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Thursday, June 30, 2005

California: the regional newspaper of the future?

The San Jose Mercury News eliminated the traditional local, national, and international news print sections recently, bunching them all into one big 'A' section. Figuring that most readers already know the major US and World headlines before they even pick the Mercury up thanks to TV and the Internet, the daily's editors decided to print them in the back of Section A and place emphasis on local news, something that won't be found as easily from other sources. Important stories not on the front page are neatly briefed in a box with all pertinent headlines for readers to scan, directing them to the Section A page on which the story is printed. Although to some this move may sound logical, especially those who use the Internet as a primary source of news, the Merc's readers responded less than favorably. The most frequent complaint was that it was difficult to share the paper over breakfast with a spouse or family seeing as all of the news is packaged in one section. Others said that instead of heightening the importance of local news, it degrades it, as well as world news, by not providing them with separate sections. The paper's executive editor, Susan Goldberg, was receptive to reader concerns, but her responses tended to support the new initiative, saying it had "created better orgnaization of international news."

What does such a decision, breaking over a century of newspaper tradition, say about where the newspaper industry could theoretically be headed? What about the future of journalism in general?

1. Immediate news: although a sole news section sounds confusing, Ms. Goldberg does have a point: many readers already know what's going on in the world by the time they find the morning paper on their doorstep. Why would they want to pay to hear it again with a newspaper subscription? Seeing as newspaper Websites are still divided into sections, The Merc, notably read by the Silicon Valley crowd, may be guiding traditionalists on the digital way essentially saying, "This is where our medium is going. It's time to get used to it."

2. Changing local journalism: regional newspapers may have to start looking at events outside of their area in a different light. Since most of a paper's readership will already be aware of major national and international news, "What do these events mean for us," style journalism may become the regional norm.

3. Citizen journalism: one critique of the format change questions the relevance of local over broader news saying, "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?" Well, even though some of us place wars and poverty above local news, there are always going to be many people who care about what's going on in their own communities. The Merc might be right in focusing on its region, but how thorough of a job can it even do there? Does it have enough staff to get to every education board meeting, cover every fire, every community event? Chances are, some of these jobs are going to be outsourced to a newspaper's readers as the citizen journalism movement develops.

4. Growing prominence of news agencies: As newsroom budgets are increasingly squeezed, they will have less resources for correspondents and conversely, their national and international coverage will wane even more. News agencies such as the Agence France Presse and Reuters who have the resources will more than likely become even more important than they are now. "But they only syndicate articles, they don't publish newspapers," you may object. Touche! What about these agencies' Websites. Let's take the Associated Press' recent move to charge newspapers for using its content online as of January as an example. Once a co-op for American newspapers, the AP has gradually grown apart from its founders. Does it seem that CEO Tom Curley's decision is simply a means of collecting more revenue, or a calculated decision to siphon more traffic to the AP website, eventually transforming it into a completely autonomous news organization? What happens to traditional newsrooms if this is the AP's plan?

It could be a bumpy ride, but when considering these theories, the San Jose Mercury News just may be on the right path.

Sources: Columbia Journalism Review, San Jose Mercury News

Posted by john burke on June 30, 2005 at 12:41 PM in a. Citizen journalism, i. Future of print, n. Online strategies, r. Revenues and business models | Permalink

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Readers of the San Jose Mercury News, my former employer, were surprised recently by the paper's decision to kill the local sections and move local and regional news into the front section of the paper.

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Comments

Believe it or not, this was a lively topic in a chatroom recently -- a discussion on the relevance of local newspapers today. Consensus was that the newspaper should play to its strengths. National and international stories are carried by everyone, online and in print, but online is nearly immediate. What a newspaper can offer that online can't are the valuable local news and stories for its audience that won't be carried elsewhere. Well done, SJMN!

Posted by: Jeanie at Jul 30, 2005 5:36:48 AM

Doing some book research, I read a small town Idaho paper from 1947 to 1997 and I subscribe to the current edition. The 1947 to 1967 papers were more interesting than those that followed. Todays version is out right boring. The 1947 papers included "comings and goings" columns full of news about neighborhood happenings. About the mid 60s these columns disapeared and the papers got progressively more boring. People are away looking over the back fence to see what neighbors are doing. These "coming and going" columns were about peoples neighbors. The blogs are becoming the current version of these lost columns.

Russ

Posted by: Russell Steele at Jul 5, 2005 4:48:40 AM

My copy editing teacher would have smacked me for writing "they will have less resources for correspondents." (Fewer!)

Emphasis on local news is important. But what's more important is integrity, and not bowing to local pressure from corporate interests in the interests of advertising revenue.

When I worked for an Oregon newspaper, the editorial content catered to timber interests. In Missouri they catered to big corporate and farm factory interests.

The fact of the matter is that publishers are business people, not news people, for the most part. They call the shots slanted in the direction of profits. Even though they occasionally do go against the establishment - we took on the FDIC once, which surprised me - the desire to make money is always going to compromise a publication's credibility in the eyes of its readers. People, at least those who read, aren't stupid.

As long as that is the case, journalists are going to remain the second-worst paid college graduates in America. Social workers being the only ones who are paid less. (I've been both, how dumb is that?)

Come to think of it, maybe the resources set aside for journalists is lesser-quality after all?

Posted by: Eric at Jul 3, 2005 5:15:49 PM