The Carnival of Journalism Revival Traveling Medicine Show

A couple years back, a sprawling cadre of journalism bloggers (myself included) participated — at least, for a few months — in a blog carnival.

Now without getting into the sordid details of what makes a blog carnival, and [INSERT CRACK ABOUT HOW NOBODY BLOGS ANYMORE BECAUSE YOU ALL HAVE THE TWITTERS AND WHATNOTS], it was a relatively pleasurable experience. A topic, a deadline, and the shared experience of a bunch of people writing about the same thing at the same time.

Superfluous Creative Commons stock photo of the 2009 Alameda County Fair, by WHardcastle.

And it’s back, thanks to Digidave’s revival:

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with?

Big question!

I’m planning to attack it from a completely hypothetical angle, outlining what a proposal for a San Jose State University School of Journalism & Mass Communications partnership with the Mercury News might look like, although my knowledge of both institutions tails off violently after 2007 or so.

We’ll see. The deadline is in 10 days, so I have a few minutes to gather some thoughts, or even (shocking as it may be) new information.

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.] 

Rethink carefully.

I’m posting the following as a comment on the Mercury News Rethink blog in response to Jay Rosen’s call for input as to how a Merc beatblogger on green technology could have covered the “Al Gore joins Kleiner Perkins” story this week.

I’m going to throw a monkeywrench at the Rethink works here, just to air out something that’s obvious to anyone who reads both the Merc and a raft of blogs about things like Silicon Valley, venture capital, and green technology.

This is part of the problem that Rethink and Matt Nauman’s role as a beatblogger will need to solve:

Merc reporters get their butts handed to them by blogs on a regular basis.

I don’t mean to put any reporter down when I write that, but the Merc’s audience for stories like “Al Gore joins Kleiner Perkins” read the story hours — sometimes days — earlier in their feed reader.

In fact, the Merc used to have the best blog on the topic — Silicon Beat — before Matt Marshall and company left the newspaper and it was reborn as Venture Beat, which I subscribe to, regularly reading timely, clear, well-researched reporting on green tech in the Valley.

Add to the mix the sources that fuel TechCrunch, Scoble, Engadget, Gizmodo, and even the swarm of rumor-powered Apple-adjacent blogs, and you get a social network that is well ahead of the Merc’s curve.

In my opinion, the Rethink strategy of a renewed emphasis on business and technology in Silicon Valley is a Quixotic exercise.

But I don’t live on their side of the hill, and I didn’t hand out Starbucks cards in front of Fry’s in an extended but informal Newspaper Next market research project, and I didn’t talk to their readers to find out what they want from their local paper.

If it were up to me, I’d take a rethought Merc in a direction heavy on neighborhoods and light on beats that already get saturated with blog coverage.

I’m off-topic, and I didn’t answer Jay’s question yet, so here’s how I think this fits into the beatblogger framework:

A Mercury News beatblog+network on green technology should aggregate the best of what’s already out there in the wild. Trying to shoehorn sources on this beat into temporary roles as ‘commenters’ or ‘members’ of a network or ‘friends’ or ‘fans’ won’t go as far in the long run as linking out to them. Don’t try to duplicate an existing network already saturated with coverage.

Wabbit season, duck season, conference season, soccer season

I missed Vloggercon and Bloggercon. Gnomedex was too far away. The World Cup – also a bit of distance to cover (Yeah, so we were in Italy for most of it, but who’s counting.). Okay, that wasn’t a conference, and I did manage to watch quite a bit of it, including the final (Forza Azzurri!).

Here’s the off-topic riff on the final: It was really fun to sit at the pub and watch a bunch of Americans who had been pulled onto the root-for-France train by the easy Zidane-the-hero story get the air knocked out of them by an Italian team with a story that’s probably more compelling, but much harder to tell. The biggest Italian star, Francesco Totti, was invisible for most of the tournament, assuming you weren’t reading an Italian newspaper. Something like 10 Italians scored their 12 goals. Plus there’s the backdrop of the match-fixing scandal at home, but maybe American eyes glaze over at the phrase “could be relegated to Serie B,” so that was mostly just alluded to as a possible distraction.

Here’s the end of the rant: Zidane was silenced, even with chances in front of the Italian goal, and then completely tarnished the happy little legacy he had built himself with an as-yet inexplicable head butt to the chest of Materazzi, who, incidentally, did manage to put the ball in goal today without needing a penalty kick to do it. What was Zidane thinking? That he’s going to leave that head butt as his defining last touch on the soccer world? Not a bright move. Italy wins, breaks the penalty kick spell, for what that’s worth, and the referees have four years to think about what they’ve done this month.

Back on topic: There are at least a few useful gatherings coming up in the Bay Area.

  • SJPizzacast – July 27th in San Jose – Bloggers, podcasters, students, professionals, amateurs, faculty, freaks, geeks, pizza, and beer(?).
  • BlogHer – July 28th and 29th in San Jose – In a little over a year, BlogHer has gone from concept to conference to community, and now the second conference promises to be a by-women, of-women, for-everyone event. Here’s Jay Rosen’s notes on last year’s event. Bonus fact: co-founder Elisa Camahort is an SJSU alumna.
  • The AEJMC convention – August 2nd-5th in San Francisco – All the best in Journalism & Mass Communications research. Wednesday looks like lots of fun for me.
  • WordCamp – August 5th in San Francisco – A one-day free conference for WordPress users and developers to party together. WordPress is the free, open-source software that runs this here blog.

So, um, stop hitting refresh on that ESPN Gamecast page. It’s over. Italy won. You can go back to ignoring soccer for four years. (Note to self: get some sort of expensive cable package that involves full coverage of the Italian, Spanish, and English leagues.) (Ed. note: It’s not going to happen.)