, “Have you stopped beating your wife, yes or no?” But I’ve given you the honest answer, which happens not to be as simple as you’d like it to be.

  5. Nathan

    This may come off as a cheap-shot, but good journalism would require moving Lee Bandy’s column to the opinion pages where it belongs. He uses the paper’s “hard” news pages to promote his liberal anti-Sanford agenda every column. I was sickened by Sunday’s column. The next column that Bandy writes that doesn’t take a shot at the right will apparently be his first. Most of this stuff is his opinion and spin. What is the difference between him and Bob McAllister?

  6. Brad Warthen

    Excuse me for fixating on a minor detail of what you just said (I think it’s an ADD thing), but do you really consider Mark Sanford to be of the “right?”
    He’s a libertarian, which means, in the classic sense, he’s a liberal. Or maybe I need to go back and take some more poli sci classes. (In fact, I’d like to do that, but I doubt that I can con my folks into paying for it again.)

  7. Nathan

    Homer nods(isn’t that the proper wording?):
    Perhaps my post should have used the GOP, Republicans, or perhaps the fiscally conservative. By the way, he recently argued that John Spratt was a moderate who leaned to the left. Spratt received a 20 rating from the American Conservative Union. That is no more moderate than Jim Demint.

  8. Bill Kezziah

    Interesting comments on the plight of KR and its place in journalism.
    But I remember when the company went corporate in the first place and many of us said, don’t do it, Jack.
    I was working at the Akron Beacon Journal then (1967-1979) and when Jack Knight walked around the newsroom as he was want to do, he knew he was sitting on a company that was fat and happy. Going corporate was a way of protecting the company and the paper his father founded. But the Beacon Journal changed as did other papers in the chain after we started getting corporate shrinks and carpet in the newsroom.
    Now, the other shoe has dropped. As shares have been diluted and others have acquired large blocks, they are in a position to force news organizations to perform like soap companies. We can get sudzy, but not that way.
    And the newspaper business has changed since those heady days in Akron. We used to print 8 editions a day. No more. Blogs, internet news sources have made holding a “miracle” — the daily product — harder from a financial standpoint.
    But there are others to blame. Newspaper companies — KR one of them — have sharpened pens and bottom lines to make the miracle harder and harder to produce. Staff cuts are but one of the results from this squeeze.
    As a guy who was nearly 40 years in the “business,” I hate to see what’s happening at my former employer and at other newspapers.
    But one thing is for sure, newspapers — in whatever form — will survive.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Bill, thanks for your perspective. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was a mistake for any privately held newspaper or group to go public. Eventually, you lose control to people who don’t care about the mission.
    That’s also true with some limited-stock, privately-held companies. You couldn’t buy stock in The Des Moines Register and Tribune Co.; the shares were privately held, mostly within the company and among senior executives. But it still fell apart in 1984, and Gannett took over.
    But I agree. Even if my newspaper folds (unlikely as that is), another one will rise up to take its place, because the demand for local news is there.

  10. Lee

    What big national newspapers could do, but don’t, is to provide in-dept FACTUAL coverage of complex issues that could be published in all the local editions.
    Instead, they publish opinions peppered with selected trivia and outrate fabrications, by the corporate stars like Tom Friedman, William Greider, and Paul Krugman, just to name a few.

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