People and Community University

University trustee Maribel Perez Wadsworth to lead Knight Foundation

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, whose 26-year career with Gannett Media included numerous accomplishments, will take the helm of a foundation that supports the development of engaged and inclusive communities across the nation.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth. Photo: Gesi Schilling for the Knight Foundation

Maribel Perez Wadsworth has been tapped to lead the Knight Foundation. Photo: Gesi Schilling for the Knight Foundation

No taller than the broadsheet of the Miami Herald that was delivered to her family’s doorstep every day, Maribel Perez Wadsworth would remove the newspaper from its plastic sleeve each morning and begin flipping through the pages of fine newsprint, reading about local and national politics, medical advancements, and anything else that grabbed her attention.

She was just a little girl then and was fascinated by the fact that reporters often learned of the news before anyone else. “I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Perez Wadsworth recalled.

Her interest in journalism at a precocious age grew exponentially. She became a self-described “news junkie”—her love for the field becoming more grounded even after she studied history and civics. Journalism, she knew, served as a defender and protector of democracy. 

Now, Perez Wadsworth—who after graduating from the University of Miami embarked on a stellar career as a journalist, starting as an editorial assistant in the Miami office of a global news agency and eventually becoming publisher of USA Today and president of Gannett Media—is “coming home.” 

The born and bred Miamian, daughter of Cuban immigrants, and University of Miami trustee has been named the new president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, becoming the seventh president and the first woman to take the helm. She will start in January 2024. 

“It’s an incredible honor to be given the opportunity to lead an organization as impactful and as prestigious as the Knight Foundation, an organization that has been so central to the incredible positive growth of Miami over all these years. And that’s the other part of this—I’m coming home. Miami is my hometown and to have an opportunity like this is just the honor of a lifetime,” said Perez Wadsworth, who stepped down from her role as president of Gannett Media late last year to prioritize family. 

“Maribel Wadsworth brings an ideal perspective to the Knight Foundation as someone who has not only spent three decades championing responsible journalism and engaged communities, but as a Miami native who knows and loves her community,” said University of Miami President Julio Frenk. “The University of Miami could not be prouder of our alumna, who has passionately served as president of our Alumni Association Board and as an ex officio member of our Board of Trustees. We look forward to the next chapter in our continued collaboration with the Knight Foundation as Maribel takes the helm.” 

Perez Wadsworth’s roots to the University run deep. As a first-year student, she majored in journalism, writing for The Miami Hurricane student newspaper. At one point she covered and documented the institution and community’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Through a twist of fate, she met and fell in love with her husband at the University. “The one course I needed to graduate a semester early wasn’t being offered, so between my advisor and my dean, they crafted an independent study tract and assigned me to the graduate student newsroom in journalism,” Perez Wadsworth recalled. “It turns out my future husband was a master’s student in that program, and that’s how we met.” 

She succeeds Alberto Ibargüen, who earlier this year publicly announced his decision to retire from the Knight Foundation. The former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, Ibargüen led the multibillion-dollar foundation for nearly two decades, overseeing the disbursement of $2.3 billion. 

“A very classy individual,” Perez Wadsworth said of Ibargüen. “What’s important to him is presence—being very present for the team, being very present for the community. That is certainly what I have made my own career about within my own leadership style. So, we’re pretty aligned in that regard.” 

Upon learning that Perez Wadsworth would succeed him, Ibargüen told her, “I will never call you. But I will always take your calls,” she said of the message the renowned publisher delivered to her. 

Doubling down on the foundation’s key strengths and mission in hopes of building on the legacy Ibargüen has left behind, Perez Wadsworth already has hit the ground running in her new role.

A major supporter of journalism, the Knight Foundation has invested more than $632 million since 2005 in America’s media ecosystem. It recently committed $150 million to the Press Forward campaign, which aims to raise $1 billion dollars for the growth and sustainability of local news organizations. Beyond that, the foundation invests in the 28 communities that once hosted Knight newspapers, supporting the arts and a burgeoning field of research around the impact of technology on society. With a $2.6 billion endowment, the foundation’s grantmaking averages $135 million per year. 

“Part of what attracts me to Knight and has for a long time is its mission—the idea of helping citizens to be better informed, better engaged, to take part in their communities, and to be equipped to make good decisions about their lives. That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole career in journalism, and that’s what I hope to do in a different way now with the foundation,” Perez Wadsworth said. “Obviously, I’ll be doing a lot of listening over the coming weeks and months. I need to get much more familiar with the amazing team that’s at the foundation right now. And I need to spend time in many of our Knight cities because, while we know the foundation so well in the context of Miami, Knight operates in several cities across the country.” 

The Knight Foundation’s imprint on the University of Miami is indelible and wide-reaching. Knight recently provided funding in support of updates at the Bill Cosford Cinema, digital engagement at the Lowe Art Museum, a venture lecture series at the Miami Herbert Business School, and research and convening on free expression online at the School of Law. 

In 2021, Knight created six Knight Foundation Endowed Chairs at the Frost Institute of Data Science and Computing, of which two have been awarded—Yelena Yesha, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and David Chapman, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, who both hold chairs in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. 

Also, the School of Communication has two Knight Chairs: Alberto Cairo, associate professor and Knight Chair in Visual Journalism; and Lindsay Grace, associate professor and Knight Chair in Interactive Media. The two are part of a program in which top professionals bridge the newsroom-classroom divide with innovative teaching, major outreach projects, and their own journalism. 

But arguably its biggest stamp on the University is the Frost School of Music’s recently opened Knight Center for Music Innovation, the $36.5 million, 25,000-square-foot cutting-edge performance and technology innovation hub for which the foundation provided a naming gift and funding to support innovative technology in the building. 

While it is a relationship that will continue, it is important to remember that the Knight Foundation supports other entities in South Florida, Perez Wadsworth pointed out. 

“The University of Miami is central to a lot of the amazing things happening not only in Miami but across the expanse of this nation. For example, the research that UM scientists are conducting in climate resiliency, work that Knight has supported, and the important work the University is doing in cancer research. It’s an important institution in South Florida, and frankly, across the country,” she said. “And there are other critical institutions across South Florida, so it’s important that Knight continues its good work supporting what I can only call the ascendancy of Miami and South Florida.” 

Carrying a wealth of experience to her new role, Perez Wadsworth’s professional journey began in 1994, when she spent two years as editorial assistant with the Associated Press before moving to Gannett as a reporter with the Rockford Register Star in Illinois in 1996. 

Becoming a journalist helped her to conquer her shyness. “Journalism was all I wanted to study,” she said, “and in some ways, it was my body armor, giving me the authority and the excuse to walk up to people and ask them questions.” 

Interviewing sources during times of tragedy in their lives was always the toughest part about being a reporter, Perez Wadsworth revealed. “Having to ask questions in the midst of one of the toughest moments of a person’s life was always difficult,” she said. “I always remembered that it was important to never lose sensitivity and empathy and to honor what someone’s going through, even when you have to do your job.” 

Working for more than a decade as a reporter and editor, she covered some of the most important stories on national and international fronts. While working as a reporter for The (Fort Myers, Florida) News-Press, she traveled to Cuba in 1998 to cover Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the island nation. That dream assignment allowed her not only to document the first time a pontiff had ever set foot in Cuba but also to walk in the footsteps of her immigrant family, particularly her mother, who fled the island as a young teen following the 1959 revolution. 

“It was a life-changing experience,” Perez Wadsworth declared. “The Pope basically made his way from Havana to the eastern province of Santiago, which is where my family’s from—Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba. For the first time, I met family—aunts, uncles, cousins—that I’d only known through letters and occasional phone calls. I stayed in the house that had been my great-grandparents’ home, and an uncle took me to the home where my mother had been raised. We knocked on the door, my uncle explained to the residents who I was, and they invited me in, made me Cuban coffee, and allowed me to roam about the house.” 

Perez Wadsworth transitioned to a role with Gannett’s corporate team in 2009, focusing on digital and audience transformation. In that pivotal role, she spearheaded the media company’s transition into the digital age, leading its launch of digital subscription offerings. 

In 2017, she was named president of the USA Today Network, and in 2018 was appointed publisher of USA Today, becoming the second woman and first person of color to serve in that capacity. She became president of Gannett Media last June. 

During her tenure at Gannett, Perez Wadsworth’s oversight extended to more than 4,000 journalists across 250 local news organizations, along with the flagship USA Today. During her time as publisher, the USA Today Network earned five Pulitzer Prizes. 

As a leader, she has consistently demonstrated a commitment to diversity and inclusion, advocating for workplaces that not only hire diverse talent but also build inclusive environments that allow for the full expression of diverse voices. For that work, she received the News Leaders Association’s Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership in 2019. 

Perez Wadsworth serves on the governing board of Pew Research Center, a leader in using research to understand American trends and attitudes around trust and news. And she also serves on the board of the Associated Press. 

Young journalists of today, she said, bring something to the table most reporters of different eras did not have: expertise in technology. “The value that young journalists of today bring is that they’ve grown up with technology. They know social media, and they know the value of multimedia as a key means of sharing information. They bring an awful lot of important perspective about how to create content in compelling ways,” she said. “And so, what I want is for them is to bring that voice to the table and to ask questions and challenge the way things are being done. At the same time, they must truly learn the fundamentals of reporting, of research, and of asking good questions and synthesizing information. Protecting our ability to credibly and fairly report the news has to be paramount.”