Written By Michelle F. Solomon.

Originally pubilished on 

She’s the first female to lead the 73-year-old Knight Foundation, she has deep roots in journalism, and she’s coming back to Miami.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, a Miami native, graduate of Coral Gables High School and the University of Miami’s School of Communication, Maribel Perez Wadsworth will become the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s president and CEO effective January 2024.

For 18 years, Alberto Ibargüen, 79, the former publisher of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, led the Knight Foundation, where he oversaw the disbursement of $2.3 billion. He announced his retirement in March.

“To say that this is a dream come true . . . those feel like the right words,” said Perez Wadsworth on her LinkedIn page. (Rebecca Dinar, Knight Foundation director of communications, relayed in an email to ArtburstMiami that Perez Wadsworth will be available for interviews when she starts her position in January.)

The 50-year-old CEO comes to the Knight Foundation after 26 years with Gannett Media, which is headquartered in Tysons, Va., in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Perez Wadsworth was named president of Gannett, whose flagship property is USA Today, in June of 2022. She left the company on Dec. 31, 2022, after resigning in November. She served as president of news for Gannett and publisher of USA Today since 2018.

The career journalist started as an editorial assistant at the Associated Press’s Miami office in 1994 and then moved to Gannett’s Rockford Register Star newspaper in Rockford, Ill., in 1996. The only Spanish-speaking reporter, she took on the agricultural beat covering stories of the migrant community and Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs.

She stayed with Gannett for more than 25 years, spending more than a decade at Southwest Florida’s The News-Press. Perez Wadsworth was promoted to the corporate entity of Gannett in 2009 as digital news executive. Subsequent posts included Gannett’s vice president of audience development and engagement, senior vice president of strategic initiatives, and senior vice president and chief transformation officer.

Gannett celebrated the appointment of its first person of color, citing Perez Wadworth’s Cuban-American roots, when she was named publisher in 2019. And, in a story regarding her resignation, USA Today wrote that she had broken barriers at the company for women of color and led the company’s digital transformation.

A 1990 graduate of Coral Gables Senior High and a 1993 graduate of the University of Miami, where she received a bachelor of science in communication in journalism from the School of Communication, Perez Wadsworth found her future at UM.  It was there where she had her first experience as a reporter writing for the school’s newspaper The Miami Hurricane, and it was at the School of Communication that she met her husband, Christopher Wadsworth.

In a press release announcing her appointment, the Knight Foundation stated that it conducted a nationwide search for its seventh president and added that, in addition to her three decades of experience with Gannett, Perez Wadsworth’s “steadfast belief in journalistic excellence as a pillar of a vibrant democracy” was the right fit.

“Maribel’s passion for journalism, coupled with her staunch belief that arts and culture play a pivotal role in nurturing well-informed and actively engaged communities, aligns directly with our core values,” said Frank Borges, chair of the board of trustees, in a statement. “We firmly believe that her wealth of experience and unwavering commitment to these values will steer us in fulfilling our mission.”

According to the Knight Foundation, it is the nation’s leading philanthropic supporter of journalism and has invested over $632 million since 2005 in America’s media ecosystem. The organization recently committed $150 million to the Press Forward campaign, which aims to raise $1 billion for the growth and sustainability of local news organizations.

In addition, the foundation invests in the 28 communities that were once home to Knight newspapers, including Miami where the Knight Foundation was relocated in 1990 from Ohio. According to the Knight Foundation, it is also among the top funders of the arts nationwide. With a $2.6 billion endowment, Knight’s grantmaking averages $135 million annually, according to the organization.

What is now known as the Knight Foundation began in 1940 as the Knight Memorial Education Fund. The father of John S. and James L. Knight was Ohio editor and publisher Charles Landon Knight, who was a fervent believer in education and would help financially strapped students pay for college.

To honor his memory, the brothers established the Knight Memorial Education Fund in 1940 to provide financial aid to college students from the Akron area. The fund existed until December 1950, when its assets of $9,047 were transferred to the newly created Knight Foundation.

It was 1990 when Knight trustees voted for the foundation’s headquarters to be in Miami — the foundation had grown to $522 million by then. According to the organization, several board members lived or spent considerable amounts of time in the Sunshine State. And the Knight brothers had long-held ties to Miami : John S. Knight acquired the Miami Herald in 1937 and became its publisher. His brother James ran the business side.

Today, the Knight Foundation, with headquarters in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami,  has four program areas: Journalism, Communities, the Arts and Learning and Impact, which does assessments and research across the other three areas.

“Throughout my career as a journalist and executive, I have sought to make a difference in people’s lives,” Perez Wadsworth wrote on LinkedIn. “No organization embodies that ideal more closely than the Knight Foundation, which has invested more than $2 billion since 2005 to strengthen communities and sustain democracy. I can think of no greater honor than to lead an organization so deeply committed to journalism, the arts and a vibrant future for American communities,” she said.

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