It was October 1986 and I had been reporting for The State newspaper for less than two months when I got a call at home from one of my editors. He wanted to tell me himself — the Hampton family had just sold the paper they founded and owned for 93 years.

The buyer? Knight Ridder, Inc., the second largest newspaper conglomerate in the country.

The news came as a thunderbolt to the more than 100 writers and editors of The State and its afternoon sister paper, The Columbia Record. Of course, there was much to criticize in the parochial ownership of the Hampton clan, one of South Carolina’s oldest and wealthiest families. Some of us referred to the newsroom as The Plantation, a crude allusion to the ancient source of the Hamptons’ wealth and standing.

Each Tuesday afternoon, one of the middle-aged Hampton daughters (whose knowledge of journalism was limited to cashing her dividend checks) flounced into the newsroom, plopped herself down at a computer, and spun out a column about her latest party, her latest vacation, her pet spaniels, her favorite recipes, her daughters off at college, whatever was on her little mind that week. It duly ran the next day on the front of the Metro section of The Record, providing social news to her friends and extended family and inspiring general scorn and muttering elsewhere. But why complain? The Hampton checks never bounced and we were doing what we loved — writing and reporting and making the world a better place.

At least, I think that’s what most of us believed. Twenty years ago, there was no one in that newsroom who did not have vivid memories of Watergate and the two courageous reporters who shed the light of truth on the crimes of Richard Nixon. That’s what good journalists did and that was what inspired us to work 60-hour weeks for a pittance, to buy our clothes from Goodwill, and drive our cars ’til the wheels fell off. We were not just scribes recording the goings-on at town council or the water and sewer board. We were the public watchdogs and we took our jobs — and perhaps ourselves — very seriously.

Then one night our phones rang and we learned we had been sold. BAM! Just like that! The Hamptons had hawked us to Knight Ridder like so many bales of cotton. It dawned on many of us for the first time that we were nothing more than a commodity. Truth, Justice, and the American Way be damned. The accountants had crunched the numbers, the lawyers had drafted the sales agreement, and it was done.

In the months that followed, some good developments came out of the sale. The ailing Columbia Record was finally put to sleep and its staff folded into the staff of The State, making one strong newspaper where there had been two weak ones. And, of course, the Hampton daughter lost her platform and had to find other ways to amuse herself. But for many of us, the romance was over. My dewy-eyed notions about the journalism profession have been further shaken by seeing The State and another regional Knight Ridder paper involved in shabby cover-ups, protecting the powerful, the corrupt and — in one case — just protecting their own sorry asses.

Today, the whole Knight Ridder organization is on the auction block. Last November, KR’s largest shareholder, a Florida-based holding company, demanded that the newspaper company explore “strategic options,” including sale. The announcement came two days before KR posted $388 million in profit for the first nine months of 2005, or 77 percent over the same period for 2004. Knight Ridder’s profit margin for the first three quarters of 2005 was 17.8 percent. Some people are never satisfied.

Also up for sale is a tradition of journalism excellence at such venerable papers as The Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, and The San Jose Mercury. Those four papers alone — out of KR’s galaxy of 32 daily newspapers and 53 non-dailies — have collectively earned more than 20 Pulitzers. I’m sure this means nothing to the stockholders, the accountants, and the lawyers who are preparing to sell all these papers — and the thousands of writers and editors — down the river. I feel for these good people as they pass the days in apprehension and humiliation, awaiting the new owner who will lay down his money and buy them like cattle at a livestock show. No doubt, many of them will soon be out of work, because the buyers will be seeking to maximize profits, first and foremost. The American newspaper industry has years of experience of hollowing out newsrooms by filling up their papers with white space and syndicated material.

Regardless who buys Knight Ridder, it will be a bad day for the industry, for journalism, and for America.

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