Has the Mercury News changed?
That was the September 8 headline on San Jose Inside. At last count, there were nearly 90 posts in answer to that question, though in truth about half of them seemed to be from two people arguing over who was more hateful and who was more racist.
I certainly have no intention of diving into that well. But I was struck by some of what I read about the paper, and, as the Mercury News’ executive editor, I’d like to address it. I appreciate the invitation from the editor of San Jose Inside to write a guest column to do so.
When you’ve worked at newspapers for 25-plus years, it’s probably unavoidable that you develop a thick skin about what people say about what you do. And at a large paper like ours—with more than 680,000 readers on weekdays, and some 740,000 on Sundays—you hear a lot, some of it positive but, given human nature, more of it not.
I’ve heard many times that we let the generally liberal stance of our editorial pages spill into our news coverage; it may surprise these readers, but I also hear from people, who, upon reading our coverage of the Iraq war, believe we are a tool of the Bush Administration. I hear from some readers that our Middle East stories favor the Israelis; from others that we are pro-Palestinian anti-Semites. Some readers decry our coverage of immigration, saying we do too many stories that paint a positive picture of illegal immigrants; some in the Latino community believe we all but ignore this important issue, thereby proving we don’t value their community.
But I have never heard before that we don’t cover local news. That was the message thread here on San Jose Inside that surprised me, and that I’d like to comment on today.
There is no coverage area that is more important to the San Jose Mercury News than local news—news about our communities, businesses, sports teams, cultural scene and the people who make it all happen. And at no time in the last 20 years has this news mission—carried out in print and on MercuryNews.com—been clearer.
Why? The answer has nothing to do with the change in our ownership. Instead, as with so much else in the Valley, the answer lies in technology: The internet has made news content available anytime, anywhere to anyone. It’s made news a commodity.
That single fact is profoundly reshaping our industry. It’s turned once-a-day readers who knew only what we told them into real-time viewers and listeners who already know most of the national and international news headlines by the time the paper hits their doorstep.
This change has caused every newspaper to rethink what it does, from its content to its business model to its circulation strategy.
From a journalism perspective, it is utterly apparent that what we have to offer the readers of the Santa Clara Valley is unique local content, not the same news that everyone else has. It’s not that Iraq is not important—it is and we will cover the story thoroughly. It’s that you can’t read about shenanigans at San Jose City Hall—or the new Stanford stadium or the HP spying scandal—anywhere else. And no one else will spend three years investigating the Santa Clara County criminal justice system. No one.
You are seeing more local news on page one, not less. That’s why I was surprised by the impression of some bloggers on this site.
But don’t just take my word for it. We went back and looked at front page story selection over the last 20 years. While we didn’t have time to look at every day, we took a snapshot that I think accurately reflects the trend.
We analyzed three weeks of papers for the years 1986, 1996 and 2006. In each of those years, we examined one week in January, April and July. We looked at the same week in each of the three years. Here’s what we found:
The percentage of local stories on page one in 1986 was 52.5 percent. In 1996, it was 61 percent. This year, it was 72.3 percent. And I’ll bet it is actually even higher. On the average day, we put five stories on the front page, not counting the news rail that runs in the left-hand column. On most days, we have four locally-written stories and one story about a national or international news event that we get from one of our wire services.
In addition to the front page, we still have the same sections we always did, each of which is centered on things happening in this community and region: local news, business, sports and features. And while it is true that the paper no longer publishes the weekly supplements, The Guide, which were all about neighborhood and very local news, our company did make a substantial investment in local newsgathering when it bought the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, a chain of local weeklies, and the Palo Alto Daily News, made up of five free local dailies.
When contributors to San Jose Inside say we don’t cover local news, they might be reacting to a change in the way we cover it. Twenty years ago, we would think nothing of running three separate stories from the same San Jose City Council meeting on the front of the local section. Today, we try hard to be less institutional and more interesting in our story selection. That means one story from the city council meeting—and also one on the conditions at local nursing homes and a column on Esther Medina’s need for a kidney transplant. Rather than assigning our local reporters only to cover municipalities, we ask them to cover legal affairs and health policy and the Asian-American community.
There is no doubt that this is a challenging time in our business. Our circulation, like that of just about every other newspaper, is down; our traditional business model is under assault. But technology also is providing us opportunities to do revelatory stories about our communities for even more readers and viewers. Technology can help us be creative in ways we never dreamed of, giving us the ability to reach people who wouldn’t think of picking up a newspaper, but who want our stories online or in a multimedia format.
This is the future. And you can see it unfolding at MercuryNews.com, where the monthly unique visitor count increased by nearly 70 percent from August 2005 to August 2006, to more than 2.8 million visitors.
Make no mistake: We understand that the draw is local, in print and online.
Let me close by sharing two things: our staff goals, and an invitation.
Here are our goals, which were written late last year and are posted all over our newsroom. They say:
“Above all, we are committed to local news that serves a diverse region with an economic engine driven by technology. We will favor exclusive local content in all areas….over commodity news.
“Our role as a watchdog in the community is paramount. We will retain a strong projects team and stress investigative reporting, here and in Sacramento.
“The profound changes afoot in our industry hold great promise for journalism.”
Accordingly, we will put far greater resources and emphasis on delivery of news content across multiple platforms, so we can best position the Mercury News to serve the needs of its readers.
Thank you for your time today. I am, always, distressed when I hear that the paper disappoints people, and those who write to me about it are assured of a response. We do make mistakes, which we acknowledge publicly and discuss internally. Sometimes, we agree to disagree with our readers. But we do want to listen, and to help you understand more about what we do, and to that end, I’ll issue this invitation:
We are happy to have guests at our news meeting, which takes place at 2:30 p.m. on weekdays. It’s the meeting where we pick an initial list of stories for the front page, and we like having company. If any of you are interested in attending, please call my assistant, Pam Larussa, at 920-5915, and she can work out a time that is mutually convenient.
Again, thank you for reading - and for caring about the Mercury News.
Susan Goldberg has been executive editor of the Mercury News since 2003; she was managing editor from 1999-2003. She also has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Detroit Free Press and USA Today.