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
Congratulations on your fiftieth anniversary. But I was disappointed in your erroneous statement that the award-winning St. Louis Journalism Review (SJR)—among other regional reviews—“didn’t make it” (“Opening Shot,” CJR, November/December 2011), and in your refusal to publish a correction. St. Louis recently celebrated SJR’s fortieth anniversary with a gala event. Yes, in recent years, the survival of SJR was threatened many times. However, the commitment of its readers, writers, and contributors helped overcome these difficulties. We found a willing partner in the journalism school at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. SJR transferred there last year. We added the name Gateway Journalism Review to reflect its expanded focus to sixteen Midwestern states. The cover of every issue states “The St. Louis Journalism Review presents the Gateway Journalism Review.” The St. Louis operation continues under editor Roy Malone. To paraphrase another Missourian, the report of our death has been greatly exaggerated.
Founder, editor/publisher emeritus
St. Louis Journalism Review
St. Louis, MO
The editors respond: It is good news that the spirit of the St. Louis Journalism Review lives on under a different name, business model, institutional host, and mission. For those reasons, we chose not to run a correction, but are happy that we could provide our readers with more of the story.
Three Cups of Context
Alissa Quart’s “The Long Tale” (CJR, September/October 2011) says that writer Jon Krakauer came to 60 Minutes in 2010 with “his findings” about Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, and the mismanagement of his charity that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It goes on to say that “as is typical for television, the show was slow to get his story on the air…. So Krakauer decided to write about Mortenson himself.”