In Big-City Knight Ridder Newsrooms, Worry Mixes With Confidence

By: Mark Fitzgerald

As the news that Knight Ridder was shedding the Detroit Free Press spread across newsrooms at other big-city newspapers in the chain Wednesday, journalist reaction ranged from fear that their paper could be next to sadness for colleagues in Detroit to a faint hope that the move might free up more reporting resources.

In Philadelphia, executives moved quickly to calm any trepidation in the newsrooms of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News.

In a memo to staffers, Inquirer Executive Editor Amanda Bennett said she had listened to the conference call announcement with Publisher Joe Natoli. “While this is obviously a huge move for Knight Ridder, and for Detroit and Tallahassee, it has no direct bearing on us here in Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia’s Newspaper Guild Local President Henry Holcomb said he was inclined to agree.

“I can’t see a direct connection,” he said. “The Detroit situation has been a complicated situation for a long time, and I just don’t see any sign that it means [Knight Ridder] is getting out of big cities or anything like that. … I would tell our members it has no direct bearing on them.”

Knight Ridder was in an “untenable situation…so different from any other paper I know anything about in the company,” added Holcomb, who is treasurer of the national Guild’s “Knight Ridder Watch” Web site that tracks developments around the chain.

In the Philadelphia newsrooms, the initial reaction was shock, said Diane Mastrull, the Guild’s Inquirer/Daily News unit chair.

“Initially, it was like, you’re kidding,” she said. “There was really a lot of shock — and then, as I said, everyone went right on line to check the stock price.”

That’s because, Mastrull explained, reporters believed the transactions with Gannett — which also involved papers in Florida, Idaho, and Washington — had “nothing to do with making Knight Ridder stronger journalistically and everything to do with increasing our value on Wall Street.”

(Knight Ridder stock had a slight uptick on the news. The stock closed at $62.10, up 1.9% on the day. That price was ahead of its 52-week low of $60.09, but well off its 52-week high of $71.07.)

Mastrull called the loss of the Free Press “both distressing and just plain sad.”

“There’s always the constant conversation that we [Knight Ridder] aren’t what we used to be in Miami,” she said, referring to The Miami Herald, Knight Ridder’s flagship newspaper until the headquarters decamped to San Jose, Calif., at the height of Silicon Valley’s Internet bubble. “They continue to tell us we are vital to the future of this chain, and our performance is what is going to carry this chain. We’re taking them at their word, and hoping we get the kind of help that we need to help them do that.”

At the chain’s new flagship, the San Jose Mercury News, the staff was relieved that there turned out to be no truth to another rumor swirling through the newsroom — that the three-way transaction with Gannett and W. Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group would bring the Alameda News Group into Knight Ridder. That would have brought another group of papers without a strong union presence into the chain, said Lynne Dennis, president of the San Jose local for The Newspaper Guild.

Mercury News journalists are sad for Free Press colleagues who “are about to be taken over by Gannett, which is not union-friendly, but union-averse,” Dennis said.

On the other hand, she said, if the transaction amounts to a swap and not an acquisition, “I think that’s good — Knight Ridder shouldn’t be going out and making big acquisitions.”

At the Kansas City (Mo.) Star, the transaction did not stir any fears in the newsroom, reported Darryl Levings, assistant management editor/national news.

“I don’t know why [Knight Ridder] would get rid of a paper after spending so much money on it,” he said, noting that a major production plant and redesign project is about to come on line. “We have our problems here, but they’re not Detroit’s kind of problems. …I’m not worried here at the Kansas City Star.”

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