In that, the paywall seems like a necessary innovation to make people pay for value by restricting the supply of professional content and research. The profit margins won’t be quite as high because the ad model won’t pay as much as it did, but getting the users to pay for what they read is a workable model so long as the quality of what they’re reading exceeds that which they can get for free.
What the Merc Meant
Thanks to Michael Shapiro for his fascinating article about the San Jose Mercury News and its early role in digital news (“The Newspaper That Almost Seized the Future,” CJR, November/December). I was on the newspaper staff there from 1987 to 1994, some of the paper’s salad days. I spent most of my time at the Mercury News on the city desk in San Jose as special beats editor, deputy city editor, and acting city editor. One day in 1994, Bob Ingle, then executive editor, came to the bureau to talk about the future. He told reporters that someday they’d be carrying audio recorders, taking pictures, and shooting video. His reception was silence and shock. Ingle, as your piece suggests, was a somewhat taciturn sort who kept his own counsel. But he had as good a vision of the future as anyone in those years. Too bad he didn’t help Knight-Ridder chart a new course. But as Charlene Li apparently learned in two years, according to your article, this was a company that keyed on short-term earnings only and maximizing the bottom line.
That, of course, wasn’t the staff’s desire. I wouldn’t necessarily call the Merc a great paper in my time. But it was a very good paper with many reporters and editors who have gone on to enormous careers. When I left, I went back to the “academy” (I’m now an associate professor at Emerson College’s journalism department). But I left my heart in San Jose.
I worked in advertising at the Mercury News during the period described here. Based on the events I participated in, the things I heard about, and from what I remember this story is accurate, insightful, and contributes vastly to the story of newspapers in the digital age.
But after reading it, I am somewhat inclined to say, “So what?” My last year as classified manager we did $120 million in help-wanted alone. A couple years later—after I retired—that number dropped to about $10 million. Filling jobs and selling cars and houses works well on an electronic platform that has no need for an expensive adjunct that produces content. I’m with Bob Ryan on this one. The train was going to get us pretty much no matter what.
San Jose, CA
Newspapers and the people who run them are by definition conservative. They write the first draft of history, so they’re reluctant to make mistakes. That was especially true at the Merc after “Dark Alliance,” so it’s amazing they went as far as they did with Mercury Center. The opportunity was there, but the vision to exploit it by fundamentally changing the business model, could never find purchase in a corporation ruled by newspeople. That said, the reporters and editors at the Merc were incredibly talented at what they did best—producing good journalism. Unfortunately, what they did best was not what the business needed to survive.
Los Altos, CA
Spirit of St. Louis