OLD Media Moves

Evidence of the Ridder family management acumen

March 1, 2006

If you have been following events in journalism lately, then you know that the once-venerable Knight-Ridder newspaper chain is considering bids to sell the company — in whole or piecemeal — to bidders who have until later this month to submit their best offers.

The new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review has an analysis of what went wrong and the efforts of the Philadelphia Inquirer to remake itself.

One of the anecdotes is this telling event that relates to business journalism: “While Knight was a chain run by newspapermen with journalistic aspirations, the Ridders owned many smaller newspapers of marginal distinction. The Ridders were regarded as prudent, perhaps overly so. The family, for example, owned the Journal of Commerce, whose circulation at the end of World War II matched that of The Wall Street Journal. In 1951, however, the Ridders, looking to cut costs, decided to drop the Journal of Commerce’s stock listings and to focus the news columns on stories of narrow interest — a move so short-sighted that, years later, the New York Times’s Floyd Norris would include it in his list of the century’s dozen worst business decisions. Fifty years later, the Journal of Commerce’s circulation stood at 17,000 — as compared to the Journal’s 1.75 million.”

Amanda BennettThe article also gives this example of how the Inquirer will now cover business news under Amanda Bennett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor.

CJR’s Michael Shapiro wrote: “Some editors, Bennett said, had grasped the concept more quickly than others. Among them was Bob Rose, the business editor.

“She had hired Rose from her old paper, The Wall Street Journal, whose culture was very much one of leaving some stories untold — or briefed — in return for pursuing the larger piece that others had not even thought of. As it happened, that morning, Rose was presented with a story that necessitated his choosing between the paper’s traditional ways and Bennett’s vision of the future. Ford had announced that it was shutting fourteen plants and laying off 30,000 people, a big story. Tradition would have called for pulling a reporter off one piece — perhaps a time-consuming enterprise piece — and, in the absence of an auto writer on the staff, asking him to cobble together something for the next day’s paper. Rose considered doing just that, and then changed his mind.

“Without a large piece already conceived and reported about, say, the decline of the American auto industry, without a writer in Detroit or someone in-house with real knowledge of the industry, and without any Ford plants in the area, he decided to leave it to the wires. Instead, he concentrated on two local stories — a scoop on Donald Trump’s plan to build a forty-five-story luxury condominium on the Delaware waterfront, and the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to allow the sale of prescription diet pills over the counter, one of which was manufactured in Philadelphia. Both stories ran on page one.

To read the entire piece, go here.

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