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Book review: Knightfall

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

Davis Merritt
Amacom Books, 2005

The theme of this book, written by a former editor of The Wichita Eagle is that over the past few decades, the business of making newspapers has changed from a business unlike any other to a business just like all others, and we are not well served by this change.

I think the most important quote from the book is this:

With a handful of exceptions, American newspapers are being eroded, their traditional values subverted, their journalistic resources stripped away, their dedication to public service and local communities hallowed out, leaving a thin shell of public relations gimmicks that pretend to be public service and entertainment that pretends to be news.

Newspapers are important. They provide the common set of information that we, as a democracy, can use to work through the issues that face us. Although most people now get news from television and Internet sources, the basis for much of this news content is newspapers.

How is newspaper journalism different from journalism that happens to be in a newspaper? The answer is that newspaper journalism is “not shaped by a limiting technology,” such as a television broadcast; it values completeness over immediacy, it is lengthier and deeper than other sources of journalism, its goal is relevance rather than entertainment, and opinion and analysis is presented separately from news.

What has changed?

External changes have worked against newspapers. The baby boomer generation has not read newspapers with the same frequency as their parents. The fact that most newspapers are now publicly owned means that Wall Street pushes for ever-increasing profits. Newspapers, Mr. Merritt says, are a long-term investment and don’t fare well in today’s short-term investment climate. Technology changes, including the Internet, have been difficult for newspapers to adapt to.

Internal changes have occurred, too. The “creeping corporatism” of the national chains such as Knight Ridder has distanced newspapers from their local communities. The rise of Management By Objective (MBO) in the newsroom has caused editors to make journalistically unwise decisions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the wall that has separated the journalism side from the business side of the newspaper business has all but crumbled.

Is there a solution on the horizon that will bring back the great tradition of newspaper journalism across America? Mr. Merritt presents several possible solutions, but I have the sense that he doesn’t place much hope that any will succeed in the near future.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand newspapers and their important role in our country.

Reading this book has helped me understand why our local newspaper is the way it is, which is to say I understand why it so poorly serves our community. It also reinforces my belief that I should spend less time watching television news and spend more time reading the important newspapers of our country: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. All these newspapers place their content on the Internet through their web sites. The Wall Street Journal costs $6.95 monthly, but the other newspapers are free to read, although you may have to register.

Links to material about this book: Publisher’s page with excerpt, excerpt at Poynter, excerpt at Authorviews.com.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy At Risk). My review of the book contains Merritt’s summary of the properties of newspaper-style journalism that separates it […]

  2. LonnythePlumber January 26, 2010

    I also appreciate Knightfall and recommend it. Merrit does have a good vision. And I agree about less TV. I’m anti-TV and haven’t owned one in decades.

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