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.

___

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.

___

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.

___

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.

___

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.] 

Billionaire Burkle is my kind of newspaper tycoon

If you haven’t been following the saga of the Knight Ridder orphans, the 12 newspapers back up for sale after being purchased by McClatchy, you’re missing a great show.

Early last week, the LA Times reported that the bid backed by billionaire Ron Burkle might be the frontrunner in the race to buy some or all of the 12 papers. Burkle’s private equity firm, Yucaipa Companies, is putting up the cash behind the Newspaper Guild’s bid. So far, so good. Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson are both on the board of directors of Yucaipa. Sounds like fun.

It starts to get interesting when you look at what the Peninsula Press Club has been pointing to for weeks: Burkle has battled to seal some public records, most notably those related to his own divorce. Funny how that works. I, for one, welcome a little bit of salaciousness to this story.

But wait… there’s more. Okay, let’s just look right past the Dubai connection and get to the real meat of this story: New York Post Page Six gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern allegedly tried to squeeze Burkle for $100,000 plus $10,000 a year, as long as Stern didn’t write anything negative about him.

See Editor & Publisher for both sides of the story, plus a full platter of links at Romenesko.

Personally, I love it. It’s far more likely to grab headlines than…well…stories about the semi-failing business model of newspapers.  Or the future of newspapers. Funny how that works.

[Full disclosure: I might want to work for a newspaper someday…]

Who Needs Ink? A panel discussion on the Future of Newspapers

Commonwealth Club event at San Jose City Hall: Who Needs Ink?

Who’s here?

  • Ex-Mercury News tech writer Dan Gillmor, currently of various citizen journalism initiatives
  • Jerry Ceppos, ex-Knight Ridder news executive (and Merc alum)
  • Peter Appert, a Goldman Sachs analyst
  • Joan Walsh, Salon‘s editor-in-chief
  • Jim Bettinger, communications prof from Stanford (and Merc alum) is moderating
  • And about 60 audience members…(It is a rainy night…)

[ooOOh: There is free wifi at City Hall. Go figure… By the way, the SaveTheMerc folks were at the registration table.]

The Future of Newspapers is pretty timely at the moment, with the future of the Mercury News (way) up in the air, along with the 11 other KR orphans.

Oh, and I don’t have my camera with me tonight, but for nostalgia’s sake, you can check out this shot of Dan Gillmor with a couple SJSU faculty members from last year. (I am not a photojournalist.) If anyone took pictures tonight, I’ll happily link to them. (Steve Sloan’s got a shot here)

Okay, enough preamble…questions are being asked by Bettinger.

[Ed. note: If it’s not in quotes, it’s paraphrased.]

Do investors think the business model is broken?

  • Appert: There will still be a paper on your doorstep tomorrow and the next week. Revenue growth is sliding, and if you’re public, there’s pressure from the shareholders to get more value out of the company.
  • Gillmor: “The facts are the facts. The business model is eroding…” Newspapers under attack by “nimble, hungry” competitors. (Who is he talking about? Blogs? Alt weeklies? TV? I dunno.)
  • Ceppos: “We clearly have a great new way to distribute the news, but there still is a print culture in our newsrooms.” Take half your staff, and point them at the Internet. For real. Not “Hey, file a story online before you write your important story for the paper.” The culture of the newsroom has to change. Free dailies will do well, but the Web is the thing. It’s the content that matters, not the channel.

Can the Web revenue grow fast enough?

  • Ceppos: Probably not, but let’s figure out how to make money off it.
  • Appert: Internet ad revenues for news orgs are growing, but the print revenue is shrinking faster. Web ad rates are a fraction of print rates. (Ed. note: Charge More.)
  • Ceppos: Ditching the stock tables from print is a bright idea, and it has been for years. Why did it take so long? (What I want to know: What else can print cut out this year?)
  • Walsh: Yesterday’s wire stories? Ditch ’em. Everyone read those online last night. The Rosenstiel report: more outlets doesn’t mean more news. What took big orgs like the NY Times so long to integrate print and Web? “We have to think of ways to make newspapers essential again, and they might not be newspapers.

Are newspapers dinosaurs? Slow, lumbering and tiny-brained?

  • Ceppos: Yes. The NYT’s e-mail the bylined writer schtick – once a day the writer gets a set of e-mail. Plus, the Times Select op-ed writers’ e-mail addys are still hidden behind the paywall.
  • Gillmor: Newspapers are in the manufacturing biz, not the news biz. “That’s what really runs the business.” How do you get out of that while maintaining enough good journalism? “Clearly, killing the stock tables is a very nice first step.” Appert: “I love the stock tables.” Gillmor: Understands the NYT’s fear of gobs and gobs of reader e-mail, but they should still get it. News people have to understand that the audience is an active participant now. Cue We The Media Mantra: “My readers know more than I do.”
  • Appert: “The freight is paid by the advertiser,” so how do we make the newspaper more appealing to the advertiser so we can make money to make great news?
  • Gillmor: Journalism isn’t getting the high-margin ads (the classifieds). Walsh: Advertising can’t really drive the discussion. Success is going to come with feeding your audience what the want – be nimble, be creative. Appert: “Tragically, I think you’re wrong.” Editorial has to be aware of what the advertisers want.

How has Salon been profitable?

  • Walsh: “We cut costs to the bone and it wasn’t pretty.” Then, they focused on what they do best. At one point, they talked about subscribing to the AP wire and rewriting stories “the Salon way.” We’ve got a subscriber model – if you subscribe, you don’t see the ads. That’s not actually working out that well. (The advertisers want the opinion leaders’ eyes, eh?) Comments are on, and there’s no flood of crap to edit for libel/death threats, but it’s going alright. The WaPo comments flap, and the WaPo plagiarist blogger kerfuffle.
  • Gillmor: The Web works great because you can experiment and cherry-pick the winning ideas.

Verification before publication, or publication and self-correction?

  • Gillmor: Most blogs are conversation, not journalism, so don’t sweat it. Factual errors can be fixed quickly. Citizen Journalism doesn’t mean that everyone’s a journalist; it means that some people “from time to time, commit an act of journalism.” Dan’s new rules for journalism include transparency.
  • Ceppos: The best newspaper sites are getting the news out accurately.

The Google/Yahoo News question – aggregation vs. creation?

  • Ceppos: Pretty neat, but I don’t need to read the same story 10 times. People want news, they need news, they’ll get news. Will there be any money to pay for news? Yeah, but put that big bunch of staff on the online edition.
  • Walsh: Newspapers are overstaffed. Cue Chronicle joke. This is a Merc room… Great journalism has not been rewarded – KR’s Iraq repoprting was best.

Audience questions:

Has the print industry outlived the business model?

  • Gillmor: The transition from here to there (print to online) doesn’t “happen by magic.” Newsrooms are full of real humans with real jobs. It’s not easy to change. “I don’t know that we need newspapers, I know we need what newspapers do.”
  • Appert: Family-owned papers have much more freedom to make changes and let profits slide a bit without shareholders to answer to.
  • Is the long form feature story dead?

  • Walsh: No worries – when a story’s great, we put up 5000 words, and we can tell if people are reading the whole thing. “We don’t have the limits of advertisers supporting pages.” Gillmor: “I print them out.”
  • Ceppos: Magazines will be the place for long form writing.
  • Gillmor: Magazines are great niche publications. “In those cases, the advertising is at least as interesting as the editorial content.”
  • Appert: What about the Wednesday grocery ads in newspapers?
  • Ceppos: “Why shouldn’t every newspaper be famous for something? When you try to cover everything, you cover nothing very well.”

How many audience members read a daily newspaper?

  • The demand for instant news, without a physical product…
  • Gillmor: Hopefully there’s some sort of way to package news to create context in communities.
  • Walsh: The NOLA Times Picayune rocked after Katrina. Went straight to the Web, then published readers’ stories. “The readers became experts.”
  • Appert: Demographics are a challenge. Newspapers have a depth of local coverage you can’t get from other media.

What should J-Schools be doing to prepare students for the future?

  • Ceppos: We should focus less on convergence and the specifics of how to build web pages — we should be teaching them how to cover the news and file stories in different ways. Focus on the basics, but know how to file for all media.
  • Walsh: At NY event she was at, news execs were falling over each other to make content deals with J-Schools. (Ed. note: PAY US. Please do not refer to students as “cheap labor.” It’s not cheap for us, mmkay?)

Tom Paine + Ben Franklin = blogs? Death of newspapers is okay, right?

  • Gillmor: “Blog” is just a “foxy word” “proxy word” [CORRECTED 4/1/06 – Thanks Dan!] for “doing things ourselves.” Ninety-five percent of everything (not just blogs – everything) is crap. How do we surface the really good stuff? We need to get past the Daily Me and to the Daily We. “The Tom Paines of tomorrow are probably going to be doing it with video” and other forms that are native to the next generation of mediamakers.

What direction should news orgs be “sprinting” to in search of the new business model?

  • Appert: It’s not that bad yet, but it’s getting worse, so sprint.

Why print out Web stories to read them, fellas?

  • Ceppos: The lack of portability.
  • Gillmor: Screens aren’t pleasant enough to read yet for long periods of time. Good stuff coming soon, and more portable too. (Ed. note: think e-paper.)
  • Ceppos: You want to pass a section of the paper back and forth over the breakfast table with your spouse. (Ed. note: Bathroom reading did pop up as another reason.)

Local weeklies, dailies?

  • Gillmor: Consolidation has made weeklies crappier. But they should be better, and have a chance, because a lot of these areas are too small for Craig’s List to get into.
  • Ceppos: Still not convinces that people care about their hyperlocal news.
  • Appert: Hyperlocal papers have the best penetration rates. Chorus: They’re free.
  • Gillmor: Metro dailies could let communities talk to each other about their local issues.

Vision/Mission statement for a new print paper?

  • Ceppos: “Be famous for something.”
  • Walsh: Great reporting and writing, and “a place for the reader at the table.”

Last question: What’s the most important journalistic value that needs to be preserved, and how?

  • Walsh: Accuracy. “It’s not very sexy…” but you can’t separate the current news problems from the accuracy and credibility problems.
  • Gillmor: “Telling the truth,” a slight twist on accuracy/objectivity. Help readers sort out the important issues instead of just reporting he said/she said. Laments for the KR Washington bureau that stood up re: Iraq.
  • Ceppos: “A new kind of fairness that goes further than we’re comfortable with.” Though the WaPo’s right-wing blogger idea wasn’t bad. “Preferably, don’t hire a plagiarist to do this…” Change traditional news-covering habits to avoid imbalances. (He told his Republican pumpkin story — those who have heard it once or twice before know what I’m talking about.)
  • Appert: The industry can’t survive without journalistic principles, BUT “profability is required to support good journalism.”

(For the answers to a few more questions, check out Edupodder Steve Sloan’s podcast, recorded last night after the panel discussion.)

My take: First one to figure out a new business model for newspapers WINS.

Personally, I think the print newspaper should either be a luxury item or a rock-bottom bare-bones tabloid. Perhaps both, eh? Charge more (alot) for the fat luxury version, and charge advertisers more (alot) to reach the demographic that can afford it. In the tab version, print just top national news, more local news, sports, and the funnies. Make the tab free, with appropriate ads for the demographic it reaches. The luxury version is what subscribers get at home, the tab is what you pay 50 cents for at the newsstand, and the online edition is completely free, with lots of multimedia, audio, video, opinion, blogs, forums, and comments are on everywhere. But that’s just me.

Silicon Valley gazillionaires all pass on the Merc

Thanks, but no thanks, say New Media moguls and other companies and individuals with money to burn. The LA Times says no Silicon Valley moneymakers are stepping up to buy the San Jose Mercury News … then again, the LAT article doesn’t say much, but there are more links and commentary on the Knight Ridder orphan papers on the Peninsula Press Club blog and, of course, at Romenesko.

Bids on the 12 papers that make up the leftovers of McClatchy’s KR purchase are due today.

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.

Related conversations:

Knight Ridder sold

The New York Times and others are reporting that Knight Ridder has sold to McClatchy.

Just a note from my Internet-focused brain:  Every article I read that says something like “with the future of print newspapers in question” or “with declining print circulation” grossly overlooks the fact that Knight Ridder Digital, the online section of KR’s newspaper company, has been posting rising profits for years.

Every time a journalist writing about the KR sale story leaves that out, they’re missing a key angle.  McClatchy didn’t just buy 32 newspapers in 29 towns, it bought a huge, standardized, web presence with plenty of ad sales and traffic.

It seems pretty simple to me.  If you’re writing a story after 2001 about the sale of a large media company, their online product should be in your lead.