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Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk

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"The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. And yet a force seemingly even more powerful than the supreme law of the land threatens one of our nation's most precious guarantors of freedom. For more than two centuries, American newspapers have collected, organized, and disseminated the information that ma "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. And yet a force seemingly even more powerful than the supreme law of the land threatens one of our nation's most precious guarantors of freedom. For more than two centuries, American newspapers have collected, organized, and disseminated the information that makes democracy possible. Occasional opponents of a free press have not been able to cripple newspapers and despite dire predictions, neither have radio, television, or the Internet. But greed can kill American newspapers, thus eliminating the crucial synergy between journalism and democracy. The reality that newspapers must remain financially viable has always dictated compromises between the competing missions of profit and public service. But in recent years the essential balancing of those missions has been replaced by a single-minded pursuit of profit. Whether the chosen method is scaling back of content, cutting corners to control costs, or dismantling the traditional wall separating the news and business departments, the result is the same: the watering down of newspaper journalism, which is the core of all American journalism. Without fundamental change in newspapers' corporate boardrooms, the flow of information that Americans need to govern themselves will dry up. In Knightfall, Davis "Buzz" Merritt, a 40-year newspaperman whose career runs parallel to the seismic shift in journalism's landscape, examines one notable exemplar of this growing trend, Knight Ridder, America's second-largest newspaper company with holdings including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press, and the Mercury News in San Jose. Merritt was a participant-observer in the 1974 marriage of two newspaper companies, a union that seemed made in heaven. Knight Newspapers' longstanding tradition of excellence in journalism coupled with Ridder Publications' business savvy should have created a unique company offering the best of both worlds. That it did not happen is a reflection of complex changes in American society and the realities of modern business pressures driven by Wall Street. There are no pure heroes or pure villains in this story; the players were doing what their training, background, and respective family histories urged them to do. But the story's outcome is ominous for American democracy. Merritt's personal accounts of the 30 years since the merger illustrate the degree to which what we know is being limited. Further, his portraits of key figures, analysis of societal changes, and dozens of interviews with others who were (and are) there reveal that not only is he on target, he is also not alone in his unsettling conclusions. A free press is a cornerstone of our democracy. The erosion of that foundation is a catastrophe in the making: the real possibility that the kind of journalism that gave rise to -- and preserves -- our democracy will disappear."


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"The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. And yet a force seemingly even more powerful than the supreme law of the land threatens one of our nation's most precious guarantors of freedom. For more than two centuries, American newspapers have collected, organized, and disseminated the information that ma "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. And yet a force seemingly even more powerful than the supreme law of the land threatens one of our nation's most precious guarantors of freedom. For more than two centuries, American newspapers have collected, organized, and disseminated the information that makes democracy possible. Occasional opponents of a free press have not been able to cripple newspapers and despite dire predictions, neither have radio, television, or the Internet. But greed can kill American newspapers, thus eliminating the crucial synergy between journalism and democracy. The reality that newspapers must remain financially viable has always dictated compromises between the competing missions of profit and public service. But in recent years the essential balancing of those missions has been replaced by a single-minded pursuit of profit. Whether the chosen method is scaling back of content, cutting corners to control costs, or dismantling the traditional wall separating the news and business departments, the result is the same: the watering down of newspaper journalism, which is the core of all American journalism. Without fundamental change in newspapers' corporate boardrooms, the flow of information that Americans need to govern themselves will dry up. In Knightfall, Davis "Buzz" Merritt, a 40-year newspaperman whose career runs parallel to the seismic shift in journalism's landscape, examines one notable exemplar of this growing trend, Knight Ridder, America's second-largest newspaper company with holdings including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press, and the Mercury News in San Jose. Merritt was a participant-observer in the 1974 marriage of two newspaper companies, a union that seemed made in heaven. Knight Newspapers' longstanding tradition of excellence in journalism coupled with Ridder Publications' business savvy should have created a unique company offering the best of both worlds. That it did not happen is a reflection of complex changes in American society and the realities of modern business pressures driven by Wall Street. There are no pure heroes or pure villains in this story; the players were doing what their training, background, and respective family histories urged them to do. But the story's outcome is ominous for American democracy. Merritt's personal accounts of the 30 years since the merger illustrate the degree to which what we know is being limited. Further, his portraits of key figures, analysis of societal changes, and dozens of interviews with others who were (and are) there reveal that not only is he on target, he is also not alone in his unsettling conclusions. A free press is a cornerstone of our democracy. The erosion of that foundation is a catastrophe in the making: the real possibility that the kind of journalism that gave rise to -- and preserves -- our democracy will disappear."

30 review for Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk

  1. 4 out of 5

    Emma Sea

    It's not often a book on the state of the newspaper industry keeps you up compulsively reading all night :D This was excellent. On the surface Merritt is telling the story of Knight Ridder publishers, and his own experiences on a Knight Ridder paper in Kansas. This ends up encapsulating everything that went wrong with newspaper journalism worldwide. It's almost excrutiating to read about small, seemingly-inconsequential decisions that down the road will end up crippling what Merritt sees as "obl It's not often a book on the state of the newspaper industry keeps you up compulsively reading all night :D This was excellent. On the surface Merritt is telling the story of Knight Ridder publishers, and his own experiences on a Knight Ridder paper in Kansas. This ends up encapsulating everything that went wrong with newspaper journalism worldwide. It's almost excrutiating to read about small, seemingly-inconsequential decisions that down the road will end up crippling what Merritt sees as "obligations to public service and democracy" in favour of quick and ever-increasing profit. What was most fascinating for me was that newspapers were damaged long before the impact of internet. Newspaper journalism worked great in a modernist paradigm, when mainstream media can agree on what is "important." From the 1960s onwards civil rights, second-wave feminism, and intergenerational differences made for fractured audiences who looked to read about their own interests, not the common interest. By 1990, 2 years before the www, circulation was already down 60% from 1970s levels (p. 28). That doesn't mean the newspaper business was crippled: between 1991 and 2002 newspaper margins went from 14% to 27%, advertising revenues rose 60% and overall profits jumped 207% (p. 217). Newspapers were "knowing participants in our own debasement" (Hodding Carter III, quoted on p. 224). It's not even that this came at the cost of journalism, it's that journalism was deliberately wounded by marketers to increase profits. A marvellous grounding for understanding contemporary mass media.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Wellington

    Since I’m the periphery of the print advertising industry, the future of the newspaper industry is asked a lot. Every corporate decision above me has this in mind. Can the newspaper industry be saved? Or will it go become something more like letter writing – a lost art that is rarely used anymore. This is the story of Knight-Ridder from the editor of a Wichita editor from inside the beast. Davis “Buzz” Merritt believes that the newspaper industry has survived radio, television, and Internet and s Since I’m the periphery of the print advertising industry, the future of the newspaper industry is asked a lot. Every corporate decision above me has this in mind. Can the newspaper industry be saved? Or will it go become something more like letter writing – a lost art that is rarely used anymore. This is the story of Knight-Ridder from the editor of a Wichita editor from inside the beast. Davis “Buzz” Merritt believes that the newspaper industry has survived radio, television, and Internet and survived. All these things are supposed to be the death knell of newspapers but they continue to trudge forward. Merritt laments that it’s the short-term thinking of profit for shareholders and “suits” that have ruined the quality of journalism. In the “golden age” of newspapers, there was a wall between advertisers and journalists. Communication was minimized to discourage any tainting of the journalistic endeavors. The jobs of journalists were to find the truth, report it and not worry about how much it cost. Journalists were NOT supposed to write what people wanted … or newspaper would be all fluff. There was honor in journalism to ask the hard questions. This book was written by a (somewhat) disgruntled editor that thinks that restoring the wall and giving journalists and editors to research and write (not balance budgets) at the expense of profits will eventually save the industry in the long-term. Though radio, television, 24 hour news channels, direct mail, and Internet did not kill newspapers, they slowly have eroded the readership base. The mini-monopoly of newspapers is losing ground every year. There is a strong resentment toward Wall Street’s insistence that profits and revenues grow every quarter. It makes me wonder what the rest of the story is when profit margins are increased and applauded by Wall Street. Improving the quality of the newspaper will not save the industry and the author didn’t think this would happen any way. The newspaper industry will not disappear overnight but there are more than a few grey hairs on its head. I recommend that you read this book if you read or at one point regularly read a lot of any newspaper.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ben Smith

  4. 4 out of 5

    Leah Cassorla

  5. 4 out of 5

    Stacey Palevsky

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dale

  7. 4 out of 5

    Will

  8. 5 out of 5

    Brad Kroner

  9. 4 out of 5

    Maurice Savard

  10. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  12. 4 out of 5

    Becky Pallack

  13. 5 out of 5

    Seth Stern

  14. 4 out of 5

    abcdefg

  15. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  16. 4 out of 5

    Russ Autrey

  17. 4 out of 5

    Wikimedia Italia

  18. 5 out of 5

    Robert Washburn

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  20. 5 out of 5

    Steelwhisper

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mindy Massie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Phil White

  23. 5 out of 5

    Patty

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matt Potter

  25. 4 out of 5

    Prasanna

  26. 4 out of 5

    BookDB

  27. 5 out of 5

    Cian Cavooris

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jake

  29. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Mount

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

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