Monday, March 20, 2006

Save the Mercury News?

Saving the Mercury News? This strikes me as a little like the "third rail" of our world -- talking about the future of print media in an online forum run by the very print business being discussed... But it is an important question that deserves a serious answer.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a strong supporter of a free and independent media. I am in the camp that believes that democracy is only possible when the society supports and protects a free flow of information and ideas. I am strongly influenced by thinkers such as Richard Rorty ("Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself").

But I am troubled by the notion that the Mercury News needs to be "saved." What exactly does this mean? A review of the "save the merc" website does not clarify the situation. On this site I read:
"We are apprehensive that a buyer who does not understand our community and value the journalism that we provide will adopt what one Wall Street analyst termed a "scorched earth" policy. Under this scenario, substantial cost-cutting and smaller staffs would follow a sale. The impact on our community of readers and advertisers would be severe."
If the impact on the "community of readers and advertisers" was severe, then this business strategy of destroying the value inherent in the community coverage would be counter-productive to the goal of running a profitable business. Why would a buyer destroy the asset that he or she purchased?

In the "State of the Media 2006" - a report out from The Project for Excellence in Journalism ( we learn that newspapers are reducing local coverage all over the country. Philadelphia, offered as emblematic, has half as many reporters (24) covering the local community than they had in 1980 (46). Some of this attrition might be attributed to increasing productivity, but clearly some of it is due to a reduced editorial budget which comes as a direct result of dropping readership and advertising.

So it is not unreasonable for the Mercury News staff to worry that their paper may get leaner in the years to come. Especially if the current trends continue and readership of print continues to decline. And especially if the print mode is the primary focus of their enterprise.

But as Silicon Beat itself has shown, there is a vibrant community of interest online for the kinds of local coverage (tech industry in this case) that journalists at what we have come to call big city newspapers can offer. So perhaps the real challenge for "saving" the San Jose Mercury News and other daily papers is to learn how the new online media can prove to be a generator of readership and advertising as the old media of print declines into our memories.

Change is hard. People have a lot of trouble with change. But somehow we live in a world of flush toilets, jet airplanes, and the Internet anyway.

No comments: