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Papers' Cuts Put Readership at Risk

Journalism: Knight Ridder loses another executive as chain retrenches to lift profits.

July 03, 2001|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The calls and letters and e-mails--400 or 500 of them in all, one complaint after another--have come pouring into Gloria Irwin at the Akron Beacon Journal.

The Beacon Journal is one of 32 daily newspapers published by Knight Ridder, and Irwin is its "public editor," responsible for responding to queries and criticisms from readers. This year, in response to an industrywide slump in advertising and profits, Knight Ridder has been slashing jobs and news coverage, and the Beacon Journal has been among the hardest hit.

The paper, a respected, medium-sized daily in northeast Ohio, has eliminated both its Sunday magazine and News and Views section; closed its Washington bureau and two regional bureaus; reduced its state capital bureau from the equivalent of four reporters to one; eliminated the Saturday editorial page; cut its daily editions and zoned sections from four to two; cut back its book and outdoors coverage, and eliminated many community correspondents and other freelance contributors.

Readers are upset that many weekend social events in Akron and community meetings in neighboring counties are no longer covered, and Irwin says she also received complaints from readers when cutbacks in the paper's sports staff forced it to use an Associated Press story, rather than a staff-written story, to cover the Akron Aeros minor league baseball team over the Memorial Day weekend.

"I can see the stadium from my window, but with our smaller staff, we had to decide between that game and some high school sports events, so we couldn't cover it," she says.

Irwin says two other cutbacks--the elimination of some stock listings and of a regularly published list of area deaths--triggered such vehement reader objections that both were reinstated.

"We've cut and cut and cut," says Janet Leach, editor of the Beacon Journal. "This has been excruciating. . . . When Knight Ridder executives were here . . . I told them I just can't have a windstorm every three weeks. This has to be the last one. But they couldn't give me any assurances."

Knight Ridder corporate executives haven't given such assurances to any of their papers, and they declined to be interviewed for this story, saying there were so many press inquiries these days that they had decided to do "no more interviews for some time."

If executives of a newspaper organization refusing to grant newspaper interviews seems incongruous, it's no more incongruous than Knight Ridder suddenly finding itself singled out as "an egregious example of a profit-oriented chain," in the recent words of a San Diego newspaper columnist.

Knight Ridder was created by the 1974 merger of Knight Newspapers and Ridder Publications. With a combined circulation of almost 4 million daily, Knight Ridder is the second-largest newspaper company in the country (after Gannett), and for many years it was singled out as proof that, unlike Gannett, a chain could produce both solid profits and very good newspapers.

Knight Ridder's Philadelphia Inquirer won 17 Pulitzer Prizes from 1975 to 1989. The Miami Herald won seven Pulitzers in the 1980s and was generally regarded as the best paper in the Southeast. The Beacon Journal, with a circulation today of 141,000, routinely outshone much larger newspapers in its home state, winning four Pulitzers and a reputation for hard-nosed investigative journalism.

But changes in the economic climate and in the top management of Knight Ridder have led to significant reductions in news staffs and space at all three of these papers and at other papers throughout the company. These cutbacks have led many inside and outside Knight Ridder to complain that increasing profits have become more important to management than journalistic excellence and community service.

"Our founders' commitment to publishing 'high-quality newspapers' is no longer the powerful driver in the company that it once was," is the way Jay Harris put it in March when he stunned the industry by suddenly resigning as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News.

Harris is just one of many high-level Knight Ridder executives--at corporate headquarters and at individual papers--who have left in recent years amid the company's many cutbacks and changing culture. Another came Monday, when Martin Baron announced that he would be leaving his job as executive editor of the Miami Herald after just 18 months to become editor of the Boston Globe.

Baron, who led the Herald to a Pulitzer Prize this year, said he is going to Boston because "this is a great opportunity for me professionally . . . at a paper that occupies a special place in American journalism," not because of cutbacks at the Herald or Knight Ridder. But he has privately voiced frustration about the retrenchments.

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