Mercury falling

[NOTE: What follows is a view of the last two years of trouble at the San Jose Mercury News from my personal point of view, as a graduate student in the neighborhood, a reporter (and later as an editor) working for the same parent company, and even as a reader. I don’t pretend to know everything about the inner politics of the Merc or MNG, but here’s the way it looks to me…]

In the Spring of 2006, when Knight Ridder was up for sale and the bidding was winding down, I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk that Jerry Ceppos gave to some faculty members and a few students at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State.

Ceppos, a former VP of News at Knight Ridder, spoke (off the record) about the possible outcomes of the upcoming sale of the company and the future of the Mercury News.

I had my own ideas, but really, the worst-case scenario that Ceppos presented has come to pass.

McClatchy bought Knight Ridder, spun off a set of papers that didn’t fit their model to cut down on the debt they were taking on, and then they were buried in debt anyway.

MediaNews picked up the San Jose Mercury News; the sale closed while I was interning on the ANG regional desk at the Oakland Tribune. A few of my best stories landed on the local front of the Merc, and I was proud.

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I’m not going to go into great detail here about the many rounds of downsizing and layoffs at the Mercury News in particular or MediaNews in general.

While I agree with the people who say that MediaNews cuts with too wide a thresher, I also believe that most major metro papers have newsrooms bloated with role-players from a previous era.

I don’t believe your restaurant critic has better taste than the people on Yelp.

I don’t believe that local movie, TV, or music critics have a great amount of unique local value in the era of Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix. I don’t believe that a newspaper in San Jose needs a national issue on its front page every day, with few exceptions. I don’t believe in the Editorial We. I don’t believe that the best newspaper columnists can keep up with the best bloggers in the niches or styles I care about.

So given all that I don’t believe, I don’t believe in 800-person newsrooms, or even 400-person newsrooms.

But at some point, if the Merc is going to start moving substantially in any direction at all as a force in local online news, the bleeding has to stop.

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But it doesn’t.

Matt Mansfield is taking a buyout.

Dean Takahashi left for VentureBeat, which started as SiliconBeat at the Merc before Matt Marshall took the concept on the road.

Mike Bazeley left, too.

Editors have left, and publishers have been replaced, and their bosses at CNP have rotated, and I’m not sure anyone left after Friday is going to have the time or morale (or approval from MNG) to Rethink much of substance.

I’m writing this a few days before a scheduled round of buyouts and layoffs at the Merc.

And at the same time, I’m on my way out of town, moving away from the Bay Area a few short weeks from now. So this is my send-off to hand-wringing that goes on here, in the part of the country where newspapers have probably been hit the hardest by the effects of the Web and the economic changes in the news industry.

I’ll miss seeing the Merc and the SF Chronicle and the Sentinel lined up in the racks around downtown Santa Cruz, but I’m looking forward to reading the D&C and the local GateHouse papers. Heck, we might even take a print subscription of the weekly in the town we’ll be living in.

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Here’s what I would do if I were in charge of where the Merc goes online after this Friday:

  1. Abandon NGPS and rebuild the site in Drupal with proper commenting, registration, user profiles, blogs for all users.
  2. Take blog posts and podcasts out of the little ghetto-ized boxes on the homepage and feature them as you would feature any other piece of content.
  3. Make your multimedia players as big and bold and featured as the Las Vegas Sun. The work your staff is doing demands and deserves it.
  4. Recruit local bloggers from neighborhoods around San Jose to lead local social networks – if you built the site with Drupal, this wouldn’t be complicated. They can moderate, manage, and cheerlead as necessary. Give the readers/users a sense of ownership of their neighborhood coverage.
  5. Don’t feature national/world news on the homepage unless it happens in San Jose, with few exceptions.

I’m perfectly aware that very little of this is easy to do, given the development and design situation at MNG, but #4 could be launched quickly with Ning or (less quickly) with WPMU if you can identify the right bloggers. They don’t have to be writing about their neighborhoods already. I don’t write about living in Santa Cruz or local politics on this blog, but I was very excited about Citizen Santa Cruz while it was running. (I’ve been told it will be back soon – stay tuned, locals.)

These aren’t revolutionary ideas – they’re happening at other papers in towns with less economic, organizational, and environmental pressure to change.

So change. Or die.

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Obviously, I’m curious to hear what present and past Merc reporters and editors think about all this. I’m sure there will be plenty of stories and blog posts and handwringers in the next few days as the lists of buyouts and layoffs circulate.

I’ll leave with this thought:

If a start-up were to hire 10 of the most talented people who left Yahoo and the Mercury News in the last short while, they could build a kick-ass innovative local news organization in any two towns in Silicon Valley.

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[UPDATE: Mike Bazeley is in a much better position than I am to write an obituary for the Merc, as he worked there for 11 years. He’s written it here.] 

9 Replies to “Mercury falling”

  1. It’s dispiriting to watch the Merc slowly dissipate. I’ll be interested to see if you hear from some current and past MN reporters.

    BTW, I see your GHM boss Owen is getting some major flack on that job posting you listed in the previous post (Work with Us, People). Lots of anxiety out there. Amazed me that one person was asking about job security. I’d have thought that it was pretty clear by now there’s no such thing in the news biz.

  2. Great post and very good suggestions, Ryan. While the 1-5 list isn’t as easy to implement for such a large site as it might sound, I think it’s a start — and potentially a new beginning — if such measures are taken as a mirror of the existing site on an internal & limited beta sandbox.

  3. I find your post to have it’s merits, and also am depressed, if not disgusted by the decline in newspapers around the Bay Area. To be frank, newspapers in the homebase of Hearst’s yellow journalism empire have always been a weak link, and the Merc was the only regional bright spot in a sea of dimbulbs. Your suggestion that the Merc delegate major national news stories as back page fodder is silly though. If the Merc was to become a neighborhood blog as you suggest, it’s rep would erode further, revenue would wither even more, and daily purpose would likely be further watered down.

  4. @Lil Mike –

    Everyone has their ideas about a mix of local and national news. Personally, I believe in local news. I get national/international news from 14 different sources before I come close to seeing a print edition front page.

  5. Sholin, you know that I will pretty much disagree with anything. My one suggestion to make newspapers better is that no matter what story, where it is running or who writes it, it must answer the question “What does this mean to me?”. If it doesn’t answer that question, it shouldn’t run.

    As for the Web side of things, I don’t know my NGPS from my Drupal. All I know is how I personally browse the Web. I prefer all my stories in one place. I don’t want to go to 14 different sites to get my national news and I don’t only care about local. I want national and world stories on the front page because sometimes they are a bigger deal to me than what a neighborhood is named.

    And you know how I feel about user-generated content. My head is hurting already.

    PS: You know that I’m kind of a tech-head, but I do not click on video links. There are too many player types and the loading time (even with my fast connection) is too long. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze. I want insightful and in depth from newspapers. I’ll leave the brief video clips or podcasts to the TV and radio stations (not that I’ll ever click on them).

  6. @Tony – Always good to have this conversation with you – I miss it…

    The way you read news is unbundled, served by RSS feeds, showing up on your iGoogle page or your reader or your Facebook page, or wherever you want it, right?

    The Merc is good enough at serving that audience, but in their market, they simply must do more.

    I can get what they offer on technology, politics, and business in a much more targeted way from blogs written by folks who don’t spend any time — I mean zero minutes — worrying about a print news cycle.

    When reporters like Dean Takahashi and Matt Marshall left, they took their online audiences with them. I kept reading SiliconBeat – heck, the RSS feed even stayed the same – but the Merc lost me as a niche reader.

    And that’s my transition back to arguing against trying to be everything to anyone.

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