By: Joel Davis

Jay T. Harris Leads Knight Ridder Drive In Bay Area

the cover story of this week’s Editor & Publisher magazine. To
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by Joel Davis

Dapper in his trademark suspenders, sophisticated in demeanor, and
calmly confident, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News Publisher Jay T.
Harris greets visitors with a warm handshake and aristocratic grin,
the perfect complement to his lavish French provincial-style
office. After wandering the halls of the Mercury News’ mostly drab
building in a business park off a freeway, stepping into Harris’
office is a bit like watching ‘The Wizard of Oz” go from black
and white to color.

Sophisticated digs for a Silicon Valley power broker, a fit you’d
expect. So it’s a tad surprising – shocking even – when Harris
reveals a little-known passion.

‘I’ve always loved hot dogs,” he says in his matter-of-fact
monotone. ‘I eat a lot of hot dogs. Hardly a weekend goes by
where I don’t have hot dogs and potato chips. I mean, I like
really good food. But I really enjoy hot dogs.’

Given his schedule these days, fast food is about all Harris has
time for. In addition to running an increasingly aggressive
newspaper (hello, San Francisco), he serves – not without
criticism – on more boards than a chess master, is a devoted
family man, and deftly handles his role as the country’s top
African-American news executive with quiet pride and dignity.

He also has the advantage – or added pressure, take your pick –
of reporting to Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder, who, in addition
to working just down the road from Harris in Knight Ridder’s
San Jose headquarters, is himself a former Mercury News publisher,
a post Ridder speaks about wistfully.

‘Jay really has the best job in the company, being publisher in
such an interesting place,” the lanky, soft-spoken Ridder says.
‘I loved the time I was publisher. Even though I am CEO of the
company, I can’t do the things that Jay can do as publisher. I
mean, I can, but I don’t. He gets to do things like sit in on
editorial boards that decide whether or not to endorse [Al]
Gore or [George W.] Bush. Being a publisher, believe me, is a
great job.”

Although both men say Harris calls most of the shots at the
Mercury News, they worked closely on the Mercury News’ carefully
planned summer rollout into San Francisco. While Ridder, who
was interested in purchasing the San Francisco Chronicle (‘Hearst
[Corp.] made a preemptive bid that precluded others from buying
it”) to position Knight Ridder as the dominant chain in the Bay
Area, he and Harris settled for the next-best thing: invading San
Francisco with a 10-person editorial staff, more than 250 new
locations to buy the paper, and a morning delivery touted as
the traffic-choked Bay Area’s earliest.

Harris and Ridder both say the rollout had nothing to do with the
sale of the rival Chronicle or the legal troubles the sale
encountered; Harris is particularly adamant that his San Francisco
edition is simply part of a long-term strategic plan.

‘As you can see,” Harris says as he lays out other zoned Mercury
News editions on an office coffee table, as Miles Davis’ ‘Kind
of Blue” wafts from a stereo in the background, ‘this is part of
our core strategy. San Francisco was the next logical place to
go. It had nothing to do with opportunity. Rather, it was strategy.”

That strategy includes local San Francisco news each day, expanded
coverage of the city’s business and technology community, three
San Francisco columnists, an arts-and-entertainment calendar
billed as the largest of any Bay Area newspaper, and a guaranteed
5:30 a.m. delivery time. ‘We believe and are entirely confident
that there are a significant number of people in San Francisco
that will find that the San Francisco edition is the best fit for
their lives,” Harris says.

Not so fast, counter the editors of the competing Chronicle, which
in recent months has expanded both staff and coverage (see related
story). ‘The fact is, the unshackled Chronicle, now freed from its
constraining JOA [joint operating agreement], scares the hell out
of the Mercury News,” counters Chronicle Executive Editor Matthew
Wilson. ‘The Mercury’s recent moves are nothing more than a
defensive reaction accompanied by desperate blustering in an attempt
to make it look like an offensive. In reality, it is a last-ditch
counterpunch from an about-to-be-defeated foe. History will show
that the Mercury is in the position of the German army at the
Battle of the Bulge.”

If it is, it isn’t showing. Harris, who pores over the Chronicle
as soon as he arrives in the office, calmly declines to take the
bait when asked about what are likely to be some serious upgrades
from a Hearst-owned Chronicle. ‘What we do is not likely to change
much,’ he contends, ‘because ours is a long-term strategy based on
our core strengths, and that’s not going to change based on what
the Chronicle does.”

Appearances count

Slightly built and trim – especially for a hot-dog lover – Harris,
51, has had an interesting journey to the top of his field.

The only child of a social worker and a World War II veteran who
served in a segregated unit, he says he had a ‘wonderful”
childhood growing up in Washington in the 1950s. ‘The city, while
a Southern city and while segregated in a de facto sense in terms
of housing and enrollment, did not, even in those years, have
the sort of segregation typical of the Deep South,” he says. ‘Nor
did it have the sort of onerous personal pain associated with Jim

His younger years were not without struggle, however. He spent
much of his time helping his mother run the household and take
care of his father, who had multiple sclerosis. ‘He refused to
allow his disease, which really destroys the life of young adults,
to cause him to break mentally,” Harris recalls. ‘Through the
very end, he was still active and dressed very nicely. He cared
very much about his appearance, having clothes tailored so they
would fit well when you sit in a wheelchair.”

Harris says his mother was a deep thinker who loved to write,
paint, and read and who instilled in her son a deep set of social
values. Those social values were ignited in college when Harris
enrolled in Pennsylvania’s all-black Lincoln University in 1966.
Inspired by all facets of the civil-rights movement, from the
peaceful approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the
more strident viewpoints of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers (‘I
paid attention to all of them and found some good in what they
all did”), Harris, who originally intended to study philosophy,
says he backed into journalism.

‘I was editor of my college newspaper,’ he explains, ‘but the
reason I got involved in journalism was more a reflection that
the campus paper was not doing the job it needed to in covering
the political activities on campus in the late 1960s.”

After graduation, Harris worked as a reporter and editor at The
News Journal in Wilmington, Del. From 1972 to 1982, he served
on the faculty of Northwestern University’s Medill School of
Journalism, where he launched a yearly minorities-in-journalism
survey, still an important benchmark of diversity in the newsroom.

Then he returned to Washington as a national columnist and
correspondent for Gannett News Service. He joined Knight Ridder
in 1985 when he was named executive editor of The Philadelphia
Daily News. Editor Zachary Stalberg, who hired him, says Harris
was a quick study and tireless worker who ‘was out rubbing elbows
and making story calls and talking to reporters about making
their stories better. … He’s about the only person I’ve met who
never makes the same mistake twice.” Stalberg adds, ‘He’s willing
to take tough positions that really take chances that would scare
away most newspaper publishers I know.”

In 1988, Ridder recruited Harris to be his assistant, a job
tantamount to a finishing school for Knight Ridder publishers and
executives. ‘I thought Jay had the potential to be a key executive
in the company,” recalls Ridder, who focused on teaching Harris
the business side.

Ridder appointed Harris publisher of the Mercury News in 1994 after
Larry Jinks retired from the post. Harris, who typically comes into
the office at 5:30 a.m. (‘It’s a time for contemplation and thinking
about the larger issues that face the paper”), is proud of the

Mercury News’ growth during his tenure, particularly in its coverage
of the emergence of the Internet and Silicon Valley, which he calls
‘one of the great economic stories of the century.”

He’s also proud of being the driving force behind the launch of
weekly Spanish- and Vietnamese-language newspapers, a bold move
that has been both praised and criticized (see related story).
Ridder, the vote that counts most, finds it to be a progressive
idea: ‘The days of one-size-fits-all newspapers have passed.’

Harris has also caught heat for being too chummy with Silicon
Valley business interests via his membership on several regional
and public policy-making boards. He’s a vocal member of the
Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, which is pushing for a transit
tax to bring BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, to San Jose.
Harris, who says he gives Mercury News editors ‘veto power over
all of my involvements,” maintains that his affiliations outside
the Mercury News are simply a facet of his role of publisher. ‘I
would rather be involved in things that are in the best interest
of the community and have some people question it, than to not be
involved and question myself,” he says.

It’s a philosophy shared by Ridder, who was similarly active in the
community when he was publisher from 1977 to 1986. ‘I’m all for it,”
Ridder says. ‘I think a newspaper has an obligation to be involved
in the community.”

Minority position

Though Harris has overseen the expansion of a newspaper called one
of the nation’s 10 best in a Columbia Journalism Review poll, he’s
also been at the helm during two of the more embarrassing moments
in the paper’s recent history.

In the late 1990s, the Mercury News was criticized over its
handling of reporter Gary Webb’s ‘Dark Alliance” series about an
alleged CIA connection to drug sales in minority neighborhoods.
The paper also predicted – wrongly – in April 1996 that the
afternoon San Francisco Examiner was about to merge with its jointly
operated partner, the Chronicle, and then fold.

‘Those are both instances when we did our journalism poorly,”
Harris concedes. ‘We are a human enterprise – we are able to do
really, really good journalism on most days, but occasionally we
make mistakes.”

Where Harris seems universally esteemed is in his work among
minority journalists. Despite the demands of his job, Harris has
maintained a quiet but active role in promoting diversity in a
business that, among publishers especially, is predominantly white
and male. ‘He has given his time in cases when I know he doesn’t
have the time,” says National Association of Black Journalists
(NABJ) President Will Sutton, deputy managing editor of The News
& Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

Despite his achievements, some still question Harris’ fitness for
his high position at the Mercury News, Sutton says. ‘I think there
is no question that Jay has done a great job, but you can believe
me that still some people wonder whether he should have that job,’
he says. ‘That’s true for a number of black professionals. But the
proof is in the success. And there is no question there has been a
lot of success in San Jose.”

Harris says it’s his job and not his race that ‘turns me on when I
come to work every day.” And he says there’s room for more women
and minorities in positions such as his: ‘As for the record of the
newspaper industry and increasing the representation in the
leadership ranks, I am both sorely disappointed and enormously hopeful.’

In his personal life, Harris seems to blend the black and white
worlds as deftly as he does as publisher. He unwinds by reading
classics and history by authors who are black, white, and everything
in between. A music buff, he loves both the work of such jazz giants
as John Coltrane and Miles Davis and classical composers such as
Bach and Brahms.

Father of a son and two daughters, Harris likes spending time at
home with his family and his wife, Christine. ‘We have a home up
on a hill, and if I don’t have to come down from the hill on a
weekend, I won’t.”

He is working on a family history detailing an exotic ancestry that
includes black slaves, a white great-grandmother, and a New England
Indian chief.

Jay T. Harris is by his own assessment a no-nonsense person, seemingly
more so even than Tony Ridder, who prefers a more relaxed dress code
at Knight Ridder headquarters than Harris does at the Mercury News. Buttoned-down, thoughtful, methodical, direct – all seem to apply to

‘I am a very serious person,” he confirms. ‘And beyond that, while
not taking myself too seriously, which is a danger for newspapers and
newspaper people, I do take quite seriously my role of being publisher
of the Mercury News.”


Joel Davis ( is West Coast editor for

(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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