Thursday, November 5, 2009

John S. Knight: There was a human side, too...

AS I WAS READING a couple of more death notices for American newspapers, I recalled filmmaker Paul Jacoway's excellent one-hour TV documentary on the life of John S. Knight that was aired a week ago on Ch. 45/49. It was a sad reminder not only of the passing of the last of America's great publishers but also of the abject decline of the print media itself. Jacoway, a part-time University of Akron instructor, worked on the film for three years with Dr. Kathleen Endres of UA as his advisor and editor. It represented the careful assembly of a massive store of material for a journalist who towered above the field - and made a fortune from it.

I never met his brother Jim, who shared many of Jack's attributes, but for the 13 years that I worked under JSK's influence, my desk was no more than 20 feet from his office. Others have written about his life largely from a corporate viewpoint tracking the path of how he and his brother built a media empire. But Jack's passion as a newspaperman dedicated to the city of Akron was never an avocation. He lived it intensely every day, whether he was meeting with CEOs or union guys who ran the presses at the other end of the building. Presidents sought his advice as eagerly as I sought another bet with him on a particular football game. If he won, he arrived at my desk after the week end and primly explained to me how such bets required much research and thought. On the few times that I won, he sent his secretary to me with a $5 bill without comment in a sealed envelope. It was a game with our own rules.

With individuals of great power and influence, human qualities can easily be overlooked. Jack Knight was human, forever a professional newsman while burdened by the tragedies of two lost sons and the murder of a grandson who was being primed to take over Knight newspapers. After that, Knight seemed to retreat to lower expectations for the future of his beloved papers.

The little things about his passions for the newspaper business were clearly reflected when, after much prodding, I convinced him to speak at the Akron Press Club's first annual awards dinner. As it happened, the program was on his 80th birthday, and although he groused about giving up the day for a speech, I think he quietly liked the idea in a pouting sort of way. I found myself in the desperate position of having to work with him on several drafts of the speech and deleting some remarks, particularly his dismay over editorials that said nothing. He didn't want to wear his glasses and complained that I had not placed cards on the tables for questions - which I convinced him that I had. At times he appeared to be an unsure rookie prepping to face a big audience. He gave me strict orders that the speech and following questions from the audience (about 300 guests) would end abruptly 10:3o. Standing next to him on the dais, I reminded him of the time and said I would call it a night. He snapped that I was still holding some written questions on cards and insisted he would continue. I didn't argue.

I suppose that the thing that told me more than anything else about the man is that although my political ideas were to the left of his, he was responsible for my becoming a columnist. I'm sure he disagreed with some of the columns, but never tried to stop me.

While Pulitzer committees and presidents saw him as a fearless outspoken observer of critical issues facing the nation, he was also an editor who circled commas and raised questions in the margins of clippings that he forwarded to the reporter. Having lost a son in World War 11 he saw the folly of our later engagement in Vietnam and defended the young war protesters at the 1968 presidential convention in Chicago, He was attracted to their youthful energy against silly policies.

His voice in his Editor's Notebook column today would be welcome - and perhaps even a strong influence on politicians as we stare at Afghanistan and further losses in human lives and other heavy costs. In the bottom-line culture of newspapers and broadcasters today, you have to look hard to find the kind of courage and sensitivity that came naturally to Jack Knight. Yes, it's a different world, but hardly much better in his absence.

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