The Tardy Times
       Dean Singleton visits the Mercury News – and smiles
                                                  Photo by Karl Mondon, Contra Costa Times


  In boom-and-bust San Jose, the Merc
  hears 'the throaty roar of chain saws'
JAY HARRIS, a rare publisher with principles, failed to convince Knight Ridder's corporate geniuses in 2001 to refrain from shrinking the San Jose Mercury News editorial staff (then about 380). He had been boss for seven years.
   Harris quit.
   When Knight Ridder backed off from its threat, executive editor David Yarnold ceremoniously tore up the layoff list.
   Everybody cheered.
   Four years later, nobody cheered.
   Dean Singleton, who had replaced the Knight-Ridder owners, broke his no-layoffs promise. His MediaNews minions announced that they would pay 52 editorial staffers to go away. More would follow.
   Yarnold quit.
   His successor as executive editor, the former managing editor Susan Goldberg, reluctantly followed orders but told the newsroom, “There will be no more layoffs.” She was wrong. In 2006 and 2007, MediaNews forced about 80 additional  writers and editors to clean out their cubicles and head out the door.
   Goldberg quit.
   With the editorial staff purged in just six years from 380 to about 200, Goldberg's job was handed in May 2007 to Carole Leigh Hutton, former editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press. She was upbeat about a proposal “to blow up the paper” and a plan to redistribute the stories in three sections – news, business/technology and entertainment/sports. Editor & Publisher's sources speculated that Dean Singleton put the kibosh on the grand plan.  
   Hutton quit. Or was fired.
   She had lasted only eight months.
   Her job was taken by David Butler, 57, who soon moved to Silicon Valley from MediaNews headquarters in Denver. He kept his post as the Singleton empire's vice president for news.
   Butler (at right) waited little more than a month before he sacked another 50 employees, including 20 journalists. That left 153 survivors in a newsroom staffed by 242 when Singleton took over – and about 380 when Harris walked out.
   Butler didn't quit. Not yet, anyway.
   Mercury reporter Pete Carey, the Pulitzer Prize winner assigned to write the story, played it straight. He simply quoted his latest boss, who said, “I’m here to stay.”
ALMOST as upsetting to the remaining Mercuryites is the revolving door for publishers, but the metaphor isn't quite right. The door revolves, but the executives are spun into the street.
    In January, Mac Tully replaced publisher Jeff Kiel, the former ad director.
stint as a strikebreaker in a Masonite plant when he was a young man in    In turn, Kiel had replaced a Singleton veteran, publisher George Riggs, who kept his job as president of the California Newspaper Partnership as overseer of the state's 34 MediaNews papers. (His credentials included a his home state, Mississippi.)
    But in January, the  61-year-old ex-scab was ousted and replaced by Steve Rossi (at left) who, like Tully and Kiel, is a refugee from the decline and fall of the Knight Ridder empire.
THE DISMAL state of the once-proud Mercury News was a prophecy come true for Harris. Seven years earlier he had waved goodbye with a warning to the staff, the readers and the bean counters. He said Knight Ridder's cost-cutting drive to increase profits would risk “significant and lasting harm to the Mercury News as a journalistic enterprise.” And that was before MediaNews continued the demolition of the newsroom.
   All the same, Harris must have been saddened when Wall Street investment vultures forced Knight Ridder sell off its esteemed chain of newspapers and, in a word, die. Although a sorry excuse for a metro paper before the Knights formed a partnership with the Ridders in 1974, the Mercury rose to Pulitzer Prizes and record profits during the dot-com fever that flushed the Santa Clara Valley with prosperity.
ROOTLESS newcomers to the paper, increasingly focused on the rewards of technology, paid little attention to the local histories of boom-and-bust. Sequestered in an industrial park six miles from downtown San Jose, they missed the mindless growth of Sarah Winchester's 180-room house. 
   The most vivid lesson is found in the south valley's New Almaden quicksilver mine, now a county park. From 1847 to 1976, its cinnabar veins produced $70 million in mercury for Gold Rush refineries, munitions for the Union during the Civil War and the stems of a million thermometers. The mine created a half dozen absentee millionaires but killed hundreds of Indians, Californios, Mexicans and Cornishmen through sudden cave-ins and long-term mercury poisoning. (As a young Mercury reporter, the founder of the Gazoot went down into the Yellow Kid Tunnel, did a quickie interview, told himself that ghosts are mere figments – and skedaddled.)
  Seekers of symbols are pleased when told that the mine produced a fitting name for the city’s  only surviving daily. Mercury isn’t just quicksilver. He is  also the official messenger of the gods who, in recent years, have been anointed as the Silicon Valley's Holy Trinity of Google, Oracle and Yahoo.   
    Founded as the San Jose Weekly Visitor in 1851 and soon renamed, the morning Mercury was bundled eventually with the evening News and acquired in 1952 by the sons of a New Yorker, the German-American publisher-politician Herman Ridder. It became an immensely profitable newspaper as the Santa Clara Valley filled up with tract homes and chipyards.
THE MERCURY'S temperature had begun to fall well before Goldberg's vow on a November day in 2005.
    Mark Schwanhausser, the newspaper's longtime business writer, wrote   about it afterwards.
   “Perhaps it was only fitting that I returned to my desk to learn of the death of management visionary Peter Drucker, who believed that, according to the AP, ‘dedicated employees were key to the success of any corporation and that marketing and innovation should come before worries about finances.’ If only that were possible, if only anyone believed that now we can start rebuilding with confidence that the lopping is over . . . ," he wrote.
    “But audible in the background is the ominous, throaty roar of chain saws as Knight Ridder's biggest shareholders press for action, contending that the chain is worth far more if sold, in whole or in pieces. Friday, rumors surfaced that Knight Ridder decided to sell the Mercury News, something KR spokesman Polk Laffoon labeled ‘nuts.’ ”
    Instead, the nut prize goes to Laffoon (best name ever for a flack).
    Knight Ridder's 32-paper chain was sold in March 2006 to McClatchy Newspapers. It dealt the Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Monterey Herald and St. Paul Pioneer Press to Singleton's MediaNews, now an unwieldly assemblage of 61 dailies and 120 other publications.
EVEN BEFORE she could figure out the confusing maze of one-way streets in downtown San Jose, Hutton was saying it's time to “blow up” the Mercury. What she meant, we assume, was reinvention.
    The Washington Post’s reporter on the media, Howard Kurtz, wrote that one blueprint called for the online Mercury to be pumped up with an Huttoninfusion of two-thirds of the print newspaper's staff. It would replace traditional sections of the newspaper with “Live,” “Play” and “Innovate.” Another plan would have eliminated everything but business news of the Silicon Valley.  
    Hutton was quoted as saying, “To simply continue producing the same newspaper is foolhardy. Let's stop shaving, trimming and paring, and do something from scratch.”
   Then she was scratched.
   In January of this year, Singleton named Butler to move into Hutton's recently vacated office. Butler, former editor-publisher of the Detroit News, had been her rival when she was editor of the Detroit Free Press. He will continue as Singleton's coordinator of news and editorial opinion operations at the 68 newspapers and Web sites of the MediaNews empire.
   Hutton's final email to the Merc newsroom said she was leaving with “jumbled emotions” but plans to stay  a subscriber to what's left of the paper she wanted to blow up.

"IN AN ERA of declining circulation and shrinking budgets, virtually every paper in America is trying to jazz up its product while beefing up its online presence," wrote Kurtz. "But the effort in San Jose, where the Internet bubble popped hard in 2000, may be the most ambitious – or the most desperate.”
    He quoted Pete Carey, a 40-year Merc veteran: “When you have the executive editor saying she wants to blow things up, that's not intended to make the staff feel complacent.”
   While Merc survivors waited for more bad news, their East Bay cousins at the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune and other MediaNews dailies were warned in February that perhaps they should update their résumés. The MediaNews layoffs in the Bay Area now include at least 400  journalists, maybe more. And this comes after the ostensible savings from a misguided plan to combine the copydesks into a homogenous one-verb-fits-all uniformity of identical layouts, headlines and generic white-bread writing.
    It makes you long for Bill Knowland and Dean Lesher. Yes, they were rich numbskulls who took perhaps too much of a personal interest in the news pages, but anything is better than the stupefying blandness we associate with USA Today.
    Perhaps journalists sacked by MediaNews are the lucky ones.  That's because of a comment in the Kurtz story: “At a recent (MediaNews) focus-group session with venture capitalists and marketing executives, several said the proposed changes don't go far enough.”
    When “venture capitalists and marketing executives” are asked for their solemn advice on newspapers, it's time to recall a favorite Bitterroot Valley expletive often voiced by the late Melda Ludlow:
    “Ye Gods and little fishhooks.”

                                         – Lynn Ludlow (August 2008)

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