At the risk of offending my friends and former colleagues still at the San Jose Mercury News, I’m writing its obituary today. There will be more buyouts and layoffs this week, the fourth round of en-masse departures in the last few years. Sadly, I fear the paper will not recover.
I worked at the Merc for 11 years, and for about half that time we were a helluva little paper. We competed aggressively with the San Francisco Chronicle, we wrote big stories with sophistication, had a kick-ass state capital bureau, and for a time, we covered Silicon Valley and technology like no one else. A lot of really talented people moved through Ridder Park Drive in the decade I was there. That’s not to say we reporters didn’t bitch and moan about where we worked. We did, a lot. But looking back, we didn’t see how good we had it.
Now? Here’s what’s going to happen:
Managers from parent company Media News will continue to downsize the editorial staff until it’s down to several dozen people. (It’s at about 200 FTEs now, and will be 170 after Friday. New publisher Mac Tully has told the staff that downsizing could continue for the next 18-24 months.) They’ll consolidate the copy and design desks with their other Bay Area papers. They’ll work aggressively to get rid of union representation so they can bring salaries and benefits down to the substandard wages they are paying at their non-union papers. That will drive away whatever senior reporters are left, except those who are close to retirement (most of them are gone already) or who cannot find work elsewhere. And it will turn the paper into a waystation for young reporters looking to hone their skills and pad their resumes until something better comes along (being a mid-tier paper, that was already the case to some degree). The quality of the product will suffer.
Meanwhile, there will be little new investment in the online product, unless it can be done on the cheap or involves vendors who can promise immediate financial returns. The online staff will continue to be overworked. Innovation and risk-taking will suffer.
The Merc - thin and largely devoid of substantive, insightful coverage - will become increasingly irrelevant to most area news consumers - as many other Media News papers are in the rest of the Bay Area. People will lament the loss of a once good paper. But they’ll survive, because local news isn’t that important to them, and the rest they can get elsewhere.
At this point, you might be expecting a rant against Dean Singleton. But I don’t wholly blame him for this mess. I think “Mean Dean” believed what he said when he bought the Merc, called it Knight Ridder’s “jewel in the crown” and promised to make it an incubator of innovation. But, saddled with massive debt from his misguided newspaper purchases, and facing a horrendous industry downturn/restructuring/implosion, he can do only one thing: slash and burn. It’s what he does best.
It pains me to write this, pains me to know how this situation is affecting the lives of some really great journalists still at the Merc. The mood there is horrible this week, and I can only hope that as many people get out as soon as possible.
It also pains me because I steadfastly, and maybe naively, believed the Merc could have avoided this fate - or at least mitigated the pain - if someone in management had stepped up with a vision of what the paper should be.
Alas, the Merc has been rudderless for some time. The last executive at the Merc who tried to communicate a real vision for the newsroom was executive editor David Yarnold. Rightly or wrongly, he insisted the paper focus intently on the changing demographics of Silicon Valley and technology. These were not just empty newsroom goals or mission statements. The paper created one of the first Race and Demographics teams in the country and invested heavily in its technology coverage.
Of course, it was easy when Yarnold was editor, during the dot-com boom. The paper was rolling in the dough. The challenge wasn’t making money, it was figuring out how to spend it. But even in good times, knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is important. It’s how you energize people and create meaning for their work.
It’s been some time since the Merc knew its purpose. In recent years, many of the strategic decisions about news coverage seemed defensive moves in response to cost-cutting. A well-known CEO from a huge valley Internet company visited the Merc once to meet with Tony Ridder and some editors. He said his biggest frustration with the Merc was that he couldn’t figure out what it was trying to be.
Some organizations can get by OK without strong leadership and a purpose. But in the long run, they won’t excel. You need vision to build a bridge from the present to the future. Without it, mediocrity rules (witness the difference between Google and Yahoo). During my time at the paper, technology journalism - one of the Merc’s franchises - exploded. Mainstream media outlets boosted their coverage of the valley, and tech blogs with sizeable audiences cropped up everywhere. The Merc needed to figure out its place in the new, expanded ecosystem and adapt accordingly. It needed a mental picture of what it wanted to be to guide its day-to-day decisions. In other words, “Given that these new competitors are eating our lunch, what should we do?” It never happened.
To its credit, the paper briefly tried to imagine a future for itself with its “Rethinking” project. But when Singleton realized the project’s modest ideas weren’t going to instantly solve his not-so-modest financial woes, and lacking broad newsroom support, the project stalled. Soon thereafter, executive editor and Rethinking champion Carole Leigh Hutton was gone.
The Mercury News isn’t restructuring or rethinking or imagining a new, meaner and leaner future. It is hanging on for dear life.
It doesn’t need to be this way. I still believe there are ways for media outlets like the Mercury News to survive in the current media landscape. But the conversation needs to start with a blank whiteboard. You can’t continue to tear off pieces of the current business and downsize your way into the future.
If you stop worrying about preserving the status quo for a moment, there are intriguing possibilities. Forget about print for a minute and just look at online. The conventional wisdom is that print is the bridge to an all-online future. But let’s say the Merc is already making $20 million annually in online revenue (a hypothetical number, probably generous). What kind of news and information site could you build with that from the ground up? Even if you peel off half that number for operations and administration and ad sales, you have $10 million left for editorial, enough salaries and benefits for about 100 people. That looks painfully small compared to what’s there now. But if you’re starting from scratch, it actually doesn’t look so bad. Especially if you have a laser focus on the type of content you’re going to produce and for whom. What if you really blew up the Merc and started over?
It’s a romantic notion and maybe not feasible. I’m not convinced, for instance, that local news is a valuable enough commodity. But if no one ever tries, how will we know? And if it fails? Well, as we’re seeing this week, the alternative is just as grim.
Side note: Ryan Sholin and I are both pondering the Merc’s fate this week. Go read him too.
05 Mar 2008 Michael