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The Breaking News Is Bad for San Jose Mercury News

Times Staff Writer

The San Jose Mercury News, founded a year after California became a state, awoke Monday to an uncertain future, a victim of the very trends it had meticulously chronicled.

The announcement by McClatchy Co. that it would sell the Mercury News and 11 other newspapers after the Sacramento-based company takes over Knight Ridder Inc. showed how the newspaper’s prospects had plummeted. It was only eight years ago that Knight Ridder moved its corporate headquarters from Miami -- where the chain’s Miami Herald is published -- to San Jose.

The cross-country shift was a declaration of faith in Knight Ridder’s high-tech future. “There is no doubt that new technology and the emerging power of the Internet will greatly affect how people will get their news and information,” Chief Executive Tony Ridder said then. “As a news and information company, we want to stay very close to developments related to this new medium.”

At the time, the Internet was being harnessed in the garages, universities and low-slung office parks just north of here. Yet instead of riding the digital age, the Mercury News, a fixture of this city since 1851, appears to have missed its chance.

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In significant numbers, readers and advertisers have been abandoning it, as they have just about every newspaper, for new forms of news and entertainment. Yahoo and Google and Craigslist rule now.

And just when salvation, or at least stability, seemed at hand in the form of the McClatchy chain, that buyer decided it saw no future in the Mercury News and announced that it would be putting it on the block.

Newspaper offices tend to be emotional places, and intense feelings were in evidence at the Mercury News on Monday.

Dismay was at the forefront. “Not a cheerful place today,” summarized sportswriter David Pollak. McClatchy’s swift rejection of the Mercury News was taken as a vote of no confidence, a declaration of non-viability.

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“We thought it would be the Mercury News forever,” said Andrea Lema, a longtime veteran of the advertising department. “You would say, ‘I work at the Mercury News,’ and everyone would know what that meant. We were such a huge part of the community. We were the community.

“Now,” she concluded sadly, “we’re orphans.”

How had things come to this point?

The paper had certainly evolved over the decades. It started as the San Jose Weekly Visitor, eventually to be remade as the Mercury. The San Jose News was born in 1883. In 1943, the Mercury company bought the News.

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The papers -- they merged in 1983 -- covered earthquakes, the South Bay community and, most notably, the agricultural landscape’s transformation into the world capital of high technology. The Mercury News won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for its coverage of political corruption in the Philippines and another in 1989 for stories about the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The publication prospered during the regional dot-com surge, with circulation peaking at about 290,000. Currently it’s 249,000, and the slide is accelerating. The newsroom staff has been cut by about a third since the late 1990s.

“Some people said this newspaper hired too lavishly at the height of the dot-com boom,” said Griff Palmer, a database editor.

Palmer seemed more sympathetic to the confession of a former Mercury News executive, who said: “We didn’t make mistakes fast enough.”

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The paper, in this analysis, should have tried more of the tricks that the budding dot-coms around it were using at the time. It should have advanced more boldly even at the cost of reversals. Maybe something would have stuck.

Palmer, a representative of the Mercury News’ Newspaper Guild unit, hopes that the trade union’s offer for the paper will work out.

Others pinned their hopes on a local white knight, someone with a bundle of bucks -- there are certainly enough of them in Silicon Valley -- who would take an interest.

When Kepler’s, a Silicon Valley bookstore that is almost as much a fixture of the area as the Mercury News, abruptly closed last summer, it was rescued by an array of local patrons, including prominent financier John Doerr.

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“I’m not feeling terrible,” said Jon Fortt, a newsroom editor. “A lot of companies fall on hard times, get in disfavor with Wall Street. They’re taken private and given a new vision. They reemerge as something else, something better.”

Fortt is 29 but has already been with Knight Ridder for 12 years -- long enough to have some perspective. “I don’t think the story has finished being told,” he said.

Change is famously the only constant in Silicon Valley. Companies may rise in an instant, stumble and disappear. The Mercury News, just like virtually every newspaper, thought it was merely observing this process.

“We were making good money, hand over fist. Then the computers took over,” said Ken Smith, a pressman. “Everything’s going to change.”

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After 41 years of putting out the paper, Smith will say goodbye Friday. He believes the paper will continue on, but instead of spreading his severance pay over 36 months, he decided to take it all upfront. Just to be sure.


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