1. ‘It Was Written’

Randall Keith and I are talking about the past when his boss, Dave Butler, slides open a glass door, eases his long frame into a chair, plants his feet on the conference room table, and makes clear by his weary affect that the topic does not interest him.

Instead, this is what Butler wants to talk about when he talks about his newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News: all the many readers—2.7 million weekly, in print and online when you factor in the Merc’s smaller sister papers across the Bay Area; the Merc’s new “spiffy” app; its willingness to focus on the “important stuff” rather than compete with “every school board that has a website” and all the many tech bloggers—“I have no idea how many blogs are dedicated to covering Apple”—because, he says, the Merc is “willing to be more interesting.” He wants to talk about making money, too, because the Merc makes some. How much he will not say, except that most of the profits still come from print.

Dave Butler has been a newspaperman since 1972, a self-described journeyman who became the editor of the Mercury News in 2008. The paper had been sold two years earlier by its longtime parent company, Knight Ridder, to the McClatchy Company. McClatchy in turn quickly sold it to MediaNews Group, whose chairman, Dean Singleton, put Butler in charge. Three months into the job, Butler wrote a memo to the staff, outlining a vision that could essentially be boiled down to a simple premise: the past could no longer animate the Mercury News. The days of four hundred people in the newsroom, revenues of $300 million and profit margins north of 30 percent, a bureau in Hanoi, a Pulitzer for foreign news, Spanish and Vietnamese language editions, and a Sunday magazine, were gone. The staff of the Merc, now about half the size it was at its peak in the late 1990s, had no choice but to press on with vigor and a sense of mission: “Let’s carve some new trails in the jungle of journalism!”

Butler has the advantage of having missed his paper’s past, and so is unencumbered by the memory of what the place had been, not so long ago. Randall Keith knew. He had arrived earlier, in 1998, just in time to watch the great tech bubble inflate, carrying the Merc along with it. He had left a job as city editor of the Quincy, Massachusetts, Patriot Ledger to join a paper with a national reputation both for its journalism and its profitability. Time magazine had several years earlier dubbed the Merc the nation’s most tech-savvy newspaper. Its revenues from classified advertising—especially recruitment ads for all those many high-tech companies whose every product rollout and inevitable IPO were covered by the paper’s burgeoning business staff—had fueled ever more revenue, $288 million the year Keith arrived.

The Merc was fat, ambitious, and admired in those days, in particular for the speed with which it had adapted to the great technological changes that were shaking the industry. It seemed destined, in fact, to master those disruptions, fitting for a paper whose widely read day-opening blog was called “Good Morning Silicon Valley.”

The Merc was among the first daily newspapers in the country with an online presence, the first daily to put its entire content on that site, the first to use the site to break news, and among the first to migrate that burgeoning online content to the web. In the early 1990s, the joke among the paper’s small online staff was that, given the still modest returns on its digital investment, the paper could still make a few bucks charging admission to all the visitors from papers across the country (and around the world) who showed up to see how they were doing it.

“It was a big adventure,” Keith says. “It was a lot of fun.”

The Merc is headquartered in a white wedding cake of a building that sits off a highway, and across from a largely deserted mall. There is a red linotype machine in the lobby, and late on a rainy afternoon it seems to be the only splash of animation in a building where voices feel not so much hushed as absent. The conference room looks out onto a dim and quiet newsroom. Many of the people with whom Keith once worked are gone. After one of several rounds of newsroom layoffs, a photographer went through the building taking pictures not of people—the people had left—but of rows of empty cubicles, stacked computer terminals, blank bulletin boards, and vacant corridors.

Michael Shapiro is a contributing editor to CJR and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself.