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How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Puts Democracy at Risk

In Knightfall, journalist and editor Davis Merritt explains why he believes newspaper journalism is endangered and why its demise puts the American democratic system in peril. As an editor who saw his employer, Knight Newspapers, merge with Ridder Publications to become America’s second-largest newspaper company, Knight Ridder, he has much to say about journalism, democracy and the newspaper business. Merritt tells the story of the people behind the scenes at the company and the changes that have taken place within it over the past 30 years. Although he admits that the Internet and other technologies might soon replace newspapers, he is concerned that the characteristics that have made newspaper journalism the cornerstone of American democracy could be crushed by greed and the erosion of a free press.

Newspaper Journalism

The characteristics that separate newspaper journalism from all other kinds of journalism and “pseudojournalism” include:

• Its content is not shaped by time strictures and a bias toward the visual and against complexity.

• Its usefulness is based far more on completeness and clarity than immediacy.

• Its claim on credibility is based on its length and depth, which allow readers to judge the facts behind the story’s headline and opening summary paragraph and then look for internal contradictions.

• Opinions and analysis are presented separately.

In Knightfall, Merritt describes what is happening to newspapers as well as newspaper journalism in the United States, why what is happening is a threat to democracy, and what can be done to save it from its demise.

According to Merritt, greed has the power to kill newspaper journalism, and is in the process of doing so. He believes that the people who own newspapers do not understand and appreciate the intrinsic and crucial strengths of newspaper journalism, and because newspapers are being filled with public relations gimmicks, they are no longer dedicated to public service and local communities. Merritt writes that American democracy cannot succeed over the long haul if the information that fuels self-determination becomes unavailable or is limited to only a small minority of citizens who have the tools to make rational democratic choices.

To make his point, Merritt presents his experiences at Knight Ridder: a company that embodies the conflicts faced by modern journalism and one for which he worked for more than 43 years as a reporter and editor.

In 1974, Knight Newspapers and Ridder Publications merged, bringing together “two newspaper companies founded and operated on radically disparate ideas.” Knight-owned newspapers were the gold standard for journalism, but were not among the better financial performers. Ridder Publications’ newspapers were rated generally “as effective business operations but, at best, indifferent journalistic products.” Although Knight actually acquired Ridder, Merritt describes how the tension between the business role and the journalism role of the new company would lead to increasing friction.

While describing the changes that he experienced at Knight Ridder, Merritt details the thought processes that take place in the editors and newsrooms covering the stories that are breaking around them. He explains that the trail to an important story usually starts with the question, “Why is this happening?” or “What can be done about ...?” The second question is whether the newspaper has the commitment to answer the question or respond to the event. He explains that newspaper journalism excellence cannot occur if the first thought is “Can we afford to do this?” because the answer is most likely “No, within our existing budget we cannot afford to do it.”

Pulitzer Prizes

Merritt describes how stories about Three Mile Island, the PTL ministry, Kentucky basketball and Hurricane Andrew won Pulitzer prizes for Knight Ridder newspapers in its early years. He writes that the level of professionalism, inspiration and hard work reflected in those kinds of stories cannot be reached without a budgetary margin for excellence. Merritt explains that “the relentless drive to increase Knight Ridder’s annual operating returns, despite a period of stagnant circulation and advertising growth, has diminished the ability of its newspapers to produce the kind of journalism upon which it was founded.”

Merritt ends Knightfall by stating that if newspaper companies continue to sublimate their obligations to public service and democracy to ever-increasing profit considerations, newspaper journalism will not survive the eventual passing of newspapers themselves. ~

Why We Like This Book

Knightfall provides readers with a personalized story about the newspaper business from the perspective of a journalist at a company facing the challenges of a changing environment in a unique industry. By focusing on democracy, journalism and the ultimate cost of decisions made along the way, Merritt offers readers many ideas to ponder. ~

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