The Mercury News, Silicon Valley, and the Future of Newspapers

It’s getting fun.

Seriously, these could be the best of times for the future of newspapers, with twelve orphans out there right now just waiting to be transformed into… well, to be transformed into whatever’s coming next in mass media.

Dan Gillmor floated the idea that Yahoo could swoop in from Sunnyvale and buy the San Jose Mercury News.

That brings up all sorts of fun ideas — let’s take this opportunity to turn the Mercury News into a next generation newspaper. No, it won’t have the resources of Knight Ridder. Maybe there won’t be a foreign bureau anymore. What it will have are the resources of Silicon Valley.

In fact, the Mercury News’ Web site could become a model for the next generation of online newspapers, free from the constraints of Knight Ridder Digital, which lays out its online editions to create a uniform brand catering to national advertisers.

An independently-owned Mercury News would be able to leap ahead of the corporate cookie-cutter sites to lead the way into the future of online newspapers. Here’s how:

  • Digg-ish forums on opinion pieces to foster and manage public discussion of important issues.
  • Citizen journalism zones, where readers can submit their own news and photographs, with a commenting/rating system that helps keep the good stuff on top, and the PR buried.
  • A massive rollout of multimedia journalism: Flash graphics to help explain how stories are linked to other stories in the paper, timelines and histories, photo galleries and slideshows, video and audio interviews published as podcasts.
  • Tag-based content management that makes it easier for readers to browse stories and find out more about a particular subject.

How the heck to do all that? First, stop trying to teach old dogs new tricks. Hire storytelling-minded young geeks away from Web 2.0 startups, and let them build your site. I want to see the Mercury News 2.0 linked to by TechCrunch, okay?

Wait a minute, this stuff costs money. Who’s paying for this big new online staff?

Well, first, the buyer with the deep pockets. Obviously, a big Silicon Valley company like Yahoo or Google would have the bucks, but the paper would have a conflict of interest in nearly every local business story. How about a foundation, jointly funded by Google, Yahoo, Apple, and whoever else wants to throw in a few million bucks. Think Poynter, but with the mission of teaching technology to journalists and j-school students. Site it here at San Jose State University, or up at Stanford.

[Full disclosure: I’m a grad student at SJSU, and some of my profs would surely be involved in this theoretical foundation.]

Okay, so now we’ve got some money, but what do we do with the print edition?

First things first, ditch the print classifieds and create an online local Craig’s List-ish section of the paper’s Web site that’s JUST for San Jose and a few surrounding communities. I feel like San Jose is slumming it in the “South Bay” section of Craig’s San Francisco page right now, and I know that more can be done with tagging and ratings systems to make a better local classifieds site. Google, Microsoft, and smaller startups are all grinding away at that problem, so there’s no reason not to jump on the “better-than-Craig’s” bandwagon. Sell local display ads on those pages online.

Stock tables? Long gone. Non-local, syndicated Food, Arts, Style sort of stuff? No need. This is a local paper now, not part of a national chain. International news? We’ll take the AP, unless it’s an international event with pinpoint relevance to San Jose. National news? Same method. We’re not Knight Ridder anymore, but hey, maybe we’ll carry reports by Yahoo correspondents like Kevin Sites.

As former Knight Ridder news executive Jerry Ceppos advised last week at a public talk at King Library, let’s take at least a third of our staff and put them on the online edition.

The Mercury News has been handed a raw deal by the business of newspapers, but with the right buyer, it could be the logical paper for Silicon Valley, and lead the way to the New Newspaper in the process.

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