Biography of John S. Knight

John Shively Knight, founder of Knight Newspapers, was considered a visionary of journalism in the sense that he belonged to a breed of publishers, comparable to William Randolph Hearst, who were strong-willed, competitive, and politically conscious. Their major interest was to buy newspaper competitors and create newspaper groups. To the City of Akron, Ohio, Knight signified a "mover and shaker," because he was instrumental to the area's growth and development, observing and contributing to Akron's metamorphosis from a canal town to a heavy industrial center, to finally a post-industrial city. Knight parlayed the Akron Beacon Journal, which he inherited from his father, into Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., which by 1981 consisted of 32 newspapers in 17 states, employed 15,000 workers, and boasted a circulation of 3.6 million daily.

Born October 26, 1894, in Bluefield, West Virginia, as the second son of Charles Landon and Clara Irene Scheifly Knight, John Shively grew up in Akron, Ohio, where his outspoken father worked his way up from advertising manager to editor and publisher of the Beacon Journal in 1909. By 1915, C.L., as he preferred to be known, acquired full control of the newspaper and continued to write his trademark fiery editorials. Young John Knight attended Crosby Elementary and was sent to Tome School at Port Deposit, Maryland, to prepare for college. He completed his senior year at Central High School, graduating in 1914. During summer vacations from school, Knight worked in his father's newspaper office. His college education at Cornell University was interrupted in 1917 as he left to enlist in the Army, eventually seeing action in the Argonne. Upon his return to the United States, Knight traveled to California with $5,000 won in crapshooting to contemplate going into the cattle business. Instead, he followed his father's wishes, returned to Akron and became a sports journalist, writing under the pseudonym Walker, because, he confessed, "I was ashamed of the stuff. I didn't write well enough." In 1921, Knight married Katherine "Kitty" McLain, who died unexpectedly in 1929 and left him three sons - John Shively Jr., Charles Landon, and Franklin. Already Managing Editor of the Beacon Journal by 1925, he married a second time (in 1932) to Beryl Zoller Comstock. In 1933, the elder Charles Landon Knight died and John Knight inherited the positions of editor and publisher of the Beacon Journal.

The Akron paper was the first of a chain of newspapers under Knight's ownership. Upon purchasing the Miami Herald in 1937 for $2 million, he bought and subsequently closed the Miami Tribune and the Scripps-Howard Akron Times-Press. Very quickly he acquired control of the Detroit Free Press and the Chicago Daily News. Despite the rapid growth of his newspaper group, Knight was firmly opposed to the centralized management characteristic of the large Hearst newspaper chain. The Akron editor and publisher was an ardent advocate of preserving the uniqueness of a region. The Beacon Journal claimed to be nonpartisan during a time when newspapers generally stated political preferences forthrightly. Knight expressed his personal views and critical acceptance of Akron in "The Editor's Notebook," a weekly column he wrote for almost 40 years. His major journalistic concern was editorial integrity and the preservation of a free press in the United States and abroad. As the 1944 President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he sent representatives on a worldwide tour, interviewing editors and governmental officials in the interest of journalistic freedom. Observations and final reports disclosed that in practically all cases the press was used as an instrument of government propaganda and social control. Knight believed that a free and honest press would help to reduce the chances for future wars. During World War II, Knight temporarily departed from the newspaper circuit to become director of the United States Office of Censorship in London, where he served for one year as liaison for Great Britain and North Africa. Representing Akron's journalistic link to the war, Knight witnessed Japan's capitulation and was present with the first occupation troops in the country. His eldest son, John Shively, a lieutenant in the paratroopers, was killed in a March, 1945, ambush in Germany.

Upon returning to the United States and the world of professional journalism, Knight's weekly "Editor's Notebook," along with the Detroit Free Press and the Charlotte Observer, won Pulitzer Prizes in 1968, making him the first publisher to be granted three such awards in a single year. By 1973, Knight owned 15 newspapers, including the Tallahassee Democrat, the Springfield Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. In the following year the Knight Newspapers merged with the California-based Ridder Publications. Personal tragedy struck Knight again as he was widowed for second time in 1974 and his grandson, John Shively III, was stabbed to death during a robbery the following year. In 1976, Knight married Mary Elizabeth Augustus and retired as editorial chairman of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., having accumulated 26 Pulitzer Prizes altogether. During his retirement, Knight concentrated his efforts on raising thoroughbred race horses at his Fourth Estate Stables in Miami. He also excelled in golf, winning links championships at his many golf clubs. In honor of his father, Knight established the Knight Foundation (1940), which continues to provide major funding for worthy projects.

On June 16, 1981, Knight succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 86, only seven months after his third wife had passed away. At the time of his death, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., consisted of 32 newspapers and four television stations, and had been estimated to be valued at $245 million, the bulk of which went to the Knight Foundation.

Knight belonged to numerous organizations and societies, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he twice served as president. He also held the positions of committee chairman, executive committee member, director of finance and vice president (1956) of the Associated Press. In addition to the Pulitzer Prizes, Knight received numerous awards and honors, including the Elija Parish Lovejoy Award for journalistic achievement, the John Peter Zenger Award, the William Allen White Foundation Award, the National Press Award, the Poor Richard Gold Medal of Achievement Award, and honorary doctorates from The University of Akron, Northwestern University, Kent State University, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Oberlin College, and Colby College.