behind the news

The Mercury News Stirs Up a Hornets’ Nest – Readers

June 29, 2005

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, maybe it makes sense for the Mercury News to focus on what remains: the happenings in and issues of its own backyard.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

One reader complained that the new format speaks to the paper’s lack of perspective on what merits top billing: “I find it very discouraging that we’ve forgotten about what is really important in this world — the current war affecting thousands of lives and families, poverty, education, etc. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after seeing Mr. Roadshow’s column appear on the front page of the main section … What does it say about our society when we’d rather read about a pothole or speeding ticket, then what truly matters in the world today?”

Another reader speculated that the new format both “reduces the impact of the local news by not giving it its own section” and “lowers the prestige of the newspaper as State/National/World news is shoved further back.”

But the most common complaint on the site was a much more basic one: the disruption of an ingrained morning ritual. Even if you don’t do it yourself, you can picture the scene: husband and wife sitting at the kitchen table for a few precious minutes before setting off for the harried workplace, he with a giant mug of coffee and the World News section, she with a dainty cup of tea and the Metro section.

The picture isn’t quite so pretty when the three major news sections are all lumped into one, and man and woman find themselves in a childlike brawl over who gets the Giant Section O’ News, and who’s stuck with sports, business and ephemera.

It sounds like a fairly petty complaint at first — “You messed with my morning routine.” But maybe the Mercury News has actually stumbled onto a reminder of why people still love their local daily paper, despite the fact that it’s more expensive and less impressive than online alternatives. They love it because of the tangible, timeless actions that go along with it: picking it up outside the door, spreading it out all over the kitchen table, swapping sections with family members, and tucking that last section into a briefcase to finish during the day’s commute.

The executive editor of the Mercury News, Susan Goldberg, answers the letters of frustrated subscribers by reminding them that change is hard, and urging them to give the new format a few more days. And, obviously, if she and her colleagues have their wits about them, and the protests continue, that format may only have a few more days. Shouldn’t take long to find out.

For now, we’ll say this: Maybe the best thing the Mercury News has going for it is readers invested enough in the newspaper to squawk when they wake up one morning to find it all changed around.

And that’s a strength. What would be really scary is if editors flipped the thing on its head and were greeted by little more than loud yawns.

–Samantha Henig

Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.