Magazine article American Journalism Review

Independent's Day

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Independent's Day

Article excerpt

RARELY HAS MEETING OF THE KNIGHT-RIDDER BOARD concluded without some discussion of "the Seattle Times problem." Talk turned to action three years ago when Knight-Ridder launched a hostile bid for the paper, seeking to wrest it from the family that has controlled it for four generations.

In an era when family-owned metropolitan newspapers are an endangered species, gobbled up one after another by corporate chains, it might seem easy for a $2 billion publicly traded media giant like Knight-Ridder to take over a 236,000 daily circulation paper like the Seattle Times.

But it hasn't happened. Knight-Ridder, the nation's second largest newspaper group, has been defeated more than once by Chairman, Publisher and CEO Frank A. Blethen, the scion of the family that two months ago celebrated its centennial year of Seattle Times control.

Blethen's defiance leaves Knight-Ridder in a predicament. Knight-Ridder owns 49 percent of the Times stock, but has no control over its finances. Selling its shares is out of the question, says Knight-Ridder Chairman and CEO P. Anthony Ridder, a descendant of the Ridder newspaper family. "We're not interested in selling," he says. "We're interested in buying."

Ironically, the Times has successfully outflanked Knight-Ridder by adopting many of the methods of corporate journalism. It was among the first papers to advocate advanced business degrees for its editors. The paper has introduced bold, colorful graphics, used readership surveys to help shape news coverage, welcomed public journalism and news-you-can-use service pieces, mobilized reporters to the suburbs and encouraged employees to embrace Stephen R. Covey's leadership philosophy, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."

Journalistically, the Times, an afternoon paper, has been called an underachiever by former reporters and editors, who describe a newsroom culture unaccustomed to the self-criticism necessary to make a good paper great. Some staffers decry the absence of more forceful newsroom leadership. But Times Executive Editor Michael Fancher disagrees. He says he and Blethen intend to make the Times one of the nation's best regional newspapers. Fancher says, "The staff ought to say: `As good as we think we are, we either stay this good or get better."'

Overwhelmingly though, reporters and editors seem to prefer Blethen family ownership to a large chain. Why? Many say it's because, whatever its shortcomings, the Times remains committed to spending money on journalism. Though the paper has trimmed its news staff through attrition and reduced newsgathering budgets in the last few years, at no time in recent memory has it endured the newsroom layoffs and budget cutbacks experienced recently at chains like Times Mirror, precisely because "we're independent," Blethen says. "We're committed to the long term. Our overall management philosophy is to avoid layoffs when we can."

If Blethen succeeds in defying the trend toward concentration of ownership, he will do so against tremendous odds. Greed, family squabbling, taxes and the threat of new technology have persuaded many of America's great family-owned newspapers to sell out to closely held chains or publicly traded corporations.

One by one, owners of independent newspapers in Louisville, Detroit, Boston, Raleigh and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to name a few, have given up the fight. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, owned by its employees, is fending off unwelcome suitors in a public battle for control. Even at publicly traded companies controlled by families--the New York Times Co. and Times Mirror, for instance--conflicts over succession and power have surfaced.

Frank Blethen has watched each carefully and has vowed to avoid making the same mistakes. Hiring a host of lawyers and accountants, he put in place measures to protect the business from Wall Street brokers who look for chinks in family armor, often unhappy offspring willing to sell stock to outsiders. …

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