MIAMI -- James L. Knight, 81, who helped make Knight-Ridder Inc. one of the largest newspaper publishing groups in the nation, with 27 dailies and interests in cable television and other communications services, died of respiratory ailments Feb. 5 in Santa Monica, Calif.

When he died, Mr. Knight was chairman of the Knight Foundation and a director of Knight-Ridder Inc. He was former chairman of the board and had served in various capacities at Knight-Ridder, including president, chairman and chief executive officer.

While the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism and fierce independence of his brother, John S. Knight, drove his newspapers toward editorial greatness, it was James Knight's less visible nuts-and-bolts mastery of the financial and technological sides of the business that made them thrive.

In 1990, Knight-Ridder, which is based in Miami, reported revenue of $2.3 billion.

A quiet man whose favorite expression was "shucks," Mr. Knight helped shape a developing South Florida with his business acumen, civic leadership and philanthropy. He gave tens of millions of dollars to hospitals, universities and charitable foundations.

He was born in Akron, Ohio, when his brother, John, was 15. He began his career in 1931, when he quit Brown University and went to work in the business office of his father's Akron Beacon-Journal newspaper.

His father was C.L. Knight. When he died in 1933, primary responsibility for his newspaper shifted to John Knight. While John infused vitality into the debt-ridden enterprise despite the Depression, James remained in the background. In 1937, the family took control of the Miami Herald, where James Knight became secretary-treasurer.

In 1943, when wartime rationing of newsprint forced the Herald to shrink by a dozen pages on weekdays and three dozen on Sundays, James Knight made a decision that proved pivotal in the paper's future. While the competition, the Miami Daily News, reduced its news coverage, Mr. Knight and City Editor Lee Hills decided to reduce advertising instead.

For a while, the paper took a financial drubbing. But the Herald's circulation skyrocketed. The News was never again a serious competitor.

In 1954, the brothers bought the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer for $7 million. In the late 1950s, James Knight ignored his brother's advice and planned the $30 million construction of the Miami Herald's current headquarters at the edge of Biscayne Bay. The plant opened in 1963.

James Knight also arranged a joint publishing agreement between the Miami Herald and the financially ailing Miami News. In the late 1960s, the brothers bought the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and the Macon News.

John Knight was the key to opening the door for the purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. But he voted against the acquisition in the final meeting, when the board, led by James Knight, voted overwhelmingly for it.

The 1974 merger between Knight Newspapers and Ridder Publications Inc. created Knight-Ridder Inc.

Survivors include his second wife, the former Barbara Richardson, four daughters, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.