Tuesday, December 16, 2008

slash and burn optimism

Jack forwarded this piece from the NYT on Dean Singleton, owner of MediaNews, which bought our hometown Mercury News from Knight Ridder a few years back. The results have been disastrous for local news junkies -- but a boon for local PR firms, local university journalism programs and Stanford University, all of which have been flooded with solid-gold resumes from veteran staffers who were either bought out or laid off.

But I digress. You've read about Singleton on jlinx before.

In the story, Richard Perez-Pena writes that while MediaNews' timing in buying the Merc and several other dailies couldn't have been worse, Singleton remains optimistic, predicting that "the Mercury News’s revenue base will perform better when things turn around than almost any newspaper in the country.”

Really?! Let's hope that when "things turn around" there will more than a few pages of newsprint left. Counter point from the story:

"Others are not so sure. 'The Bay Area has been the canary in the newspaper coal mine, and that was recognized a long time ago by a lot of people,' said Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst at the firm Outsell. “The impact of the Internet has been heavier here and earlier here than anywhere else in the country.”

"Sites like Craigslist and eBay, which have long fueled the migration of advertising to the Internet, began in the Bay Area, and are more entrenched there than in any other part of the country.

"Already known for squeezing costs as hard as anyone in the industry, Mr. Singleton and his team have cut spending at a furious pace, trying to keep pace with tumbling revenue. His detractors among analysts and journalists concede that in this market, any owner would have to make deep cuts. But they say that he was already inclined to a slash-and-burn approach that is little more than a prescription for having the papers do steadily less, and do it less well.

“'There’s no newspaper in the country that I know of that’s not suffering,'” said John McManus, a journalism professor at San Jose State University. “'But Dean Singleton has hollowed out The Mercury News.'”

"The Mercury News, the Silicon Valley paper that was long considered one of the nation’s best, began shrinking years before MediaNews took over, under the now-dissolved Knight Ridder chain. The news staff, from a high of more than 400 people early in this decade, has fallen below 150, producing a much slimmer, more locally focused paper.

"It no longer has a movie reviewer. The science and book sections are gone. Most national and international news comes from wire services.

"A business section that was one of the nation’s biggest has shrunk by about two-thirds in the face of competition in its bread-and-butter field — technology — from Web sites like CNet and TechCrunch. Matt Marshall, a reporter covering Silicon Valley’s venture capital scene, left The Mercury News and has his own Web site, VentureBeat, covering much the same ground.

“'My philosophy on pretty much everything these days is born of pure necessity,'” said Bud Geracie, the acting sports editor. “'There’s no grand plan; it’s how we get through today.'”

"Dave Butler, the executive editor, acknowledged that the paper no longer had the ambitions it once did. Now, he said, “'we’re protecting the core mission, which is good, hard local news and information.'”

"Ownership changes and disputes over the direction of the paper have contributed to rapid turnover in the top ranks. The Mercury News has had six publishers and four executive editors in this decade."

There's more. Read it and weep. We do every morning. bk

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