John S. Knight – An Appreciation

The Knights were less well known to the general public than newspaper families like the Sulzbergers, the Grahams and the Chandlers, but in the world of 20th century journalism, John S. Knight was highly respected – for his journalism values, for his independence, for the editorial and financial success of his newspapers. Clark Hoyt, who worked for Knight and Knight Ridder newspapers for more than 35 years and was the Knight Ridder Washington editor when the McClatchy Company bought Knight Ridder in 2006, offers a glimpse of the man for whom the Knight Fellowships program is named.

By Clark Hoyt

John S. Knight was a newspaper owner beloved by the journalists who worked for him. “A typewriter means more to a newspaper than an adding machine,” he John S. Knight once said. Now, there was an owner you’d go to – and through – the wall for. The technology may have been mid-20th Century, but the values were timeless.

Don’t misunderstand. Jack Knight believed in turning a profit. He had known financial desperation early in his career, and he knew newspapers could not be strong and independent if they were financially weak.

Jack Knight inherited the Akron Beacon Journal from his father, C.L. Knight, in 1933, at the depth of the Great Depression. There was no money to meet the payroll. Employees received tokens they could take to local merchants who would accept them as IOU’s. When he died in 1981 at the age of 86, Jack Knight had built a newspaper empire that was then the nation’s largest in terms of circulation. He was worth an estimated $200 million.

But, though he enjoyed many of the trappings of wealth, including a stable of race horses, a chauffeur and a significant art collection, money was not what he was about. It was most important to him as a measure of independence for his newspapers.

He once said that an editor’s wife in Detroit complained to him, “You just think about profits.” He said he responded, “Unless the newspaper is profitable, how the hell do you have any liberty? … You’ve either got to conduct a profitable newspaper or be subsidized, and no matter who does the subsidizing, you’re never again free. I’m free. Nobody puts pressure on me.”

Jack Knight took his company public in 1969. He met once with stock analysts that year – and never again. These were his opening words to the analysts: “Ladies and gentlemen, I do not intend to become your prisoner.”

“I told them why,” he said not long before his death. “I said that as long as I have anything to do with it, we are going to run the papers. We are going to spend money sometimes that they wouldn’t understand why we were spending it, for future gains, and we did not intend to be regulated or directed by them in any respect.”

In the end, of course, almost exactly 25 years after his death, Wall Street got its revenge. The stock of Knight Newspapers — which became Knight Ridder in 1974, when the Knight and Ridder families merged their newspaper enterprises – was no longer concentrated in family or friendly hands. An obscure money manager in Florida, trying to meet a profit target for his wealthy investors, forced the sale of the company. Most of Knight Ridder wound up in the hands of The McClatchy Co., newspaper publishers with Knight-like values.

Jack Knight’s papers stood for something. Like him, they were principled, feisty, unpredictable and compelling. In 1968, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for his vigorous, pungent opposition to the war in Vietnam and for his support of the free speech rights of youthful war dissenters roiling American campuses, his Detroit Free Press and Charlotte Observer also won Pulitzers, making Knight Newspapers the first publisher in history to win three in the same year.

Asked if his columns against the war had cost him friends, Knight replied, “I don’t have friends in the political sense … I’ve always tried to be fiercely independent. I study and analyze and try to write what I believe.”

Each of Jack Knight’s newspapers had a distinct personality that reflected the strong-willed editors he hired and his belief that a paper had to be deeply rooted in its local community. He hated the word “chain” when it was used to describe what he had built. An editor who allowed Knight Newspapers to be described in print as a chain would be fixed with a steely gaze. “If this is a chain, I know where the weakest link is,” Knight would snap.

He had a strong, simple editorial philosophy. “Get the truth and print it,” he said. He fought for open government and against efforts to limit freedom of the press.

He was a complicated man. He was curmudgeonly and generous, willful yet given to hiring strong subordinates and allowing them to make decisions with which he disagreed. He was a country club Republican with a deep streak of independence that led him to speak out forcefully against U.S. involvement in Vietnam years before it became a full-scale, unpopular war for America. He was a formal man, seldom seen at the office without a bankerly suit of dark blue or gray, always with his jacket on. But he was also a gambler who once set the price of a newspaper he was buying with a roll of the dice. He won. While he believed in newspapers as a public service, he was a shrewd and canny businessman who made a lot of money buying – and selling – papers in the right places at the right times.

He was courted by Presidents and politicians who came calling to his offices in Akron, Detroit or Miami. His longtime driver, Gene Cecchi, recalled that Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower were among those who came to see Jack Knight and wound up in his car, riding around so they could talk in private. “Alongside Mr. Knight, they weren’t very impressive,” Cecchi said.

Though he was comfortable in the company of some of the world’s most powerful men, Jack Knight had a way of connecting with people from all walks of life, especially the journalists who worked for him.

Neal Shine, who started at the Detroit Free Press as a copy boy and retired as its publisher, recalled the first time he met Jack Knight, at a reception sponsored by the newspaper. A business manager of the paper called Shine over. “Mr. Knight, this is one of our reporters, Leo Shine,” the business manager said.

Jack Knight extended his hand. “Neal, how are you?” he asked.

Nearly 50 years later, Shine still recalled his elation. “Okay, brother,” he thought. “You know who works for you. You read your newspapers.”

Shortly after Knight’s death, the Beacon Journal published a long letter from William Catalona, a physician in Muscatine, Iowa. Catalona grew up in Akron and caddied at local golf courses, where he got to know Knight as “very kind and generous to caddies.”

When Catalona was accepted to medical school but had no money to pay his tuition, he went to see Mr. Knight. On the spot, he received the first John S. Knight scholarship, allowing him to become a doctor. The two maintained a lifelong friendship.

“I will miss him,” Catalona wrote, “not because I saw him so often, but because of his spirit.”

Jack Knight knew great tragedy in life. He outlived three wives, two of his three sons and the grandson whom he hoped would one day run his company. The death of his third wife, Betty, on New Year’s Day 1981, as they watched the Rose Bowl at their home in Miami Beach, took much of the starch out of him. After that, he confessed to friends that every morning, before he got up, he sat on the side of his bed and cried. But then he gathered himself and faced the day with as much of his old optimism as he could muster.

On his 85th birthday, he had told his pastor, the Rev. George Ross, “Never look back. Never give up.”

At Jack Knight’s memorial service in Akron, the front pews were filled with giants of American journalism, including Katharine Graham, Punch Sulzberger and Al Neuharth. In the back sat Norma Mayer, who arrived an hour early, still dressed in a white nurse’s uniform from her overnight shift. She took care of Knight the last three weeks of his life.

“He was everything,” she said.

Lee Hills, a giant himself, gave the eulogy for his longtime friend and employer.

“Jack Knight was a strong and forceful leader,” said Hills, the first person outside the family to head Knight Newspapers and the first CEO of Knight Ridder. “He exuded confidence and what we call ‘presence,’ which enhanced his qualities of wisdom and intellect. He was not a person you overlooked. Wherever he sat was head of the table. By sheer strength of character, he achieved extraordinary stature.”

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