Calm Before the KR Storm?

By: Joe Strupp

While numbers-crunchers from New York to San Jose gauge the value of Knight Ridder and the guessing game about would-be buyers continues with more urgency, editors and reporters at the newspaper chain’s daily publications are forced to stay focused while their futures remain essentially unknown.

For some, the uncertainty over what’s ahead for the company’s 32 dailies with a ‘For Sale’ sign in front is just another distraction to block out at deadline time. “I don’t think it will really affect me,” says Susannah Nesmith, a courts reporter at The Miami Herald. “We have to do our job.” But for most of those who spoke with E&P from Knight Ridder newsrooms around the country, the pending sale has brought a new angst to the already stressful world of daily journalism. Some say resumes are being updated, while others simply note an extra level of anxiety in newsrooms. “I get the feeling that people are uneasy,” says Bruce Manuel, an entertainment editor at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, who says he knows of some resume-polishing being done. “That is the case when the future is uncertain.” Manuel adds that he is personally impacted with a son in college whose tuition must still be paid.

“There is a fear, but we are still profitable and we keep trucking along,” says Catherine Lucey, a politics reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News, which is among the chain’s most vulnerable papers since it competes with The Philadelphia Inquirer, another Knight Ridder property. “This is a paper where there have always been scares and always a worry.” Speculation that a buyer could close the Daily News or merge the two papers began as soon as the effort to sell was announced. Lucey adds, “Now it’s just a waiting game.”

At the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, similar uncertainty exists since the paper’s neighboring rival, the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis, is owned by the McClatchy Co., a potential Knight Ridder suitor. “That is the fear ? if McClatchy were to get us, they would close us down,” says Chuck Laszewski, a Pioneer Press reporter and union steward. “It has moved from the back of your mind to the front of your mind.”

Rumors abound about newsholes getting cut to save on newsprint and expenses slashed to make the company’s bottom line look a little more appealing for potential buyers. Marshall Anstandig, Knight Ridder’s vice president and senior labor counsel, says the company is seeking to calm employees by providing as much information as possible and maintaining good labor relations. Contract talks are continuing in several newspapers, despite the sale possibilities. “We have urged employees to continue doing what they’re doing,” he notes. “I think everyone realizes this is a period of uncertainty. The best they can be doing is doing their jobs and doing them well.”

But that doesn’t always translate in to calm. Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, which represents employees at nine Knight Ridder newsrooms, says she is hearing about various states of panic. “There is a lot of angst,” she says. “Everyone is questioning the future and everything from ‘Will they close [a paper]?’ to ‘What does it mean to our pension?'” The company’s status put a halt to early contract negotiations in San Jose and Philadelphia for guild agreements set to expire in 2006.

Anstandig acknowledged that the negotiations in those newsrooms had been put on hold, but said that is not unusual so far in advance of a contract’s expiration. “We started negotiations, but we just figured we would hold off for now,” he says. “We just told the guild that we would see them in June.”

In December, the national guild leadership began to seek investors to buy some of the Knight Ridder papers represented by the guild. Although KR officials have said the company is not for sale in pieces, Foley is continuing this approach and seeking other investors. For many at those guild-connected papers, a worker-friendly buyer would make things easier.

“There is a lot of free-floating anxiety because the most-likely scenario is that it would be Gannett,” says Linda Blackford, a seven-year reporter at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, one of the guild shops. “They are looking at the bottom line.”

Editors, such as Stan Tiner of The Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss., say they are having to calm staffers. “I’ve told my newsroom that I understand their curiosity,” he reports. “But there is nothing we can do about it.” He says readers are coming up to him around town with inquiries. “That is always the first question out,” he says. “What’s the word with Knight Ridder?”

But while each newspaper may worry about cutbacks or operational changes under a new owner, nearly all of them are likely to continue publishing. But this doesn’t reassure Knight Ridder’s highly regarded Washington bureau or its foreign correspondents. “If another big operation with a Washington staff buys us, who knows?” says Ron Hutcheson, a veteran Knight Ridder Washington reporter and past president of the White House Correspondents Association.

Knight Ridder has 10 Washington bureau staffers, who share space with another 13 correspondents from Knight Ridder newspapers. The foreign staff, meanwhile, consists of 13 reporters whose beats range from Rio to Beijing. Dion Nissenbaum, the chain’s Jerusalem bureau chief, says the pending sale does not worry him, adding that it is even more reason to focus on work: “If we get bought by someone who wants to close us, it only helps me to do my best.”

That attitude is reflected in a number of other staffers at various Knight Ridder papers, who contend that worrying does not help if they cannot control the sale. “There are so many variables out there, it is not productive to focus on any one scenario,” says John Monk, a news columnist at The State in Columbia, S.C. “People are not obsessed about it.”

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