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James P. McKnight, longtime city editor at Free Lance-Star, dies
James P. McKnight, longtime city editor of The Free Lance-Star, was known for attention to detail and a feel for community

 Former Free Lance-Star City Editor James P. McKnight, who died Sunday at age 81, reads over the Christmas holidays in 1989 to then 4-year-old grandsons Travis Cobb (left) and Jeremy Duggins.
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Date published: 9/13/2005

James P. McKnight, a former Free Lance-Star city editor credited with helping to take the newspaper from a small-town daily to a regional publication, died Sunday, Sept. 11, at his Stafford County home.

The longtime news editor, 81, died of cancer.

Known simply and respectfully as "chief" by many of the reporters he schooled in journalism for 37 years as the paper's front-line editor, McKnight joined The Free Lance-Star in 1944 after having worked as a reporter at The Associated Press in Richmond and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

When he arrived in Fredericksburg, McKnight was the newspaper's only full-time reporter, handling chores that ranged from the police beat to community news.

Seven years later, he was named city editor, a job which entailed planning the newspaper's coverage of local news and supervising the growing staff of reporters and photographers.

In a story on his retirement from the newspaper in 1988, McKnight was credited as "the stable, guiding hand for local news coverage, through the comings and goings of dozens and dozens of reporters and editors and considerable growth in the Fredericksburg area."

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of readers could testify to his knowledge of the community and connections to its people, be they powerful local politicians or helpful elementary school secretaries.

To him, getting a second-grader's name spelled correctly or telling readers in Partlow or Passapatanzy exactly how much snow fell in their backyard the night before was just as important as passing on hard-hitting crime stories or national news.

His reasons went to the core of the newspaper's mission: If they can't trust us to get names spelled right and simple things right, how will they believe anything else we write?

When the Richmond Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him a Distinguished Service Award not long after his retirement, fellow employees and other peers in the industry acknowledged his constancy of purpose.

Jim Mann, a former editor who served under McKnight for many years, noted that his former boss led by example, noting that he has "never faltered in his role as a teacher of newcomers to the journalism profession. He has persevered in his demands for those who work for him to meet the highest professional and ethical standards."

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