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The Upside of Corporate Takeover

ED GORDON, host:

In the last 20 years, media mergers and buyouts have become a regular part of the corporate landscape. But when a small newspaper chain in California purchased a much larger rival, the news caused a buzz in and outside the newspaper business.

Although most people lamented this sign of ongoing media consolidation, commentator Amy Alexander says the change may not be so bad.

Ms. AMY ALEXANDER (Media Critic):

In 1990, I left my hometown of San Francisco and moved to Fresno, California. I worked as a staff writer at the Fresno Bee, a scrappy mid-sized daily in the heart of the San Joaquin valley. Lately, I've been thinking back on my time at the Bee quite a bit, since its owner, the McClatchy Newspaper Company, recently made big news.

In a stunning feat of corporate gamesmanship, McClatchy, not long ago, bought the Knight Ridder Newspaper Group; the media equivalent of a bottle-nosed dolphin swallowing a killer whale. Back when I worked at the Fresno Bee, we younger reporters looked up to Knight Ridder - owner of The Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News - as an obvious place to land after we'd earned our stripes at McClatchy.

In my time at the Bee, that was indeed the case. My staff writer gig was a good job in many ways, even though I often felt like a stranger in a strange land: a black woman who'd grown up in a single-parent home in a notoriously liberal city suddenly living and working in a politically conservative agricultural stronghold.

The editorial management team at the Bee, hardworking and loaded with integrity, nevertheless suffered from a bit of an inferiority complex. At that time, the biggest newspaper in the McClatchy chain was our sister paper to the north, the Sacramento Bee, and home to the corporate headquarters. There, reporters had more resources to work on stories, newer facilities, and more aggressive editors. Or at least it seemed that way to those of us in Fresno.

The Sac Bee had won a few Pulitzers during the '70s and '80s, while Fresno was a perpetual also-ran. And while I didn't always feel like I had helpful career development advocates among the Fresno Bee editing staff, I held on to my self-confidence and believed that my good work would speak for itself. It wasn't always easy.

Two years after joining the Bee, I ran afoul of a particularly hostile editor, and I found myself in the doghouse. I lucked up eventually though, after a turn of events at McClatchy brought a new publisher to Fresno. Jerry Pruitt, a corporate lawyer for the company, rode into Fresno in 1991.

In short order, we realized that Pruitt, who was shockingly young at the time in his mid-30s, and shockingly handsome, too, really seemed to get it. He set about reorganizing the top editing staff at the Bee, and took the time to meet individually with reporters for long talks that were pressure-free but designed to reveal to him what worked in the newsroom and what didn't.

Pruitt restored my faith in the Bee, and in the potential for innovative leadership within the news industry itself. After I left the Bee in '93 for The Miami Herald, I grew to cherish even more Pruitt's fair-minded and forward-looking management philosophy.

Now, of course, the entire news industry also knows about Pruitt. As CEO of McClatchy, he engineered the remarkable purchase of Knight Ridder. I was sorry to hear of his decision to sell several of the Knight Ridder newspapers, including the Philadelphia Enquirer, and I hope the various companies that buy those orphaned KR papers take to heart Pruitt's dedication to preserving the newspaper's important role in our democratic society.

As for the staffs at the Knight Ridder papers, those journalists who will soon see their corporate letterhead change to read McClatchy - Chin up. You're new boss is nothing like the old boss.

GORDON: Amy Alexander is a media critic in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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