We all know that online newspapers are giving print pubs a run for their money these days. After all, how can bulky, grimy, daily newspapers compete with the ever-updating, easily searchable, multi-media offerings of the online world? Especially given that readers have to pay to get the former, while the latter most often requires no more than a computer, an Internet connection, and a willingness to give out your address and phone number (you slut!).
So what’s a daily to do? The revenue that keeps the place going is still mainly from print, but the readership is migrating online a lot faster than are the ads that pay for it all.
Some newspapers are responding to that threat by juicing up their online counterparts — you know, so that they’re ready when Armageddon comes. We’ve seen some strange things result from special “online only” features, but we’ve also seen some real winners.
The other tactic is to try to offer something in your print edition that readers just can’t get from the Internet. And that’s what the Mercury News of San Jose, California was going for, apparently, when it launched a new format for the paper last week. Whether or not that was a good move is still very much up for debate.
What the Merc did was to abolish the whole notion of separate sections for local, national, and world news — come on, separate sections are something you can get on the Internet — and collapsed all those stories into one A section, with oomphed-up emphasis on local news. In fact, it’s not until about halfway through the section that you even see any mention of newsworthy topics like, oh, President Bush, or the turmoil in Middle East.
The thinking is that if people can get national and international news for free online from the New York Times or CNN.com, maybe it makes sense for the Mercury News to focus on what remains: the happenings in and issues of its own backyard.
It’s not surprising that the Merc decided to change things around — what it was doing before clearly wasn’t working. As reported in Editor & Publisher, the paper experienced one of the biggest circulation declines in the industry for the six months ending in March: daily circulation fell 7 percent, and Sunday circulation dropped by 10 percent.
So a drastic turn made a certain amount of sense — unless, of course, you’re a reporter who joined the Mercury News in hopes of being sent overseas. The question is, where does the turn take you? In practice, the new emphasis means that instead of leading with, say, coverage of the war in Iraq or the latest in the John Bolton saga — issues that truly divide the nation and, presumably, the Mercury News’s readership, as well — the paper turns over its front-page real estate to such local features as Mr. Roadshow, a Q&A-style column about, well, about commuting in and around San Jose.
To be fair, not all local news is as trivial as “Mr. Roadshow And Friends Discuss Speeding Tickets.” Last week, the Merc had front-page stories about a San Jose hospital that might open a clinic, police preparation for an anarchist protest set to hit Palo Alto, and the arraignment of an accused San Jose sex offender — all arguably legitimate front-page news for people living in the area.
Giving local stories top billing means squeezing the national news into a headline-heavy index on page one. That much we can deal with. After all, even big papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post play up local news on their front pages.
But once you flip past that neatly ordered front page, things deteriorate quickly.
We expected to see the entire front section arranged with the same philosophy as the front page — the biggest news stories come first, with the understanding that a major local news story matters more to the readers than a minor national news update.
But that’s not how the system works. Instead — just as in the days before the Merc’s transformation — local, national and international news remain separate, each in its own place.
And the place for national and international news, it turns out, is deep in the bowels of the A section. We found that set-up a tad upsetting — clearly we have a penchant for the national and international. But lest we be swayed by East Coast elitism, we checked on the paper’s online reader feedback to see how Californians were handling the change. And for a bunch of chilled-out surfers (that is what all Californians are like, right?), they sure are worked up.