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Front Page » Opinion » Knightfall in Miami with no respects from the successors

Knightfall in Miami with no respects from the successors

Written by on September 8, 2020
Knightfall in Miami with no respects from the successors

The last spark of life of a great news family has left Miami and what’s left of its empire didn’t have the memory, heart or courage to even mention the builders.

The company that bought up the Miami Herald and sister newspapers across the nation went bust and this month sold the scrap to an investment group, erasing a Miami heritage of the Knight Brothers who built the empire. The scant Herald coverage of that changeover never mentioned the Knights or their associates, who were integral to the growth and success of Miami for 50 years.

News organizations used to be keepers of the flame, the institutional memory of communities, who wrote the obituaries of individuals and the transitions of companies.

No more: the news legacy of Jack and Jim Knight, Alvah Chapman Jr., Jim Batten and other leaders was extinguished this month without the Herald even mentioning Knight Newspapers and only citing successor Knight Ridder in a sentence noting that the McClatchy chain went bust in part because it spent $6.5 billion to buy up much larger Knight Ridder 14 years ago.

The only farewell was to California’s McClatchy family, with no mention that in the end that family was a minnow that ate the Knight Ridder whale and could never digest it. Did a McClatchy ever visibly visit Miami?  

I’ve never been one to praise the Herald – I’ve spent 45 years battling it – but I’ve always recognized its news quality I have competed against, an emphasis that came directly from the Knights and that the new Herald seemingly forgot.

When I directed local, business, feature and Washington reporting for the Orlando Sentinel, we had news offices in 19 counties. The Herald had news bureaus in many of those counties and was tough to beat. Local news was the battleground.

Later as a news executive at the Miami News, the afternoon newspaper, we were in the Herald’s large bayfront building that Jim Knight laid out. Our smaller staff had to be nimble to battle the Herald in this county.

As Miami Today’s publisher and editor, I have seen the Herald focus on a few hot-button stories and report less and less broadly in Miami-Dade, leaving us more and more exclusive stories just because the Herald isn’t there.

Today, the Herald has no building or newsroom. It’s homeless, having given up its last offices, in Doral, in August. It long ago sold its Miami home to a Malaysian casino firm, and local news is no longer a battleground. The Knight Brothers, Alvah Chapman and Jim Batten must be rolling in their graves.

And the Herald didn’t even remember them.

Herald decline was noted in the 2005 book “Knightfall” by Buzz Merritt, a 40-year executive with Knight and Knight Ridder, who wrote about how the rolling up of newspapers into large financially oriented groups with fewer and fewer local news ties was jeopardizing democracy.

He noted that Jack Knight bought a struggling Miami Herald for $2.4 million in 1937 and sent brother Jim here to keep it afloat by buying and closing the Miami Tribune. They then battled the larger and more successful Miami News, whose business side the Herald took over in the 1960s and whose owners in 1988 took a Herald payout to close.

But in the newsroom, the Herald built a wall from its business side, leading to focus on broad and deep coverage of South Florida. The Herald detailed government meetings, even in small cities. They spotlighted trends too. If readers had fewer choices as newspapers combined, they were well served by the Knights and their immediate successors with news closest to home.

Exactly when that began to erode, why, and how far is a story for another day. But clearly, what the Knights built is gone. 

Aside from the newspaper, however, the strong presence of the Knight organization is still felt here in the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which the brothers funded to serve communities in which they had 16 newspapers when they merged with the Ridders in 1974. 

Today vital philanthropy in Miami is intertwined with the Knight Foundation, driven by former Herald Publisher Alberto Ibargüen. To that we owe the brothers a great debt that was not repaid as the remains of their empire crumbled this month without a mention of their names.

Knight people became community leaders. Mr. Chapman, a CEO, following retirement led rebuilding after Hurricane Andrew. Mr. Batten, his successor in 1989, was a community pillar who died far too young in 1995. David Lawrence Jr. a former Herald publisher, spearheaded Florida’s children’s movement. All were unmentioned in the bankruptcy handover.

We have yet to hear from the new owner, the Herald’s fifth, hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. But they kept the McClatchy name, which is seen nowhere in Miami, not on a building or a foundation or in a group of civic leaders.

The Knights, Alvah Chapman, Jim Batten and the other builders were forgotten. All we have now are the scrap dealers. Democracy is far the worse for the lack of focus on how a newspaper can uplift a community.

24 Responses to Knightfall in Miami with no respects from the successors

  1. Anne clarke

    September 9, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    What about Larry Jinks?

  2. Charles Sherman

    September 10, 2020 at 6:19 am

    A justifiably tough appraisal, Mr. Lewis. It was the golden age when my father worked for the Herald from 1954 to 1979. Going public perhaps enriched the Knights, but it started the newspaper chain down a path to oblivion, which accelerated with the demographic shifts.

  3. Beverly Cech

    September 10, 2020 at 7:07 am

    Well-written tribute to the Knights, Jim Batten, Alvah Chapman (delicately leaving Tony Ridder out). Had the extreme pleasure of working with all of them for 9 years at what the MHPC employees called “the marble/ivory” tower….yet during Andrew, KR’s ceiling collapsed and the Herald was fine! So many good KR memories. What a great company.

    Beverly Cech

  4. Arnold Markowitz

    September 10, 2020 at 7:18 am

    Well said, and sad.

  5. Bill Brown

    September 10, 2020 at 10:14 am

    The Knight brothers read their newspaper, and Jim often ripped a page from one of them with a note about some offense.
    I was at the Tallahassee Democrat when the deal with Ridder was made. We were good and we knew it, and we thought we would teach the Ridder folks about putting out good newspapers. What we didn’t recognize was that the Ridder were more fertile than the Knights.

  6. Pauline Winick

    September 10, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    A great loss.

  7. Linda J Brooks

    September 10, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    The Ridders were only in it for the money; the Knights were in it for the news.

  8. Bill DuPriest

    September 10, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    A next-to-final nail in the coffin of a once great newspaper. A tragic loss for this
    community and the nation’s news media. I had the great honor of being a reporter and bureau chief with The Herald in the early 1960s. As someone whose first job was on a weekly paper printed on a small offset press in Monticello, Florida, I cannot describe the thrill of seeing and feeling the huge presses of The Herald turning out the day’s paper with my bylines. It saddens me to witness the demise of such a great news operation.

  9. Anne Baumgartner

    September 10, 2020 at 4:03 pm

    The Knights were giants who created a great newspaper. It was my honor and privilege to be a part of it. It’s sad that The Miami Herald forgot its family history.

  10. Sofia Salvador

    September 10, 2020 at 4:14 pm


  11. Rosemary Tate

    September 10, 2020 at 7:24 pm

    Great article about an important newspaper. Thank you Mr. Lewis.

  12. Dee Anne Treadway

    September 10, 2020 at 7:37 pm

    And, aren’t we fortunate to have the memory of Michael Lewis to give us this fascinating eulogy! The Lewises are still publishing Miami Today which, I believe, is the premier newspaper in Miami. I would love to see some expanded coverage to make up for the void left by the Herald.

    • @MiamiCityMan

      September 12, 2020 at 12:30 pm

      This! Never pass up an opportunity to read Miami Today.

  13. Josie Gulliksen

    September 11, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    Thank you Michael Lewis, my former boss, for this editorial so perfectly detailing the Herald’s history and unfortunate possible demise. Very sad indeed.

  14. Jorge C Sague

    September 12, 2020 at 10:57 am

    These newspapers with their downtown buildings were part of the identity of these cities. I have lived in American cities that had iconic newspapers. Their owners were part of the core of the these cities. The Baltimore Sun, The Virginian Pilot, Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Herald. I believe that when the generation that is in their 80s now goes the printed form is gone. The online versions will continue but the newer generations have less focus and their sources of “news” is dubious at best. Our democracy itself depends on journalism.

  15. Bryant Gilbert

    September 12, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    Sign of the times, a true generational shift on how we receive our news. I grew up with the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle and while they are still in existence they are shells of what they were in the 60s and 70s.

    Newspapers have gone the way of the transistor radio,VCR Tape and Sears. Their time has passed.

    The typical American wants to watch a couple of videos of news in the morning on his iPad and then get on with life.

    Sad though that the history of a great paper and organization is being forgotten

  16. Seth Gordon

    September 12, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    I sensed it was game over for the San Jose Country Club Set from McClatchy when my firm was retained 20 years ago to make recommendations on how the Herald should employ the Internet Domain “MIAMI.COM”. We presented a plan involving using the Internet and a website as a way for people to access all the content of the Herald plus comprehensive information about local governments, the non-profit world, and other facets of Miami they could not wedge into the printed Herald. When one of the McClatchy guys muttered: “That’s not the business we are in,” I thought “soon you won’t be in ANY business!”

  17. Taffy Gould

    September 12, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    A fitting tribute to those giants of our city and our time. Tony Ridder felt no visceral tie, not having been part of the community, so he had no qualms about re-locating. The Herald personified Leadership and fostered it throughout South Florida. Working on school newspapers, we had superb role models and a standard to emulate. Having suffered, first, the loss of a quality newspaper, both current and future generations in our community will now suffer from the loss of important Historical Memory. Social Media just doesn’t make the cut.

  18. Mary Shafey

    September 13, 2020 at 11:27 am

    Sad story for old Ohio families who knew the Knight brothers.

  19. Paul S. George

    September 13, 2020 at 2:53 pm

    Thank God for Miami Today! Since its inception in 1983, it has focused, laser-like, on local news across a broad range of categories.

  20. William Bertin

    October 2, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Well Said. Thank you for that. I will make sure my kids know and the foundation will continue on. Thank you. wp.

  21. Grady Muhammad

    October 8, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    Who cares? We now have its replacement with the Miami Today. Who doing everything you said the old Miami Herald use to do. Plus its a better paper from my perspective

  22. Jay Fredrickson

    October 24, 2020 at 8:25 am

    Good article. The Knights were titans in the industry.

  23. Beatriz Parga

    November 15, 2020 at 8:53 pm

    I was lucky to meet John S. Knight after I was recipient of a grant/scholarship from the Inter American Press Association and the Knight Foundation. I went to his office to express my gratitude and he offered me a job at the Spanish newspaper, El Miami Herald.
    I could not accept at that moment because I was a student at FIU with the resources he had provided. In 1987 Editor Ángel Castillo called me to work for El Miami Herald, months before it became El Nuevo Herald. I was in the newspaper for seven years and some of my stories were published at The Miami Herald and the Knight Ridder newspapers. It was a very interesting experience. As a reporter originally from Colombia this was more than a dream. Just wanted to express my gratitude for the opportunities that opened up for me.