Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Newsroom Cutbacks Mean Worse News

My local paper here is the San Jose Mercury News. It's actually been a fine newspaper in the past, perhaps running a bit behind the San Francisco Chronicle, but with a solid national bureau and dependable local coverage that focuses on the South Bay area.

Or at least it was. The Mercury News was the flagship paper for the Knight-Ridder chain, which was sold off and cut up recently, its remains divided between McClatchy and MediaNews. Anyone could have seen what would come next: relentless cost-cutting at the papers, as local newsrooms are cut to the bone and the content is filled with wire stories or reports from other cities.

That's been disappointing for me. As a relatively recent transplant to Silicon Valley, I've come to rely on the Merc to catch me up to speed on the area's local politics, culture, and history. Frankly, if I want to read national news, I'll be getting it from the New York Times or off the Google News wire; the only reason why I turn to the Merc is to get the stories that I can't read anywhere else, the stories about what's happening in my back yard.

In the last few weeks they've been going through some of their toughest newsroom cuts yet; they recently finished the third round of cuts, this time eliminating about 20% of the remaining newsroom staff. It would be bad enough if that meant less local coverage. No, what this means instead is AWFUL local coverage.

You may not be able to view the story without registration, but check out this article on presidential candidates' fundraising in Silicon Valley. Now, this is just the sort of thing I want to be reading: it contains good information on the importance of the region to national politics, the ongoing trends in political affiliation here, names of some major local players, and so on. Then I get to this bombshell: "Even Edwards, Al Gore's vice-presidential pick in 2000..."

That's it, man. Game over.

At that point, I stopped reading the article. I stopped reading the paper. Because, frankly, if they can't get something simple like that correct - something that most high school seniors probably know - then how can I trust them to get anything else right?

In order for this to have gone into print, two things must have both gone wrong. First, I hate to sound mean, but the author has to be an idiot. Secondly, the editor must not know anything - or else they've eliminated the editors from the newsroom entirely. This is the sort of error that SCREAMS off the page. If a single person with a brain (who hasn't been living in a cave for the past eight years) had read this before it went to press, it simply would have been caught.

So that's a major bummer. I periodically have these crises of faith in the mainstream media. As most everyone has noticed, whenever you read a story about a topic with which you're well acquainted, it's startling how often you'll find information which is misleading or outright incorrect. This prompts you to question how much faith to put in the stories about topics you don't know much about - which, after all, are presumably the reason you're consuming the news in the first place.

But this seems even worse than usual. This is a canary dying in the coal mine sort of moment. I'm a little hesitant to condemn an entire paper based on a single error, but given the error's appearance in the midst of the cutbacks, it's impossible to resist drawing the conclusion that the Mercury News has turned a corner and will descend into the depths of mediocrity. I don't expect it to return.

It's a shame, and honestly, I probably bear at least part of the blame. For the first year I was here I would buy a Sunday copy of the Merc almost every weekend, but ever since the Albertson's closed I've stopped even doing that. I visit their web site regularly - flipping through the local stories is part of my morning routine - but I don't think I've ever clicked on an advertisement in there. I consume their news without providing any money for them, so it doesn't seem fair for me to complain that they're sinking.

It's a sad situation, but one that we'll get through. In the short term I'll probably start hitting the Chronicle much more often and phase out the Merc. The Chronicle has its own problems, though. The future of local journalism probably lies in blogging - they don't make the same claims of objectivity that traditional media does, but at least they wear their affiliations and limitations on their sleeves. It will take a bit more work, but I can see myself getting as good or better news from a well-selected group of active local bloggers as I can from a major daily.

We'll see how it goes.

You know what's especially grating? At the time I'm writing this, about two days after the article was first posted, there still hasn't been any correction. I'm convinced that there's nobody left in the Mercury News newsroom, just a bunch of sad monkeys sitting in front of their typewriters.

In other news: we're pathetic. I used to make fun of Texas for shutting down when they get an inch of snow, but this is way worse. What's really embarrassing is that I'm totally turning into a... Bay Arean? What's the word for that? Anyways, I'm feeling the same shock - shock! - that others are that we (gasp) actually got one percent of one inch of rain in JULY. Amazing!

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