KNIGHT-RIDDER INC. is now the biggest newspaper chain offering medical and dental benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees.
Beginning this month, homosexual employees at Knight-Ridder's corporate offices can begin signing up their partners for the same benefits offered the spouses of legally married employees.
Knight-Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper owner after Gannett Co., also for the first time is permitting its 30-plus daily and weekly newspapers to make local decisions about whether to offer the benefits.
The Miami Herald and its Spanish-language sister, El Nuevo Herald, immediately announced they would begin offering the benefits Jan. 1.
"This is the important message: What we stand for at these newspapers is fairness to all. In that spirit these benefits will be provided," Herald chairman and publisher David Lawrence wrote in a Sept. 22 memo to employees.
Knight-Ridder had been the target of a sometimes-aggressive, sometimes-low-key campaign for so-called domestic partner benefits by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), which has worked closely with the chain on sexual diversity in the workplace.
"We're obviously thrilled," said NLGJA President Karen-Louise Boothe, senior political editor for Minnesota Public Radio.
"I think it's pretty clear that there is a trend toward offering domestic partner benefits, a trend not only in our industry, but in the U.S. at large," Boothe added. "Companies are seeing that costs are low and the benefits outweigh the costs by far .... The cost of offering domestic partner benefits is no higher than the cost of covering legal spouses."
Human resources executives in Knight-Ridder had made no secret of their enthusiasm for domestic partner benefits, and Lawrence of the Herald more than a year ago said the benefits should be offered "as a simple matter of fairness."
At the same time, however, the chain's board of directors passed up opportunities to change the companywide policy against the benefits, and officials at Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. (PNI) went to binding arbitration rather than agree to offer the benefits to employees represented by the Newspaper Guild. PNI lost the case in August, and let lapse a deadline to appeal the arbitrator's ruling.
Knight-Ridder said the biggest factor in changing the policy was the acquisition earlier this year of five papers owned by Walt Disney Co. The five, including the Kansas City Star and Fort Worth StarTelegram, offered domestic partner benefits when Knight-Ridder bought them.
"That sort of precipitated it," said Lee Ann Schlatter, Knight-Ridder's director of corporate communications.
"We started thinking hard what to do about the fact that when we acquired the Disney papers, domestic partner benefits were already being offered."
Knight-Ridder for the past five years or so has been trying to standardize benefits at its properties, but domestic partner benefits will remain, so to speak, a local option.
At the Miami Herald, the eventual benefits program, which goes into effect Jan. …