Knight Ridder, Inc. was founded in 1974 by the merger of newspaper chains started much earlier in the century by the Knight and Ridder families.
The company has enjoyed a strong reputation in journalism circles. Jane Kirtley, the Univeristy of Minnesota's Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, calls it one of "the gold standards" of print media, having provided its papers with solid reporting from its Washington D.C. bureau while also recognizing the importance of local news coverage.
Even as the chain came to include 32 papers, Kirtley says it retained some elements of a U.S. tradition of strong family-run newspapers, along the lines of the New York Times and Washington Post.
"None of these people were in it for charitable reasons," Kirtley says. "But they certainly recognized that doing good journalism was also good business. And I think that commitment that we've seen historically from these closely-controlled, family-owned organizations is, sadly, something that seems to be going by the wayside as more and more news organizations become part of much larger, publicly traded organizations."
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Knight Ridder put itself up for sale at the insistence of a bloc of shareholders unhappy with the return the company was providing. McClatchy, also a publicly traded company, is selling off 12 of its newly-acquired papers to private owners.
Those papers include the Duluth News Tribune and the Grand Forks Herald, which are being sold to Forum Communications of Fargo, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which is being sold to Denver-based Media News Group.
Pioneer Press Editor Thom Fladung has been in St. Paul for less than a year, but is a 25-year employee of the Knight Ridder chain, having worked at the Detroit Free Press and the Akron Beacon Journal. Fladung says until he'd worked at several Knight Ridder papers, he was skeptical of the concept of a "corporate culture."
"That's summed up in almost a playfulness in how we go about our business," says Fladung. "An emphasis on being distinctive -- on what we used to call in Detroit 'surprising and delighting readers.' And you see that from one Knight Ridder newsroom to the other."
The Ridder family's newspaper legacy on this continent dates back to German-language papers published in New York in the 1840s. St. Paul became the family's first western outpost in 1927, when Ridder Publications bought both the Pioneer Press, a morning paper, and its afternoon counterpart, the St. Paul Dispatch.
Ben Ridder, who led the company after his father's death, moved to St. Paul in the late '30s to publish the Pioneer Press. The newspaper's current publisher, Par Ridder, is the fifth generation of Ridders in the industry.
Former Pioneer Press Editor John Finnegan, Sr., is writing a book on the Ridders and their newspaper empire. Finnegan says even after the merger into Knight Ridder, the chain was known for encouraging autonomy among publishers, who always lived in the communities they served.
"They carried out the same principles that the Ridders had set up -- that the resident publishers should be as active as possible in their communities," Finnegan says. "So they would be making contributions other than just running the newspaper. So, they would get involved in civic affairs and the like. That was important as part of the philosophy of the corporation."
The Pioneer Press calls itself Minnesota's first newspaper, having started in 1849 -- well before Minnesota was a state. Forty years later the paper built itself a new home, the Pioneer Building. That landmark building still stands at Fourth and Robert Streets. Elevator operators still open and close the gates here as they deliver passengers among the building's 16 floors.
Finnegan says under the Ridders, the newspaper was involved in civic projects ranging from maintenance of a tulip garden to helping to land a Hilton hotel for St. Paul and an NFL football team for the Twin Cities.
There's no consensus on how to interpret the demise of the Knight Ridder chain. Fladung, of the Pioneer Press, has some doubts about whether big newspaper conglomerates subject to the demands of Wall Street are a good fit for an industry still trying to cope with the digital age. Investor enthusiasm for newspapers is waning. Stock prices in the industry have fallen sharply over the last two years.
At the U of M, Jane Kirtley thinks news conglomerates are here to stay. But she says their product is shifting away from traditional news toward a more nebulous role providing what the industry increasingly calls "content."
"Which," she says, "may or may not have very much to do with what traditionally many of us have thought of as the civic responsibility of a news organization, which means sometimes giving the public not what it thinks it wants -- but what it really needs to participate in a meaningful way in democracy."
McClatchy, which owns the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, will be the second-largest newspaper chain in the country even after it sheds the 12 papers it is selling. For the time being, McClatchy will own both of the Twin Cities major dailies.
Fladung says the Pioneer Press will continue to run as it has while it awaits federal approval of the sale to MediaNews. He says approval is expected in a matter of weeks.