Executive Editor Dave Butler sent the following email to the Mercury News newsroom. There’s a part of me that wants to deconstruct it line-by-line. But I think I’ll just let the words speak for themselves.
Where are we headed? What’s my vision for The Mercury News? I’ve been asked those questions many times. In preparation for an upcoming staff meeting (time and date still to be set) I thought I’d spell out a few thoughts after having been here almost 3 months. Certainly a large part of our news mission remains focused on technology and diversity.
The Mercury News continues to be THE local news source for residents of Silicon Valley and beyond. It also can be and should be the leader for our Bay area sister publications in many areas of topical content. And, we can be and should be the leaders of news experimentation on the Web - trying new ways to satisfy the varying needs of our readers.
Are we still: The Newspaper of Silicon Valley? Or should we change that motto to get beyond the “paper” part to reflect the changing world? I donno - but we ought to decide soon.
One thing stands out to me - we need to pick up the pace of everything we do, from the number and timeliness of local stories, to how quickly management makes decisions.
When I came here, many of you were happy to hear me say we needed to focus on the core newspaper - and we do.We need to make it the most-compelling, interesting, lively and helpful newspaper that anyone can get. But at the same time, that does not - let me underscore this - that does not mean we should or will ignore the Web. We must embrace a “Web-first” distribution philosophy and approach, but by the entire staff. We can’t and won’t break the staff into separate print and online components. We are one staff and must operate more like a wire service that feeds various forms of distribution.
In the crazy media world of 21st century news gathering and distribution, we need to remember that journalism still matters. We also can’t dwell on the past and what was or what might have been. We continue to have a commitment to quality and we all want to be proud of our efforts. But we also need to adapt to this new world order for the media and many of you have gravitated in that direction while others still are hung up in the past. . We all acknowledge that newspapers have to make money. The business model has changed and we have fewer people and less space than we had or would like. But, we still are the largest news provider in the region.
While we must serve our traditional role of offering an assortment of coverage, be a community leader and a constant watchdog, we also need to take heed of what our readers are telling us and that is that their time is very valuable, that they want lots of useful information quickly and they want to pick what is most important.
Of course there is a natural tug back-and-forth between long-time readers who want no changes in the paper, and somewhat younger or newer ones who are crying out for change. I don’t think we’re going to attract a lot of very young readers to print. But I do think we can attract some and I’m confident that younger readers would benefit from seeing our content — the public journalism we do. And so what if they read it online? We just need to get them to read it from us!
That means we need to provide a wide assortment, in terms of subject matter, tone, emotional appeal, length and appearance. Yes, it means we will still run in-depth projects. But with a smaller staff and greater demands from readers, it means we must revamp our processes and we must produce more and shorter stories - and this includes more enterprise stories. These are my expectations of all of you. We want to have the highest quality but we also need to consider quantity and we need to know when our effort is “good enough” - when more time on a particular story comes at the expense of other stories.
I know that no matter how many times I say this, many people will come away thinking that all I want to do is to increase the local story or byline count. That is not what I am saying, but I am telling each of you that the days when you had 2 days to work on a story that could be done in 1 are over.
I am telling you that just because you did 1 story today doesn’t mean you can’t do a second one. Or a third!
Many of you are journeymen like me - you’ve been in the business a long time. You remember the days of churning out stories, of chasing ambulances. And, right here and right now we have a great team of breaking news reporters who do that today - but largely for online, with some material published in the newspaper. And then there’s everyone else. When I was a reporter it was pretty clear - I was expected to do daily stories and between them to work on projects and Sunday weekenders. That is largely what we all face today. Many of our colleagues at other regional newspapers would kill to have what we do here in San Jose. Think about that.
We have a handful of sister publications that can largely do community-oriented stories outside of San Jose for us. And, at the same time we have a big, fantastic industry that is a world leader - and that gives us plenty of opportunities for coverage that nobody else has. And there are topical beats we can specialize in, providing great stories not only for the Valley but also for the entire Bay area. We also have our share of professional and collegiate sports - and I mean big-time programs that deserve and get big-time coverage.
But then there is that other matter — the anxiety about the future. We live in uncertain times, with the communications industry changing daily. We know there will always be a need for good reporting, good editing, good photography, good graphics and good design - we just don’t know what form those jobs will come in.
I’ve told many of you that I will be heartbroken if it is my generation that lets what I call “newspaper journalism” die. That’s strong enterprise reporting, and commentary; that’s emotional columns and powerful photos; that’s lively and compelling design; and that’s making a difference in the lives of our readers.
Are we as essential as we once were in the lives of the populace? Many people think not. And yet, with all of the sources of information available, many people seem woefully ill-informed, whether it’s about politics, or the environment or whatever. This is where we must continue to help people learn - to give them a combination of what they want and what they don’t know they want - until we offer it to them.
The next few years undoubtedly will be challenging for newspapers. If you’re unwilling to change, to experiment, to seek out new adventures, then you’re probably in the wrong business. But for those who stick with it, there are fabulous opportunities. I don’t think we have to reinvent the newspaper but I do think we have to constantly change it. A vision for the future? It will be constantly evolving and nothing - absolutely nothing - is more important than our ability to adapt to change much more quickly in order to better serve readers. I do think we need to strengthen the basics, we need to provide more useful service material, and that means we need to be more relevant in the lives of our readers. But those were always our goals. Doing all of that does not mean longer stories, it means better ones - and as many as we can produce. It means boiling down the wire story from 25 inches, localizing it and collapsing the last 15 inches into 5 bullets. It does mean producing a newspaper with more energy and flair, with scores of stories available each day, with reporters once again vying for 1A because we have more stories than we can print. The best stories come from reporters who are out talking to people. It does mean being better organized and planning ahead. And thinking about photo, graphic, design and online possibilities EARLIER in the story development process.
So, what you’re going to see in the weeks ahead is an evolution - with content and design. Yes, we’ll be rethinking some beats and reorganizing some departments because we’ve reassessed our priorities. Matt, Kevin and others will be refining the design of the Merc - keeping its grace and seriousness while adding more excitement and color. It will be more lively. You’ll also see a newspaper that is designed to accommodate more stories overall, and certainly more shorter stories. Does that mean we’ll still do big projects? Of course. Does it mean we’ll run long stories? Of course
But it also means we will tell stories in other ways - in more Q & As, in more boxes, in more graphics. It means we will be thinking about how we can complement what’s in print with what’s only online - whether that’s video or audio or a slideshow, or a sidebar.
You’ve heard much of this before. What’s different this time? Well, let’s forget about studying what we’re doing, and let’s forget about preparing some long report and instead let’s concentrate on making the paper just a bit better each day. Let’s make our Web site just a bit better each day. Let’s each commit to doing both. Let’s all go home each night and rather than dwell on the past, let’s imagine the future. Let’s think about how we can raise hell, take names, have fun, give readers the unexpected. Give them something special to look forward to each day. D We can do all of this but only if we work together - and have a vision of a caring and interesting newspaper and Web site that are in touch with our diverse community.
To borrow an old expression, let’s carve some new trails in the jungle of journalism! That is the future.
26 Mar 2008 Michael