Keith is managing editor of digital content for the Merc and for the Bay Area Newspaper Group, of which it is a part. He wants to make clear that while the past was a glorious time, he, like Butler, is thinking of the future because, as he puts it, there is always another story to cover.
“Would you like to have more?” Butler asks. “Yes. But you play the cards you got. You can either be a wimp, and bitch and moan. Or you can go after the story.”
For years, I had heard from friends who’d worked at the Merc what a terrific place it was, how the paper, which until the late 1970s had been “profoundly mediocre,” as one longtime editor put it, had twenty years later become so rich and successful that it was setting its sights on becoming nothing less than the “best in the West.” The Merc was one of the jewels of the most respected chain in the business—Knight Ridder, then the owner of thirty-one papers, including Pulitzer machines like The Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Merc, which had won one in 1986 for its coverage of Ferdinand Marcos’s hidden wealth, and again in 1990 for its coverage of the San Francisco earthquake.
Then, things began slipping.
And when the end came in 2006, when Knight Ridder, under the most extreme pressure from its institutional investors, surrendered and sold itself, the people who had seen the Mercury News not as a stepping stone but as a destination, began trying to sort out who, exactly, was responsible.
They are hardly alone. There is no shortage of reporters of a certain age for whom the past is darkened by memories of the slow erosion of the places where they labored and the work that they did. The story of the Merc’s rise and decline—there is nothing so telling as only four pages of midweek classifieds—mirrors the story of what has occurred at so many once big and proud newspapers across the country that are still trying to make sense of what happened to them over the past decade and what lessons might be drawn from all the cataclysmic change.
But the fall of the San Jose Mercury News was different, because the Merc, Silicon Valley’s paper, had advantages enjoyed by few other dailies—in where it was based, in the affluence of its readers, in its ownership of one of the great transformative stories of the age. The Merc had also been quicker than most to recognize the change that was coming. And from those early glimpses, clues began to emerge about the shape of a news business that, if they were to be heeded and believed, would bear little resemblance to the one that existed in the early 1990s.
The signs of change, and potential ways of adapting to it, were there for anyone to see. Most did not. Not even the forward-looking men and women at the Mercury News and the chain that owned it. So it was that by the time Randall Keith arrived, that early advantage, that initial boldness, had dissipated. The Merc had become yet another newspaper trying to keep up.
Why did the Merc fail to seize the future? Was this the result of greed, stupidity, timidity, and blindness, as so many who worked there would suggest? Or was it the inevitable consequence of disruptive technology, a phenomenon whose most vulnerable targets are often the best-run companies?
I was soon to discover a great, almost visceral desire to assign blame, even now, especially among those who felt betrayed by people in whom they once placed their trust. Among the men and women who made the decisions, however, the tone was different. Perhaps, they suggested again and again, there was nothing anyone could have done to save the Merc, or Knight Ridder.
“Just because you see a locomotive hurtling down the track toward you doesn’t mean you can get out of the way,” says Bob Ryan. He had come to the paper in 1981, just as it was shaking off the torpor of the past. He had been a city editor and business editor, rising to deputy managing editor and then director of electronic publishing before moving to Knight Ridder’s digital division—a progression that had allowed him to both see, and feel, the alternating pulses of excitement and resistance as the newspaper, and later the chain, tried and mostly failed to be a leader in a rapidly changing world. It left him sounding like a fatalist.
“It was written,” he says. “It was going to happen.”
But was it going to happen?
Was it written?
2. The Flawed Prophet