Yesterday, Knight Ridder swapped two of its newspapers — the Detroit Free Press and the Tallahassee Democrat — for three smaller but quite profitable papers owned by Gannett in Washington state and Idaho. In turn, while accepting the Free Press with its right hand, Gannett unloaded the Detroit News with its left hand, depositing it with new owner Dean Singleton.
It was a head-spinning deal that left bewildered editors and reporters at six newspapers in five different cities wondering just who the hell they now work for. And it was a rude reminder to all of us that whatever a newspaper may be to its readers, to its community and to its employees, to its owners it’s just one more commodity, to be swapped the way one might trade parsnips for turnips or peaches for apples.
Scorekeepers quickly totaled up the debits and credits for the players involved: Knight Ridder unloads a property (the Free Press) that it gutted long ago, a paper that’s a shell of what it once was; Gannett sheds itself of a newspaper (the Detroit News) that it has mismanaged for over a decade, and picks up the Free Press, which has become the dominant paper in town by default; and Singleton, a small-town newspaper guy with big-city ambitions (Denver, then Oakland, now Detroit) gets a seat at the table with the big guys.
A Knight Ridder flack named Polk Laffoon summed up the logic of the deal succinctly for Kit Seelye of the New York Times: While the circulation of the Idaho and Washington papers combined is well below the Freep’s 347,000, “the cash flow is better.”
Reaction to the sight of half a dozen newspapers simultaneously being batted around like so many tennis balls was immediate, first from former Knight Ridder editors, whom one might expect to be dismayed — but then, surprisingly, from Wall Street analysts, who sounded the same note.
Buzz Merritt, a Knight Ridder lifer, former editor of the Wichita Eagle and author of Knightfall, a critical study of his former employer, fired off a letter to Jim Romenesko, at the Poynter Institute’s Web site, that managed to come off as both doleful and angry all at once:
“What’s the big deal? The difference between Gannett and Knight Ridder disappeared a decade or more ago. For both companies, the newspapers they own, the people who work at them, and the communities they pretend to serve are simply fungible assets, undifferentiated except by the level of profit demanded. For Detroit, it’ll mean eventually a monopoly operation, which is bad news. Tallahassee and Boise (Idaho) and the other places won’t even notice the difference. But public life and democracy will.”
Walker Lundy, another Knight Ridder lifer — he served as editor of the Tallahassee paper, then the paper in St. Paul, Minn., then the Philadelphia Inquirer, until his retirement two years ago — put in his two cents’ worth:
“Jim Batten [former CEO of Knight Ridder in better days] is spinning in his grave today. For the company I loved to desert all of those loyal employees in Detroit and Tallahassee is shameful. I know: It’s just business. But all those years my colleagues and I worked so hard, we thought it was something more.”
That’s just the kind of reaction you’d expect from a couple of editors who put in decades under the quaint illusion that they were trying to serve their communities, not a handful of Wall Street analysts who can make or break a company’s stock price.
But what’s this? Seelye also uncovers a couple of those hard-nosed analysts who sound eerily like Merritt and Lundy. John Morton, a renowned newspaper industry analyst, lamented to Seelye:
“This is further evidence of how financially driven these companies are. The era of when newspaper companies had an emotional attachment to their properties has really withered away.”
And Colby Atwood, vice president of Borrell Associates, a media research firm, suggested that the former KR editors may be closer to understanding what makes a newspaper work than either Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder or Gannett CEO Craig Dubow. Said Atwood:
“People have a relationship with their newspaper, and if they feel that it’s just a device that a giant corporation is using to make money, they feel taken advantage of. This doesn’t do much to build brand loyalty, and that’s what newspapers need more of, not less of.”
We’ve all had time aplenty — two decades or so — to get used to the grim idea of newspapers as a commodity, to be traded back and forth at will, like so many food coupons or baseball cards.
But for those of us who always thought of them as just a little more than that, it’s still un-nerving to watch such venerable names as the Free Press, the News and the Democrat treated as just so many poker chips in a thinly-disguised game of Texas Hold ‘Em.
It’s a game in which there are a few winners but a lot of losers. Alas, the latter include the employees and readers of the newspapers in play — and, most especially, as Buzz Merritt puts it, “the communities they pretend to serve.”
Dept. of Full Disclosure: Steve Lovelady spent 22 years at Knight Ridder, five of them as managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.