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The Knight Ridder newspaper company was known for its swagger. Its 32 dailies boasted of Pulitzers and brash columnists like Carl Hiaasen of The Miami Herald. But the stock price has been sagging, and impatient investors are forcing its sale. As NPR's David Folkenflik explains, some unlikely suitors are emerging.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
Linda Foley is a former Knight Ridder reporter and the president of The Newspaper Guild of America. Foley says big cuts have eroded the papers' quality.
Ms. LINDA FOLEY (President, The Newspaper Guild of America): None of these newspapers lose revenue. They all make money. They just don't make enough money to suit people on Wall Street.
FOLKENFLIK: Foley's union represents more than 2,000 employees at Knight Ridder properties, including big papers in Philadelphia; San Jose, California; and St. Paul, Minnesota. Foley says journalists are anxious about who might be the next owner.
Ms. FOLEY: We think we have a better idea. We have a stake in this, and we want to try to be a player here.
FOLKENFLIK: The Guild would like to buy nine newspapers. Employee-owned papers aren't common, and Polk Laffoon says they're not going to happen here. Laffoon is Knight Ridder's chief spokesman and its corporate secretary.
Mr. POLK LAFFOON (Chief Spokesperson and Corporate Secretary, Knight Ridder): Without wanting to be critical of the unions and their efforts, I think it is a non-starter. Knight Ridder is seeking strategic options for the whole company, and there has been no discussion of disposing of different portions of the company in separate transactions.
FOLKENFLIK: The company's profit margin is a bit above 19 percent. That's a healthy rate for most businesses, but it's not as much as some competitors, and it's not increasing. Circulation is eroding, and online competitors are siphoning ads away. Knight Ridder CEO Anthony Ridder has sought to stave off shareholder pressure with a decadelong effort to cut costs. National and foreign staff have been reduced. The San Jose Mercury News and the Philadelphia Inquirer slashed their staffs by 15 percent just this year. James Naughton is the former executive editor at the Inquirer. He says readers are noticing.
Mr. JAMES NAUGHTON (Former Executive Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer): Knight Ridder's current leadership is focused more on the business aspects of journalism than on the news-gathering aspects.
FOLKENFLIK: Naughton is leading a group of Knight Ridder alumni: executives, publishers, editors and reporters who own shares. They're hoping to nominate candidates for the company's corporate board to influence who gets to buy Knight Ridder if it's actually sold. Knight Ridder's Laffoon says there's no way they can win.
Mr. LAFFOON: The fact of the matter is that 90 percent of Knight Ridder's stock or more is owned by large financial institutions, and they are going to vote for people that they think will run the company with the same kind of financial goals that they have.
FOLKENFLIK: But some bidders may have different goals. The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts spend more than $200 million a year on ambitious projects, including several media initiatives. CEO Rebecca Rimel says Pew is now considering a run at the Inquirer, Knight Ridder's largest paper.
Ms. REBECCA RIMEL (CEO, Pew Charitable Trusts): Philadelphia is going to need to get this right as our other communities across the country and we have to put wise heads together to think about how the civic purpose and the democratic purpose of newspapers is served, first and foremost.
FOLKENFLIK: Like The Guild, Pew is interested in local ownership that puts less emphasis on profits. One example is in Florida. The non-profit Poynter Institute has a controlling stake in the St. Petersburg Times. But the people on the Knight Ridder board evaluating offers may not care. Former Inquirer editor Jim Naughton says he realizes he may not be able to get new directors on the company's board.
Mr. NAUGHTON: This may be quixotic. It may be entirely unrealistic to try either to have a voice in the sale, if there is one, or to influence the course of the company. But again, it beats the heck out of not having any opportunity to try.
FOLKENFLIK: Knight Ridder's board recently set bigger bonuses for 2006 for its top executives. The company chose not to comment on the decision. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.
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