Last Friday, 60 former Knight Ridder reporters and editors released an open letter to Knight Ridder’s management arguing for a change in the direction of the beleaguered company, which — despite a 19.4 percent profit margin last year and recently announced editorial cutbacks in Philadelphia and San Jose — has now been forced into a corner by the demand of its largest shareholder that it be sold to recoup its value.


Knight Ridder’s routine “double-digit operating profits” have clearly proved founder John S. Knight’s creed that “excellent journalism is good business,” the alumni wrote, adding they remained confident that would continue to be the case in the future — if Knight Ridder remembered that it was not just another public company but “a public trust” which “must balance corporate profitability with civic purpose.”


Polk Laffoon, spokesman for the company, responded, “I wish there were an identifiable and strong correlation between quality journalism as we all define it and strong and growing newspaper sales. If that were the case, we would not only know how to meet some of the challenges we would face today, but we would thrive on doing it.”


In fact, Laffoon could have found one such identifiable and strong correlation if he had looked to one of Knight Ridder’s competitors, the McClatchy Company. By taking a long-term view of its newspaper business, McClatchy has managed to produce both quality journalism and a string of 20 consecutive years of circulation growth — as total daily national circulation has fallen from a peak of 63.3 million at 1,688 papers in 1984 to 45.2 million at 1,457 papers this year. Building circulation through quality, says Howard Weaver, McClatchy’s vice president for news, is “part of our DNA around here.”


Even so, McClatchy’s daily circulation will decline by about 1 percent this year, though that drop is still considerably less than the 2.6 percent industry-wide average. That dropoff, the sharpest in any six-month period since 1991, seemed to indicate the hastening decline of newspapers. “The votes are now in: Newspapers are officially dying,” Michael Malone wrote on ABC News’ Web site. “[M]ost of the nation’s major newspaper companies could be on the block within the next 24 months, few with any chance of finding a buyer. And if that isn’t the End, you ought to be able to see it from there.”


But are newspapers really dying? The long (and now accelerated) circulation decline might suggest yes — but various industry leaders and observers argue that simple measurement is outdated. Newspapers are reaching new audiences through free dailies (with RedEye in Chicago and Quick in Dallas two of the most visible examples) and online, where Nielsen/NetRatings reported last week that the number of unique visitors to papers’ Web sites grew by 11 percent between October 2004 and 2005 (compared to 3 percent growth across the Internet as a whole). When those online and print offshoot figures are brought into the equation, these leaders say, newspapers’ readership is actually growing. Says Weaver: “What that says is more people want us today than wanted us yesterday, and that is not the profile of a dying business.”


Certainly, classified ads are being displaced by online bulletin boards, print advertising revenues are slowing, and media stocks have taken a tumble this year. But rather than finding ourselves near newspapers’ deaths, we are at “a tipping point in the life of public newspaper companies,” as the Knight Ridder letter’s creator, James Naughton, said last week — and a tipping point in newspapers’ long-range planning.


Often lost in coverage is what Alan Mutter, author of the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, says are newspapers’ three great strengths: They have widely known, good brands as monopoly or near-monopoly operators in their market; they have longstanding strong relationships with major local advertisers that no one else can duplicate; and they have an unparalleled local newsgathering staff and capability, with other media in their cities largely following the agenda they set.


And the perception that newspapers’ flagship print circulations are in inexorable decline is not an open-and-shut case. In fact, a few papers actually slightly increased their daily print circulations over the past year.


In Raleigh, N.C., the News & Observer boosted its daily figure by 0.8 percent, from 164,294 to 165,604. Managing editor John Drescher credited the increase to the News & Observer’s location in “a really strong growth market,” a good circulation department, and the paper’s consistency and depth. “I think we have an unusual amount of good inside content,” he said. “You look at a lot of mid-sized dailies now and the papers are very thin. We have a very substantial local section every day. We have a very substantial business section every day.”

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.