Charles Kenny McClatchy had the genes of a great journalist.
He was the great-grandson of James McClatchy, editor of The Sacramento Bee from 1857 to 1883. His grandfather and namesake had been editor of The Sacramento Bee from 1883 to 1936. He was the nephew of Eleanor McClatchy, president of McClatchy Newspapers from 1936 to 1978.
Born March 25, 1927 in Fresno, C.K. was the youngest son of Carlos and Phebe McClatchy. After graduating from Stanford University in 1950, C.K. entered the Army, serving as a first lieutenant on the staff of Stars and Stripes during the Korean War. Although he had worked summers at The Sacramento Bee, he decided to take his career elsewhere after he left the Army in 1952.
But in 1958, he came home, signing on at The Sacramento Bee as a reporter. In 1962, his Aunt Eleanor named him an associate editor. When Editor Walter P. Jones died in 1974, C.K. was Eleanor’s natural choice to become editor of McClatchy Newspapers. In 1978, C.K. was formally chosen by the McClatchy board to replace Eleanor as president, although he had been functioning as such in a de facto role since assuming the editorship.
What he presided over was probably the most transformative 15 years in the company’s history. C.K. reshaped his family’s company by hiring some of the top reporters and editors in the country and acquiring newspapers far beyond California’s Central Valley, where the company had operated almost exclusively since its founding in 1857.
While C.K. had little interest in the business side of the company, he was smart enough to understand that you had to make a profit to be successful. C.K. reorganized the company to create a top business officer to ensure that profitability would be one of the ingredients of its success.
In 1979, under C.K.’s initiative, the company did something it hadn’t done for more than half a century: It bought another newspaper – the Anchorage Daily News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication that was probably a few months from going out of business.
C.K.’s gamble paid off in the end, both financially and journalistically. The Anchorage Daily News outlasted its much stronger rival, eventually driving it out of business. In 1989, the paper won its second Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Later that same year, McClatchy bought the Tri-City Herald in eastern Washington. In mid-1986, it bought the Tacoma News Tribune. And in 1987, C.K. nudged the company into taking the biggest financial step in its history: going public. The stock made its debut on Feb. 5, 1988.
Fourteen months later, C.K. was dead, at the age of 62.
An inveterate runner, bicyclist and tennis player, he was jogging in Sacramento’s William Land Park on April 16, 1989, near the high school named after his grandfather, when he was stricken by a heart attack. His death stunned and saddened the newspaper industry.
Herb Caen, a Sacramento native, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “He had integrity without feeling the need to underline it. A rich, shy kid, he lived simply and abhorred ostentation. Under that mild-mannered exterior beat the heart of a fighting editor. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body, not an ounce of bigotry, and his product reflected his ideals.”