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Friday, July 01, 2005

The regional newspaper of the future II: interview with the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News

In case you missed our previous posting, the San Jose Mercury News has recently undergone a change in format, organizing local, national and world news, traditionally separated in distinct sections, into Section A. The front page contains a news rail which directs readers to major stories inside the paper and more emphasis is placed on local news. The Editors Weblog asked the Merc's executive editor, Susan Goldberg, about the paper's transformation in an email interview:

1. What prompted you to try this new format? How much did the impact of immediate news provided by the Internet influence your decision? John, first, I'll have to quibble with the way you framed your original posting. "Bunching them up into one big A section" isn't how I'd characterize it. The local, national and world news is clearly organized and labeled, with local news appearing first. And, of course, we still have important world and national stories on the front page. Although our typical front page is/has/has been 75% locally produced stories, this week we've also had front-page pieces on the Supreme Court's rulings, President Bush's speech on Iraq, Bush approving a shake-up of the nation's intelligence services and Afghans fearing the Taliban is behind new violence there.

We're emphasizing local news because it's what makes us unique -- what we can give our readers that they can't get elsewhere. And by local I don't just mean neighborhood news: I mean significant watchdog reporting on state and local officials, in-depth stories about area technology companies and examinations of our culture and our institutions. The trick is to do all that without diminishing other coverage. In fact, we've added space to our international report, given pages clearer labels and provided 1A news rail to guide readers to the top news inside the paper.

And, yes, the Internet and 24-hour television news were among the drivers for us. We hear from readers on a regular basis -- in e-mails, in person, in focus groups, in scientific studies -- that they already know our big national and international news headlines by the time they pick up the paper in the morning. We felt we needed to react to that -- here in tech-savvy Silicon Valley, especially.

2. Has this decision changed your job as an editor? What about other editors in the newsroom?

Well, it sure has for the last week or so: I have spent a lot of time answering reader mail! But beyond that, our new approach is forcing us to hone our news judgment. A car bomb in the Middle East that our readers have heard about the day before, isn't an automatic front-page story for us. It's allowing us to broaden our definition of news. It's also leading us to better plan our local report. When we made the commitment to emphasize local news, it became imperative that we have a string of front-of-the-book worthy contenders, from watchdog reports on city hall and Sacramento, to profiles of interesting people in Silicon Valley.

3. Has the new format changed the way in which you newsroom works? How has your staff responded?

The staff has been great. It took a total newsroom effort to shape and launch these changes, from assigning editors, to copy editors, to designers, reporters, photographers and photo editors, artists and our Web staff. It takes more planning and collaboration to produce this paper now.


4. Why the emphasis on local news? Has this emphasis changed the dynamic of your website as well? Are you considering including citizen journalists to cover local news?

As I said, local news is our niche. It's the kind of news that readers cannot get elsewhere and what makes the Mercury News unique in this market.

Yes, our Web site has played a key role in this new approach. More of our reporters and columnists are writing blogs or online Q&A columns, including me:

http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/qa_forum.htm?forumId=1556

And our Friday Arts and Entertainment Interactive section has a corresponding blog where readers can post their own reviews and comment on those reviews.

http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/index.html

We print a sampling of the best in the paper. Within the first week, we've had more than 11,000 unique visitors. There's also an area for teens to post their reviews. Here's how one person responded to a teen review of "Batman Begins":

"Wow...Nice review kiddo...I was going to wait until Monday but I may see it tonight...If I can get tickets."

As far as citizen journalists covering news, we have no plans to do that at the moment, though we do have a teen page where area high schoolers cover stories each week.

5. Considering the negative reader responses, do you think you?ll have to return to the traditional format? Will this impede upon any future plans you have for the paper?

Not all of the response has been negative, John. Some readers tell us they prefer having their local, national and world news organized into one meaty news section, and a number have said they like the emphasis on local news. The 1A rail is a hit, and so is the Calendar section on Monday, which lists that week's community events. The interactive features are getting a lot of attention from readers, and we've had very positive responses to the new Real Estate and House+Home section. I do think it has been important for me to respond to the readers who don't like the changes, and I've tried to be very up front about doing that, addressing their concerns both in print and in my online Q&A. It would be a little self-serving if I only highlighted the positive comments.

We're committed to this approach for now. We don't have plans to return to a separate local section.

And as for the future, well, I don't see how this would impede us at all. This newsroom has never shied away from making bold moves. Stay tuned.

Stop by Susan's Q & A forum and the San Jose Mercury News

Posted by john burke on July 1, 2005 at 10:36 AM in d. Design and infographics , i. Future of print, k. Circulation and newspaper launches | Permalink

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