Tony Ridder heads a communications company whose holdings include several dozen newspapers and a growing stake in electronic media, including information retrieval services and graphics and photo libraries. The papers owned and operated by the partly family-controlled Knight Ridder chain together boast the second-largest circulation figures in the United States, topped only by the Gannett Corporation, which publishes USA Today. Since taking over the helm in 1995, Ridder has earned both praise and condemnation for his cost-cutting measures. But the financial soundness of the company has demonstrated to naysayers that print journalism, as well as the strong local newspaper, is far from dead.
Born September 22, 1940, in Duluth, Minnesota, Paul Anthony Ridder is the son of Jane (Delano) Ridder and Bernard Ridder, a Princeton University graduate who headed the advertising department at one of the Ridder family's newspapers, the Duluth News-Tribune. It was part of a small media empire founded in 1892 by Tony Ridder's great-grandfather, Herman Ridder. Bernard Ridder eventually became publisher of the Duluth paper, a position he held until his retirement in 1972. The younger Ridder chose economics, not journalism, as his field of study at the University of Michigan, from which he earned his bachelor's degree in 1962.
Ridder married Constance Meach in 1960. They are the parents of four children—Katherine, Linda, Susan, and Paul Anthony. Prior to taking over the family business, the athletic Ridder trained for his favorite sport, marathon running.
Ridder began his career in journalism in 1962 as a reporter for the Aberdeen American News in Aberdeen, South Dakota. A year later, he headed west to the Pasadena Star News and then went on to the highly regarded San Jose Mercury News in 1964. He spent the next 22 years of his career there, earning a promotion to business manager in 1968, general manager in 1975, publisher in 1977, and president in 1979. Over the next few years, Ridder steered the San Jose Mercury News toward covering more local business news, specifically the region's emerging computer and high-tech industries. The San Jose Mercury News eventually became the Wall Street Journal of "Silicon Valley" (the nickname given to San Jose and the surrounding communities because of the area's high concentration of semiconductor and related high-tech firms), and circulation doubled during Ridder's tenure as publisher. His editorial practices, which included increasing the size of the news staff, helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
In 1986, Ridder was sent to Miami to take over the newspaper division of Knight-Ridder, Inc., whose holdings by then included the Charlotte Observer, Detroit Free Press, Miami Herald, and Philadelphia Inquirer, among other well-regarded papers. Three years later, he was named president of Knight-Ridder, Inc. In late 1995, the company elevated him to the top job of chief executive officer and chairman of the board after the untimely death of a fellow executive.
When Tony Ridder took over the Knight-Ridder media empire, he became the first of the Ridders to hold that post since its merger with the Knight newspaper chain in 1974. His track record in running a successful paper had been evident for quite some time. He was voted California Publisher of the Year in 1983, and eight years later he was honored as AdWeek magazine's Newspaper Executive of the Year.
Yet Ridder soon made a different kind of name for himself in the industry as a dedicated and somewhat ruthless cost-cutter. He fought to keep labor costs down by reducing editorial staff on a regular basis and implementing other organizational changes. As a result, he became the target of criticism for what some considered Knight-Ridder's poor treatment of employees at the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer in particular. Such practices prompted increased competition for jobs at the newspapers and in the process sapped employee morale.
Not long after taking over in 1995, Ridder faced the most serious labor conflict in the company's recent history when members of several unions at the Detroit Free Press and its sister paper, the Gannett Corp.'s Detroit News, launched a strike that ended up lasting over three years. To some, the strike was a referendum on the hardline financial policies advocated by Ridder and others. Industry watchers predicted that the contentious walkout would have serious repercussions in the newspaper business because Detroit was such a pro-union town. Indeed, during the last few months of 1995 the Free Press lost $46 million in revenues. Yet Ridder managed the strike by keeping an eye on the long-term benefits for the company's bottom line. And there were times when the walkout degenerated into vandalism and hostile picket-line confrontations that did little to help the union's cause. The strike was also weakened when many workers returned before all of the unions' demands were satisfied, and the company waged a vigorous legal defense of its actions, which the unions had challenged in court and before labor arbitrators.
As chief executive, Ridder also shut down Knight-Ridder ventures that were losing money, including the Information Design Lab, which was trying to develop a flat-panel electronic newspaper. The company also withdrew from the cable television business and sold Knight-Ridder Financial, a data reporting service. Such tactics helped raise the price of Knight-Ridder stock by 18 percent within six months.
The Knight-Ridder board and stockholders were pleased with such success, but Ridder himself was not always liked around his newsrooms. (Some employees have even nicknamed him "Darth Ridder.") Another furor erupted in 1997 when Knight-Ridder purchased the California-based Monterey County Herald, fired its staff, and then made everybody reapply for their jobs.
Ridder's strategy was to keep the company focused on its roots in the newspaper business. Major acquisitions made in 1997 included the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star, both of which were purchased from the Disney Corporation after Knight-Ridder sold its electronic media division, Knight-Ridder Information, Inc. The $1.65 million deal was heralded as a strong indication of the viability of American newspapers, and Ridder was praised for his vote of confidence in the old-fashioned broadsheet. Under his directive, Knight-Ridder papers increased their local news coverage, which both pleases readers and yields higher advertising revenues.
As a veteran of the newspaper industry and a key player in its current crises, Ridder often speaks about the future of the medium. In 1997 he warned a gathering of newspaper executives that the Internet poses a serious threat to classified advertising revenues. (Such ads sometimes bring in as much as 40 percent of a paper's income.) Ridder himself, however, is media-shy and does little of the public affairs work that his predecessors undertook. Instead, he leaves most of that to Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence. He does, however, hold board positions with the United Way and the Center for Economic Policy Development at Stanford University.
Chronology: Tony Ridder
1964: Joined staff of San Jose Mercury News.
1977: Became publisher of San Jose Mercury News.
1979: Named president of San Jose Mercury News.
1986: Named president of Knight-Ridder newspaper division.
1989: Named president of Knight-Ridder, Inc.
1991: Voted Newspaper Executive of the Year by AdWeek magazine.
1995: Became chairman and chief executive of Knight-Ridder, Inc.
1998: Announced company name change to Knight Ridder.
Social and Economic Impact
Tony Ridder's leadership of the Knight Ridder organization, whose name dropped the hyphen and "Inc." in 1998, helped shape the course of the frail U.S. newspaper industry during the 1990s. His strategy of making unpopular but fiscally beneficial decisions to achieve profitability was largely a success. He took over the company during a period mired in doubt over the viability of newspapers in an electronic age, but Ridder's regimen of financial austerity and content revitalization proved that newspaper publishing could still be a healthy business endeavor. While Knight Ridder and the broader newspaper industry continued to face challenges in the wake of reforms like Ridder's, his achievements instilled confidence in both his company and the industry.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Knight Ridder
1 Herald Dr.
Miami, FL 33132
Edmonds, Rick. "Mr. Bottom Line." Florida Trend, March 1996.
Foroohar, Kamiz. "Chip off the Old Block." Forbes, 17 June 1996.
Liberman, Si. "CEO Pay: Beats Workfare." Editor & Publisher, 20 December 1997.
Snoddy, Raymond. "This Dead Tree Technology Still Has Life in It Yet." Marketing, 17 April 1997.
Wenske, Paul. "Vote of Confidence for Dailies." Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 1997.
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