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When I was clicking through the website of the San Jose Mercury News metro newspaper, I noticed the navigation bar had the usual tabs for News, Tech, Sports, Business, and finally, Help. But this time, rather than consider this Help tab as a way for readers to get help, I could hear the Mercury News calling out to readers for help.

“Can you help us figure out how to remake our newspaper? Why did you stop reading it? Will you ever read it again? Hello?”

It’s a conundrum for Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, one of the West Coast’s best newspapers when I first moved out here in 1991. I remember interviewing with the paper when I was still in journalism school, and the Mercury News was considered nearly on par with the Los Angeles Times. Eventually I got my shot at writing for the tech section (and later, the travel and religion sections) as a freelancer. But recently, as its former owner Knight-Ridder was sold and broken up into pieces, the Mercury News’ staff has been slashed and its relevance has been questioned in the digital age.

Just as the L.A. Times had its Spring Street Project to figure out its future, the Mercury News now has its Rethink project, complete with committees and community outreach to figure out how to “blow up” the newspaper. All employees at the newspaper were involved in the effort to go out into the community and see how real people were using media. Now, there’s a public blog explaining their rethinking in minute detail.

“In both print and online, we want to move away from broadcasting news to people and find better ways to inform them and make them participants so that the Mercury News becomes the meeting point of the larger conversation the community is having about itself,” wrote the Merc’s Matt Mansfield and Chris O’Brien (who also writes for MediaShift Idea Lab). “Think of it as Silicon Valley’s front porch. Providing information, facilitating this conversation, and being the hub of this community should be our goals, the things that guide both our journalism and our business.”

What I like most about the approach of the Mercury News is that it started with reader participation — from the very start. This is something I think any media company should do that is considering how to change their operations: Don’t just run focus groups or surveys; get passionate people in your community of readers on board from the start. And get their input at the start, in the middle, and all the way through the rethinking process and beyond.

I decided to put together a list of ways that the Mercury News currently lets people participate, their stated plans for adding more participation (according to the Rethink blog), and some ideas for how they might take that further.

Participation at the Mercury News

Happening Now

> Readers can contact the paper through phone, email or snail mail with their concerns about newspaper or online content.

> Readers can comment on any story or blog post on MercuryNews.com, or participate in online forums.

> Some sports fans now are running the blogs dedicated to the 49ers, Giants and Warriors.

> People can upload their own photos and videos of pets, sports, travel and more — and vote on their favorites.

> Mercury News employees are going out into the community to see what people want from their newspaper.

Merc’s Stated Plans [subject to change]

> Create a team of staff community managers who are “specifically assigned to fostering conversation and identifying places where we can connect with people in ways that will be good for our journalism and our business,” as per the Rethinking blog.

> Give long-time subscribers “community ownership” — not real ownership in the paper, but a reward of “shares” for helping give input, making online comments and getting involved in the paper’s reinvention.

> Create a social networking platform that lets people share their personal tastes, local restaurant reviews, music they like, etc., modeled on Facebook but providing a longer-lasting record of their lives.

> Have a town hall meeting with readers to get their input on the radical redesign.

> Build community-driven niche sites on topics such as high school sports, startups and food that include a reporter and community manager who go out and find local bloggers or participants to help build out the sites. The best of that content could be published in a special print section in the paper.

My Ideas

> Give readers a way to help more directly with reporters on their beats. That means reporters would crowdsource legwork for bigger stories, poll interested readers on subjects, and query the audience for their ideas more than usual.

> Make the town hall idea a more regular one. What happened if the Mercury News leadership heard from people at a town hall meeting every month? What if each section had its own regular meetings with community members?

> Create moderated wikis on evergreen subjects that could use more community input, such as earthquake preparation, starting a local business, and serving on jury duty. With more input, these subjects could be richer and up-to-date.

> Give community members even more responsibility on the website, including moderating forums and comments, submitting hyper-local news reports, and writing eyewitness accounts of breaking news.

> Hire a reader to be the Readers’ Representative. Rather than have a staffer as the public editor, have a concerned reader or group of readers who can act as the independent reader representatives, with weekly reports, a regular blog and other interactive ways for readers to give critiques.

Your Ideas?

The point is that newspapers, as with all businesses, should be first about serving their customers. The customer is king, and the customer isn’t just the advertiser. The audience is gaining more and more power to choose to get the news their way, so the more involved they can be in the reinvention process — and in the news — the more they’ll want to stay on board.

What else could the Mercury News do? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below, and I’ll update my list with credit to you.

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