Knight Ridder sale bodes ill for journalism, particularly in Bay Area

By John McManus
Posted Mar. 17, 2006

What does it say about journalism when a newspaper company as large, profitable and esteemed as Knight Ridder can be forced to sell itself by three distant investors?

What does it mean that such a storied brand – winner of 84 Pulitzer Prizes -- attracts only two bidders?

And what does it mean for news in the Bay Area, that the successful bidder, Sacramento's McClatchy Newspapers, has no interest in keeping Knight Ridder's local newspapers, the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times.

I think it means at least three things:

The local newspapers you are reading today – in paper or on the Web – are likely to be better than any you will ever read again. And if the seven yardsticks of journalism quality we apply at are valid, Bay Area papers are not as good as they were five years ago when there were many fewer empty desks in their newsrooms.

John McManus

The stock market's disdain for Knight Ridder signals no confidence in the future of the metro newspaper—historically the most important guarantor of an informed citizenry.

Those former subscribers who now get their news on the Web? They're not returning no matter how many free weeks of the Chronicle they're offered.

Those classified advertisers who abandoned newspapers for Craigslist or EBay. They're gone. And now auto dealers and other retailers are following them out the door.

Those young people who never picked up the newspaper in the first place? Why should they buy a newspaper when they can read the same stories for free on their laptops?

Why subscribe to one paper, when you can read almost every paper on the Web, watch video news clips, amuse yourself -- even expose yourself -- on a cornucopia of Web sites catering to every imaginable interest?

City-wide free Wy-fi will eliminate the one last advantage of newspapers – being able to read them almost anywhere.

Technology has undermined the two monopolies metro newspapers are based on. As little as a decade ago, newspapers controlled the gateway between readers and serious journalism. It cost $3 to $5 a week for a pass.

More importantly, newspapers were able to erect a toll booth between a region's advertisers and their potential customers, at least those retailers seeking a less transient presentation of their wares than broadcasters could provide.

Those monopolies allowed metro papers to command profits from three to five times the average for a U.S. business and hire hundreds of journalists.

No more. Although readership on newspapers web sites is growing, ad revenue from the Internet isn't providing enough dollars to staff large newsrooms and pay the kinds of premiums Wall Street still expects.

The new model for newspapers is "clustering." One company buys most of the newspapers in a region and centralizes reporting, advertising, printing and distribution. A single reporter's story appears in a half-dozen papers. Instead of two or three journalists competing to cover a beat, there's one. Politicians who sought the endorsement of several editorial boards will supplicate just one.

Were the one company controlling print news around the Bay run with the ethical high-mindedness of the New York Times, such a concentration of power and loss of competition still wouldn't be healthy from a civic perspective. But the most likely new owner has never been mistaken for a Sulzberger.

Dean Singleton, owner of Denver-based MediaNews reportedly wants to fold the Contra Costa Times and Mercury News (which would include the tabloid Daily News papers on the Peninsula) into his cluster. If successful, he would add about 530,000 newspapers to the 300,000 he already sells and complete a semi-circle around San Francisco with his current properties – including the Marin Independent-Journal, Oakland Tribune, Hayward Review, Freemont Argus and San Mateo County Times.

Imagine one grocery chain operating all of the outlets surrounding San Francisco. Or one auto dealership controlling every lot. There would be no incentive to compete on either price or quality.

But news is a commodity like no other. It's the only product with the power to define reality. And that power is magnified when multiple newspapers speak with a single voice.

Also consider that MediaNews has a reputation for running thinly-staffed newsrooms paying such low salaries that journalists cannot afford to stay long enough become expert in their area of coverage.

This is an ominous week for journalism, particularly in the Bay Area.

An earlier version of this essay appeared first in the San Francisco Chronicle.