Bad News

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Jim Batten, Knight Ridder's CEO at the time, embraced focus groups with the ardor of an alcoholic in AA. Suddenly Knight Ridder was less interested in the historic role of the press as the fourth estate and more interested in plumbing the reader's psyche. Long stories, government coverage, and international news were deemed irritating to readers, and the last thing execs wanted was to lose readers.

In 1989 the News became a lab rat for experiments Knight Ridder thought might lure readers back. KR brass called it the "25/43 Project," so-named for the age demographic they were desperately trying to impress.

Thirty focus groups later, the new News debuted October 11, 1990, looking like a dumbed-down version of USA Today. It was bright, colorful, and easily digested. It featured a strict policy of not continuing stories from the front page. Headlines were big. Editorials stated problems, just as they had before 25/43, but now they also proposed solutions. The business page came with a glossary of financial terms. National and international stories were keyed to maps that helped pinpoint the locations of such datelines as Indianapolis and Moscow. The sports section focused on recreational and participatory events. Weather was described on a full page printed in color -- common now but groundbreaking back then.

In hindsight the problem with letting readers dictate the newspaper's style and content seems obvious: News "consumers" don't always know what they want until they see it.

Most journalists hated 25/43. Linda Ellerbee, who was a syndicated columnist back then, wrote that the News was "... a newspaper for people who find USA Today too complex." The staid New York Times used the words didactic and garish to describe the News. Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and former editor of The Atlanta Constitution, said the changes amounted to making the paper an entertainment rag. "The more entertainment, the more celebrity, the more light news, the more graphics, the more color and pizzazz that's stuffed into newspapers, the more irrelevant the newspaper becomes to the reader," Kovach was quoted in a Washington Post article as saying.

Readers were unmoved. A year after the makeover, paid circulation had jumped from 21,600 to about 25,000, but that increase was probably attributable to heavy advertising and promotion. Within a few years, all the gains disappeared.

After the hoopla faded, Knight Ridder quickly seemed to lose interest in the project. "A year later it became clear that they hadn't given sufficient thought to the long-term fiscal implications," says Randall Murray, the News's editorial-page editor for 11 years until he was fired in 2001.

Murray came to Boca Raton from The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He knew nothing about South Florida or 25/43 but was quickly swept up in the excitement after he arrived. "We worked 15- or 16-hour days, six days a week," he recalls. "It was hard as hell putting out the daily paper and planning for the next paper. It was essentially two jobs. We would work all day, then go to focus-group meetings at night. I came down with a whopping case of shingles a month after we got the new paper out."

The staff slowly dwindled and without sufficient manpower could not put out the same product. It was too labor intensive.

When Jim Batten died of a brain tumor in June 1995, Tony Ridder -- known more for business savvy than journalistic endeavors -- took over as Knight Ridder CEO. The News hadn't made money in years, says Murray, and Ridder wouldn't stand for that. "We knew it was just a matter of time before they dumped the News."

In December 1997 Knight Ridder sold the News and two other small dailies to Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Details of the deal were never published, but a source who worked at the News in 1997 says CNHI paid between ten and eleven million dollars for the paper.

CNHI is what industry wags refer to as an "instant chain;" it didn't exist before 1997 but now owns more than 200 daily and weekly newspapers around the country. It grew by purchasing tiny publications, many with circulations of less than 10,000.

The company is the brainchild of Ralph Martin, who learned the newspaper business during 19 years with the Thomson Corporation, a news conglomerate. In 1996 Martin started shopping around for investors to create his own chain. He found Retirement Systems of Alabama, a pension fund worth more than $22 billion. With a $1.3 billion loan from RSA, Martin went on a shopping spree, purchasing "clusters" of papers in geographic proximity to share operating expenses and ad sales.

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Bob Whitby