If Knight Ridder must be sold, McClatchy would be a far better new owner than the alternatives. Posted Dec. 12, 2005
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
I'm not a big fan of the pernicious effort by Private Capital Management and other big Knight Ridder investors to make the company find a new owner.
But if it's going to happen, you could do a lot worse than McClatchy.
The San Jose Mercury News reported Saturday that McClatchy was one of the outfits that have expressed interest in acquiring the nation's second-largest newspaper company. Also in the mix are Gannett, the largest, and a handful of private equity firms. The paper also reported that William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group was interested in participating in a coalition to buy Knight Ridder.
If there has to be a sale, I'm rooting hard for McClatchy.
The company, which is much smaller than Knight Ridder, has a number of things going for it. It has a history of steady circulation growth, unusual in these troubled times of plummeting circulation. And it has a tradition of avoiding newsroom layoffs.
It also has a hard-charging and charismatic CEO, Gary Pruitt, who has no love for the popular but suicidal notion that it's a good idea to decimate the newsroom in lean times to keep profit margins up. (See "Is McClatchy Different?" August/September 2003.)
McClatchy doesn't publish great papers, but it puts out some damn good ones. The Sacramento-based company made a big splash in 1998 when it acquired Minneapolis' Star Tribune for $1.19 billion, at the time the most money paid for an American newspaper. Three years before, the company had extended its footprint when it picked up Raleigh's News & Observer.
For years the company's flagship was the Sacramento Bee ï¿½ McClatchy also owns Bees in Fresno and Modesto. It was strictly a California player until it acquired the Anchorage Daily News and Kennewick, Washington's Tri-City Herald in 1979. It distinguished itself in Alaska by winning a bruising newspaper war with the now-defunct Anchorage Times.
McClatchy certainly would be a much preferable alternative to Gannett, which is not necessarily synonymous with "quality journalism." (Although you have to give the company credit for creating and nurturing a national newspaper in USA Today.)
As for the private equity crowd, that would be nightmare city. These guys are interested in money, period, with little concern for journalism's quaint public-service traditions. They no doubt would slash Knight Ridder's papers to the bone and sell them off, putting the final nail into the coffin of the once-great newspaper company.
It's unlikely that Lee Enterprises will get into the fray, because the Davenport, Iowa-based company recently swallowed up Pulitzer and its St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But if it does, let's hope Chairman Mary Junck doesn't put one William Nangle in charge of the Knight Ridder papers.
Nangle, editor of the Times of Northwest Indiana, was upset that the 87,000-circulation paper's stories were "creeping to the long side." So he fired off a memo ï¿½ inevitably leaked to Romenesko ï¿½ to stem the tide.
"Routine stories," he decreed, "need be no longer than 6-8 inches. In-depth stories should be within the 10-12 range."
Now no doubt there are a lot of "routine stories" in American newspapers in desperate need of trimming and whittling.
But 10-inch "in-depth" stories? Give me a break.
It's like the old joke used about so many penny-pinching newspapers: "It's a great story. Take all afternoon."
Clarification: Charles Layton's account in this story of a series of stories by Knight Ridder's Washington bureau detailing problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs left unmentioned the fact that the Chicago Sun-Times had written about some of the same problems. Some of the Knight Ridder stories made reference to the Sun-Times' work, as did a memo from the VA advising its regional offices to address the problems.