By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Some comments have also been harsh. "This initiative is about feigning interest in what people want," one man wrote. "Then the Merc will find ways to cut the product even more." Another said the paper's writing style "is not just bland, it's simplistic. Most of the articles seem to be written at a 6th grade level at best."
Said another man: "Please bear in mind that there is a 'silent majority' of subscribers in this area who read the Mercury News for what it is -- a daily newspaper. We are not plugged into the Internet 24/7. We don't have devices to read the news, anytime, anywhere -- hell, some of us out here don't even have computers. We really couldn't give a damn about your Web site. You have taken us for granted. This is a huge error on your part."
Yet the loudest complaints so far have involved a cutback in Sunday comics and the difficulty in finding crossword and Sudoku puzzles -- hardly what journalists spend their time worrying about. "That is the main thing that drives people nuts. Wow, people love the puzzles," O'Brien says.
Could all this slicing and dicing be for naught? The Mercury News might succeed in jump-starting its Web operation, but online sites, for the moment, don't produce the kind of revenue needed to support a large reporting staff.
Hutton says that when she was growing up in the 1960s, her mother, who raised four children on her own, read an afternoon paper each night. But the industry, she says, has been remarkably slow to recognize that it now competes with everything from video games to cable systems with hundreds of digital channels.
"I've been very clear with everyone since I got here: Nothing is guaranteed in the future," Hutton says.The Blog Bog
As newspapers rush to embrace blogs, some of them are getting bruised in the process.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer launched its Wide Open blog last summer, inviting four local Democratic and Republican activists to write for the site. But after the paper discovered that one of the Democrats, Jeff Coryell, had contributed $100 to a Democratic congressional candidate, Coryell refused a demand that he stop writing about the candidate and was forced off the blog. Editors said they were concerned that the paper's fairness could be questioned since the bloggers were paid. The other Democrat promptly quit, and the Plain Dealer shut down the blog, saying: "A car can't run on two wheels, and Wide Open can't continue with only one side of the political spectrum represented."
Coryell wrote on another Ohio blog that he was "extremely disappointed" the paper had tried "to limit what a freelance political blogger could write." Outside bloggers ripped the Plain Dealer, with Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis calling it "self-centered and truly self-righteous."
The Newark Star-Ledger gave a blog to Carla Katz, president of the New Jersey union representing state and local government employees, and a former girlfriend of Gov. Jon Corzine. Katz soon used the blog to rip Star-Ledger reporter Josh Margolin for being "downright obsessed" with covering her and efforts by dissidents to oust her.
"I was thinking that if the Ledger is going to write soooooo much about me and the Local that I should even the playing field and, well, write about Josh. The Josh chronicles," Katz wrote. "So folks, send me your best Josh Margolin stories." Margolin took the criticism in stride, telling Editor & Publisher, "Once anyone is given the space to blog, the call is clear, they have the right to say what they want to say."
When the Sacramento Bee's Bobby Caina Calvan went to Iraq, he got into a confrontation with a U.S. soldier manning a checkpoint -- and wrote on his personal blog about his attempt to "bully" the soldier. After Calvan drew criticism in cyberspace, McClatchy Newspapers, which includes the Bee, banned all personal blogs by its journalists. "We don't want to be surprised again," McClatchy Managing Editor Mark Seibel told the Bee.Jewel of a Question
The University of Nevada student who closed last week's Democratic debate by asking Hillary Clinton whether she liked "diamonds or pearls" is complaining that her question was "pre-planned" and her preferred question "censored" by CNN.
"See, the media chose what they wanted, not what the people or audience really wanted," Maria Luisa wrote on her MySpace page.
David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, who produced the debate, dismisses the charge as "absurd" and "totally untrue." He says the jewelry query was on a list Luisa had submitted and producers nixed her first choice, on nuclear waste storage in Nevada, because the candidates had already discussed the topic. "That was the question this woman wanted to ask. . . . After two hours of somewhat intense arguing, a gentle ending is not the worst thing," he says.
Bohrman did not dispute complaints of imbalance in CNN's post-debate analysis, including James Carville, who was identified only as a "former Bill Clinton adviser" and CNN contributor. Carville, who has contributed to the New York senator and signed a fundraising letter for her, "is clearly identified with [Hillary] Clinton," Bohrman says. The other guests were David Gergen, a former Clinton White House aide (who also worked for three Republican presidents) and former GOP congressman J.C. Watts. Bohrman says CNN needs "to take extra care to make sure we have balance. . . . We'll remember that one next time."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."