Three KR Papers Adrift in California: ‘A Lot of Angst’

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McClatchy Co.?s announcement that it would acquire Knight Ridder Inc. was supposed to end months of uncertainty for employees and readers of the San Jose Mercury News and two other Northern California papers agonizing over a change of ownership.

Instead, the waiting and wondering had only just begun.

McClatchy said Monday it would sell the Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and The Monterey County Herald, along with nine other Knight-Ridder publications, because the markets aren?t growing fast enough.

For reporters, columnists and editors at the Mercury News, the news came as a shock.

?There?s a lot of angst,? said Gary Richards, a transportation reporter at the Mercury News. Among the concerns is the possibility that the eventual buyer will cut jobs or reduce the number of news stories the paper runs.

?It?s hard to live in (Silicon Valley) when you don?t have a job,? he said.

Mercury News Executive Editor Susan Goldberg was pleased to learn that the winning bid for San Jose-based Knight Ridder came from McClatchy, which has long enjoyed a reputation for combining high journalistic standards with savvy business management.

Goldberg said she didn?t find out about the paper?s pending resale until Monday morning.

?When I first woke up, I was astonished and not very happy,? she said. ?For the Mercury News, it means the uncertainty of who will own us will continue for a few more months.?

The reaction was similar in Monterey.

?I went to bed thinking we were all McClatchy employees only to wake up to learn that we still don?t know who our master will be,? said Joe Livernois, a columnist and general assignment reporter who has been with the Herald for 21 years. ?It?s kind of unnerving.?

With McClatchy, owner of The Sacramento Bee and 11 other daily newspapers, no longer a possible owner, employees and outside observers said the two most likely buyers were Gannett Co., publisher of 91 daily papers including USA Today; and MediaNews Group Inc., a privately held company based in Denver that operates 90 papers including the Oakland Tribune.

The Newspaper Guild, the union representing workers at the Mercury News and at least seven of the other papers up for sale, is making a bid for all 12 companies, said Luther Jackson, executive officer of the San Jose Guild. The union is being backed by the Yucaipa Companies of Los Angeles.

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, speculated that Tony Ridder, Knight Ridder?s chairman and chief executive and former publisher of the Mercury News, might buy that paper and leave the other 11 to be purchased by others.

But Polk Laffoon, vice president of corporate relations for Knight Ridder, dismissed such speculation.

Both Schell and Ben Bagdikian, a previous dean of UC Berkeley?s Graduate School of Journalism, said McClatchy?s decision to jettison the three California papers shouldn?t be seen as a blemish on the viability of markets in which they operate.

?When the mouse swallows the cat, that?s a lot to digest,? said Bagdikian, whose book, The Media Monopoly, traces the demise of small family owned newspapers and television stations. ?I don?t know what McClatchy?s thinking is, but I would assume they could make more money selling off those papers.?

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