Buzz Merritt

Davis “Buzz” Merritt retired in 1999 after 43 years working for Knight Ridder, including 23 years as editor of the Wichita Eagle. Over those years, he watched as the news business generally, and Knight Ridder specifically, became increasingly driven by the bottom line. Earlier this month, his book about this change, Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism is Putting Democracy at Risk was published by AMACOM.

Editor’s note: CJR Daily staff writer Susan Q. Stranahan worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a Knight Ridder paper, from 1972 until 2001.

Susan Q. Stranahan: In your book, you describe the different attitudes toward journalism of the Knight and the Ridder families, with the Knights believing journalism was a calling and the Ridders that it was a business that just happens to be manufacturing newspapers. The Ridder approach has won out, you say, and the institution has suffered. You argue that newspapers aren’t like any other business, and thus should not be held to the same standards. Explain.

Buzz Merritt: I use the example of a coat hanger company. The variable in deciding how you’re going to make and sell coat hangers comes down to quality. There is a need for cheap hangers as well as expensive hangers. In the newspaper business, however, if you make quality a variable, what suffers is journalism. If profits become the variable in the newspaper business — and this is hard to get business people to understand — the end product is bad journalism. There shouldn’t be a market for bad journalism, but unfortunately there is.

SQS: You’re saying there are higher stakes in play when it comes to journalism?

BM: Good journalism is essential to good democracy. They are totally interdependent. One can’t exist without the other, and if the quality of journalism deteriorates, the quality of democracy also deteriorates in lockstep. … Journalism is different from any other business that you can think of. I don’t know of any other that democracy is so dependent upon.

SQS: Does it say something about the future of the news business today that this issue even has to be debated?

BM: Newspaper companies these days are not run by journalists. Organizations like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are different because they have two-tiered stock, and the voting stock is still controlled by insiders and family members. They can tell Wall Street, “If you want more than 15 percent in profits then buy someone else’s stock.” The bigger companies, the Tribune Co., Gannett, Knight Ridder, only have one tier of stock. Family members who held that stock back in the 60s are gone and the stock is now all held by institutional investors. Institutional investors don’t care about good journalism, they care about profits.

When maximizing profits is the sole driving force in a newspaper company, you’re back to the coat hanger analogy.

SQS: Is that a conflict the people who run large media companies understand?

BM: Not at all. When you say companies — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, as well as McClatchy Co. and the Newhouse papers [Advance Publications] — I think they are holding to the standards that they can afford to hold to. That doesn’t mean they don’t have economic pressures — of course they do, and they all are seeing an erosion of their circulation, but that’s not because they’re putting out bad newspapers.

Newhouse is a shining light. … Doug Clifton, the editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, told me that the attitude [at Newhouse] is: We’re going to put out a good newspaper. That’s one of the little hopeful possibilities that I mention in the book. These huge media conglomerates, if they choose, can say we’ll make our money off movies and magazines and TV, and we’ll let our newspaper divisions get by with profits less than 30 percent. Unfortunately, however, conglomerates aren’t known for their public service attitudes, which is one of journalism’s hallmarks.

There’s an important thing here that is the core to the idea of my book. We’re not going to need newspapers at some time in the future, and we’re not going to have them. We’re not going to need newspapers, but we will need newspaper journalism. There may be a time when we don’t have to kill trees to provide information. That’s not bad as long as the principles and values, the layered process of editing, remains.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.