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February 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

'If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em' 'If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em' (February 23, 2005)

Residents, officials wonder if sale to giant Knight Ridder chain will tame the Daily News

by Bill D'Agostino and Molly Tanenbaum

The Palo Alto Daily News made news itself last week with the surprise announcement of Knight Ridder's purchase of the formerly independent newspaper chain.

The underlying reasons for the sale were almost certainly financial. Craigslist and other Internet sites have chipped away at advertising dollars once earmarked for the San Jose Mercury News, also owned by Knight Ridder. Newspaper readership is also steadily declining, even among the wealthy and highly educated residents of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Judging by the growing size of its four newspapers and the way they quickly disappear from racks, the Daily News chain appears to have bucked that trend -- offering rock-bottom advertising rates (reportedly bolstered by deals to run stories about prospective advertisers) and a quick, splashy read.

"There must be a poster in (Knight Ridder CEO) Tony Ridder's office that reads 'If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em,'" joked Ted Glasser, a communication professor at Stanford University.

Speculation was rampant last week about what the purchase would mean to the readers who pluck the free tabloids from the distinctive red boxes around the Peninsula.

Executives with Knight Ridder, the nation's second largest newspaper corporation, insisted there would be no changes. Many doubted that claim.

"That's what they usually say," Palo Alto Mayor Jim Burch said. "When Hewlett Packard bought Compaq, they said the same thing."

"It shows how reluctant journalists are to reveal the details of their own activities," Glasser added. "It's just a bunch of clichés about how we'll continue with current operations."

Local hopes and fears of the buy-out were split, often dependent on the individual's view of the Daily News' pit-bull style of journalism and anti-government editorial positions that many feel often permeate its news coverage. Those that find the paper an aggressive watchdog of local government were concerned about the potential loss of an independent voice as yet anther media conglomerate swallowed a local enterprise.

But for the paper's many critics, the sale was a beacon of hope. They expressed optimism the paper's quick-and-dirty writing and libertarian stances would conform to the Mercury News' higher ethical and professional standards.

Such media experts as Glasser pointed out the potential pitfalls of a major corporation buying out a small, locally owned chain.

"We've lost an independent source of journalism," Glasser said. "I think it diminishes the range of independent voices on the Peninsula."

The sale's eventual impact on the various newspapers' editorial pages will be determined by the answer to numerous questions, many of them rooted in financial limitations.

For instance, will Knight Ridder pay for two downtown Palo Alto offices five blocks apart? Will both papers send separate reporters to cover the same event, such as a City Council meeting or a press conference?

"It depends on how much autonomy the local editor has. And it depends on how they genuinely feel about the Palo Alto Daily News scooping the Mercury News," Glasser said. "I don't know how they'll divide the labor. Knight Ridder certainly has that option, if it's a big Peninsula story, to break it in the Mercury News.

"They now get to define the terms of the competition."

The Palo Alto Daily News began life nearly a decade ago. The owners -- who came from Colorado, where they ran a two-paper chain before selling it in 1993 -- handed out thousands of free eight-page newspapers on the first day of operations, Dec. 7, 1995.

Initially, it was met with skepticism. "A weekly seems to be enough for Palo Alto," Forest Avenue resident George Patterson told a Weekly reporter when he first saw the newspaper. "It's not going to fill any gaps in my information."

Over time, the paper became a mainstay for many residents and commuters. Last week, Patterson said he now reads -- or at least skims -- the Palo Alto Daily News every day.

"It seems to have come into its own," he said.

From the beginning, the newspaper -- and its four younger siblings in Burlingame, Redwood City, San Mateo and Los Gatos -- defined itself as a quick read.

Articles are rarely longer than about 200 words. Controversial local government "flaps" with residents "blasting" officials typically make the front page, next to national news from wire services. Mix in entertainment gossip, a few cartoons and some outspoken columnists and you have a simple way to divert time while standing in line at Peets or eating lunch at a cafe.

"The Daily News has been a completely new animal in the newspaper life of Palo Alto," County Supervisor Liz Kniss said.

But the paper also seemingly employed loose ethical standards and an apparent anti-government bias that quickly drew scorn from public officials. Among the paper's practices cited last week: reworking quotes, carelessness with facts, distorting stories with splashy headlines, overstating minor controversies, editorializing in news coverage and failing to direct reporters to identify themselves in public.

Last month, the San Mateo County Times accused the paper of plagiarism for directly copying a New York Times story under its own reporter's byline.

The Daily News editorials have also been scorned for their aggressively anti-tax and anti-government positions. While the Mercury News and most other Bay Area newspapers tends to advocate school parcel taxes and other ballot measures, the Daily News usually recommends a "No" vote.

Publisher Dave Price's view is "the best government is the smallest possible government," Palo Alto school board member John Barton said. Although he maintained the paper has the First Amendment right to publish whatever it wishes, Barton added, "They have not always been a positive influence in the community."

Daily News publishers have also been circumspect about circulation numbers in the past, claiming the combined papers reach a total of 59,117 readers. After the Knight Ridder deal was announced, the figure was revealed to actually be 55,080.

The adjusted number was prominently displayed in the Daily News masthead starting Thursday.

Government officials and nonprofit leaders also frequently complain about the paper's lack of depth. Councilwoman Hillary Freeman, who has been a recent ally of the newspaper's struggle for heavier police oversight, blamed the paper's high turnover rate among staff.

"The Daily News people don't stay very long," Freeman said. "They really have a hard time understanding the nuances and then they report things and it doesn't really come out right."

Despite the misgivings and criticisms, many critics were optimistic last week that Knight Ridder's public responsibility to its shareholders, its stated commitment to ethics and its deep pockets would -- over time -- improve the Daily News.

"My hope is it would tone them down a little bit, make them more responsible," said Michael Closson, executive director of the local environmental nonprofit Acterra, who called the Daily News a "rag" for its sensationalistic and biased coverage of local controversies.

"One of the things that will come from the relationship with Knight Ridder is they will probably have much a clearer defined standard of journalism," speculated Peter Carpenter, a board member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District who has criticized the Daily News' practices in the past -- to the point of demanding the right to tape record conversations with the paper's reporters before allowing his quotes to be published.

With Knight Ridder's resources, the small papers will likely be able to attract higher quality journalists, Carpenter said. "My sense is this will improve, rather than degrade the quality of news at the Palo Alto Daily News."

Other public officials were more skeptical, believing the corporate line that there would be no changes. "I'm sorry they'll have more money to do the same," Councilwoman Dena Mossar said.

The Daily News' strongest supporters are often those who share the newspaper deep anti-tax stances. Many of them, who often received heavy support from the paper's editorials and news articles, were optimistic.

"If Knight-Ridder doesn't mess with Dave Price's success formula, I think the purchase is a good thing," Palo Alto resident Pat Marriot wrote in an e-mail. "It certainly provides the Daily with more resources."

But others worried that a national trend of media conglomeration would dilute the paper's tone.

"I hope they continue to be an independent voice," said trial attorney Richard Alexander. Like Marriot and recent Palo Alto Daily News' editorials, he has criticized Palo Alto's city government for its "bloated" spending.

"I think it's been a very healthy addition to the community," Alexander added. "It's created an active forum for public comment. It's been an advocate of asking tough questions."

John McManus, the director of Stanford University's Grade The News -- which tracks the successes and failures of various large Bay Area media organizations on its Web site -- echoed Alexander's concerns, describing it as "The Walmartization of journalism."

"When you have ownership spreading over local papers in the same area, the sacred cows of one news organization become the sacred cows of others," McManus said. "The kind of selection biases that Knight Ridder has will now extend to these smaller papers."

In recent months, Grade the News sharply criticized the Mercury News for its coverage of sensational stories, especially the Scott Peterson murder trial.

"They chased that story shamelessly," he said. "In some ways, the Merc has reduced itself to the selection standards of a tabloid like the Palo Alto Daily."

Of the sale, McManus concluded: "Had this happened 10 years ago, I'd say Palo Alto would be much better served because the standards of a good newspaper would filter down. But at this point, the difference in their news selection is less than it would have been 10 years ago."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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