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February 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Editorial: Deeper questions in Daily News sale Editorial: Deeper questions in Daily News sale (February 23, 2005)

Sharp contrast between Knight Ridder's corporate policies and small dailies' attack-journalism leaves many scratching heads about meaning, impact of purchase

When the Palo Alto Daily News was launched in 1995 as a feisty daily circulated in red boxes and in commercial areas, it brought a new and often harsh style to area journalism.

We welcomed the competition. Having an additional journalistic "voice" is generally good for a community, and a healthy competition keeps all papers on their toes.

Over time, the Daily News became increasingly more obvious in its hostility to almost anything undertaken by city governments or school boards, reflecting the libertarian bent of its owners and tapping into a significant group of dissatisfied or alienated residents.

This more personal and edgy style of journalism attracted readers and advertisers, in spite of the many factual inaccuracies that came along with it.

Now it remains to be seen what will become of the Daily News.

The sell out of the what has grown to be five free dailies -- in Burlingame, San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto and Los Gatos -- to the giant Knight Ridder newspaper chain, second largest in the nation and publisher of the Mercury News, is hardly surprising. The launching of the three other Peninsula papers in 2000 and the Los Gatos Daily News in 2002 was seen by some observers as positioning for a sale -- a chain has greater value than a single paper.

Knight Ridder executive Tony Ridder maintains that the Daily News operations will be left untouched and under the same management, citing numerous weekly newspapers Knight Ridder owns across the nation.

It thus would appear that this acquisition does not fit the historic pattern of large papers buying up smaller papers to eliminate competition.

The newest experiment for large newspaper companies is free dailies, some targeted at special audiences. In heavy commuter areas such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., these are small, fast-read "commuter dailies" for people to grab while boarding a train, subway or bus. Some papers are experimenting with trendy "youth dailies" aimed at the 18- to 32-year-old demographic.

None so far, however, have involved the purchase of an existing competitor in the same market. But with paid circulation stagnant or falling and the declining readership habits of younger people, bit media companies are searching for new models. Regardless of the intent, the loss of another independent voice in journalism is an example of what has been happening all over the country. Big corporations now control most of the newspapers in the United States, and 10 companies own newspapers that account for half of all newspaper circulation. Journalism has become more of a commodity, measured by profitability. In recent years, regional chains have purchased smaller community papers around the bay, to generally poor reviews as to what happens to quality and depth of coverage.

Ridder told the Weekly (see Feb. 18 issue) that Knight Ridder will not abandon its high standards of professionalism, but that not all publications within the organization are the same. Within bounds of journalistic standards, such diversity is commendable.

One can only speculate what that means for the Daily News. We have already seen a downward adjustment of the Daily News' claimed circulation figures -- from 59,117 for all five papers to the more realistic 55,080 and from 26,000 for the Palo Alto Daily News to 24,000.

And operational questions abound. Will the Mercury News and Daily News both still be sending separate reporters to local events and meetings? And will the parent organization remain comfortable having two entirely different versions of the same event being reported under its umbrella?

Will it, with reputation and perhaps legal issues in mind, push for a higher level of responsibility, accuracy and balance in what the Daily News papers report?

Time will tell, but the Peninsula may find itself in the midst of a laboratory in search of a new model for successful daily newspaper publishing.

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