carole leigh hutton.jpg
I’ve been reading with fascination the email threads in the Rethinking the Mercury News project, which launched a Google Group discussion this month.

In news circles, the San Jose Mercury News is considered one of the top-tier mid-size papers in the country. after its sale to MediaNews last year, the paper has been undergoing a series of cost reductions, resulting in staff reductions, slimmed-down sections and less original news coverage.

In other words, like almost every other paper in the country, it’s feeling the pain, both financially and journalistically. Not sure if MediaNews breaks out finances by newspaper, but the paper’s profit margin in 2006 was 9 percent with earnings of less than $22 million a year on revenue of about $235 million, according to the NY Times.

Today, the Washington Post’s Howie Kurtz wrote a column titled, In San Jose, Downsizing With Dynamite:

The reinvention of the San Jose Mercury News began with an undercover operation.

More than 100 staffers fanned out to places like a nearby Starbucks, asking people what they thought of the paper, disclosing only that they worked for a local media company. Now they are cooking up plans for a smaller, radically different product.

“The very top of the organization is saying, blow up the newsroom,” says Chris O’Brien [whose entry today, Wanted: A Marshall Plan for Campus Media, should not be missed], a reporter immersed in the overhaul effort. Under one prototype, the paper would be cut back to three sections: Live, Play and Innovate. In a second blueprint, it would junk everything except Silicon Valley business news.

The Mercury News is limping along with 200 journalists — half the number who were employed several years ago. In the last 20 months the paper was sold by the now-defunct Knight Ridder chain to McClatchy Newspapers, which then spun it off to Media News, owned by Dean Singleton. The current goal is to slash the print edition further and shift two-thirds of the remaining staff to the Merc’s Web site, up from 10 percent now.

In an era of declining circulation and shrinking budgets, virtually every paper in America is trying to jazz up its product while beefing up its online presence. But the effort in San Jose, where the Internet bubble popped hard in 2000, may be the most ambitious — or the most desperate. …

One could peer into the comments section of know-nothing sites like FreeRepublic.com, where opinions are much more highly prized than facts (and pity the fool who comes to the rescue of the MSM). But it’s more instructive to look at the opinions shared by Mercury News readers themselves, who are voicing their grievances — and an offhand suggestion — in that public Google group. (These grievances appear only occasionally in the paper. I’ll wager the paper has received plenty of letters complaining about the ads now appearing on the front page, but I haven’t spotted any that they’re published.)

In a thread yesterday, the complaints centered on dumbing down the news, oversized graphics and the sudden appearance of big, fat ads on the front page. That has been a familiar theme: the expressions of sorrow, frustration and even anger at the decline of decline of journalism and news content in the Merc.

None of these readers suggests that the Merc downsize or jettison its print publication in favor of a beefier online edition, though there is a dawning realization that the paper’s future is much more digital, interactive and conversational than it is today. Instead, the tips are practical: don’t waste so much space on overblown front-page photos. Get out and cover events in the community more. Cut out the marketing hype and “doublespeak.”

One reader summarized it well:

I’m not sure what the answers are – not everyone can be pleased. Still it seems there is some consensus: I believe we all want useful local, national and international news, not sensationalism, advertising and personalities. And good writing, not dumbed down
dreck.

My own remedies stretch back more than 12 years and suggest that a reformulation of newsroom culture is required before we get down to the nuts-and-bolts operational level.

The Mercury News should be congratulated for bringing its readers into the conversation, and it will be fascinating to see where this all leads. Expect to see similar experiments at the nation’s other newspapers as they try to figure out: What’s next?

Related