In San Jose, Downsizing With Dynamite
Monday, November 19, 2007
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, 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.
Executive Editor Carole Leigh Hutton freely admits that some readers will be unhappy with the slimmed-down paper.
"Rethinking the newspaper isn't painful," says Hutton, a former Detroit Free Press editor and publisher who took over in May. "What's painful is what we've been doing, which is whittling away at the newspaper. It's the death-by-a-thousand-cuts cliche. . . . To simply continue producing the same newspaper is foolhardy. Let's stop shaving, trimming and paring, and do something from scratch."
The impetus, she says, is budgetary: "We have to have a print product that requires fewer people and less newsprint."
The Mercury News has, among other things, dropped several columnists and axed its Sunday op-ed section. "We have to make some hard choices about what we don't cover," says Matt Mansfield, a former business editor leading the reinvention project, which aims to launch the changes by February. "No one's really looking at us for coverage of the Cupertino City Council." (Unless, he adds, it does something that affects the town's biggest employer, Apple.) "We're spread so thin," O'Brien says. "It leaves us, and readers, less than satisfied."
The newsroom, understandably, is anxious. "When you have the executive editor saying she wants to blow things up, that's not intended to make the staff feel complacent," says Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Pete Carey, a 40-year veteran. As for the notion of combined Live or Play sections, he says, "it's going to be a little weird to put the cooking in with the sports section."
Even Mansfield admits: "I'm skeptical, and I'm running the process." And there's no pleasing everyone: At a recent focus-group session with venture capitalists and marketing executives, several said the proposed changes don't go far enough.
An editors' blog chronicling the debate is, at times, brutally candid. "Personality: The Merc has none. Or at least it's not one that's immediately apparent," one entry says. "We repeatedly heard that people felt the writing and storytelling was flat, monotonous. . . . Many Merc staffers remain cynical that the process is going to lead anywhere."