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Society of Professional Journalists calls for national debate on sale of Knight Ridder newspapers

For Immediate Release

David Carlson, President, (352) 846-0171 or carlson@spj.org
Michael Stoll, Northern California Chapter, (415) 846-3983 or spj@michaelstoll.com

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists and its Northern California Chapter call for an urgent national conversation about how to preserve public-service journalism in light of the likely sale of the Knight Ridder newspaper company.

Knight Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, put itself out to bid last November. To satisfy the demands of a few major shareholders seeking larger short-term profits, the company may be swallowed whole by another conglomerate or broken up by speculators in early 2006. To finance the multibillion-dollar deal, new owners would be under heavy pressure to slash investment in newsgathering and reporting.

News media play a vital role in ensuring a robust and transparent democracy, a role that is too important to be compromised by the quest for profits. SPJ believes that both journalists and the public need to discuss openly the societal implications of these kinds of business decisions, as several groups have done in recent weeks.

We acknowledge that newspapers cannot serve their democratic role unless they stay in business. But the increasing corporate pressure to squeeze additional returns out of already profitable newspapers, at rates exceeding the margins in most other industries, has skewed the balance between journalism and commerce. SPJ and the NorCal Chapter believe that those directing the production of news have an ethical obligation to readers every bit as significant as their fiduciary accountability to shareholders.

Much of the newspaper industry has fared poorly under financial pressures similar to those dogging Knight Ridder. Layoffs, buyouts and hiring freezes shrank the newspaper industry by at least 2,100 jobs in 2005. These same pressures are affecting alternative weekly newspapers and the ethnic press.

Though there is disagreement about what should happen to Knight Ridder -- whose 32 daily newspapers, various Web sites and weekly publications provide news to millions of readers -- there is broad consensus within the journalism community that it should not be allowed to fall into the hands of those unwilling to guarantee the continuity of public-service journalism.

Journalists in particular have an obligation to invite discussion on this topic. The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.” We call on reporters, editors, columnists and editorial writers to write about the planned sale and solicit ideas from community leaders and readers, who have a significant stake in the civic-minded management at their local newspapers.

A national conversation about how Knight Ridder newspapers can maintain their journalistic integrity under escalating profit pressures should send a message to investors not to ignore the social value of their investments -- either now or in future battles over media ownership. Such a dialogue would also help journalists fulfill their ethical responsibility to be accountable to their readership. And it would help that readership participate, as we believe the Constitution envisioned, in preserving a free, vibrant and competitive press.

For further information about the proposed Knight Ridder sale, visit the NorCal Web site.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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