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.