VERSION 1.0 ~ November 2007
Over the past three months, teams of Mercury News employees from all divisions, working in groups of three, have talked to more than 120 media users across Silicon Valley in a process aimed at getting us some quick feedback. Summaries of these reports were presented over the course of four staff meetings. And there has been a follow-up staff discussion about how to re-imagine our print product.
The steering committee began meeting simultaneously to start focusing those discussions and ideas, with an eye toward turning them into concrete products and strategies. This memo will update you on where all of this had taken the committee so far. And where we believe we must go next.
Our big thought: We have a unique position in the community and we should use it to help facilitate conversation.
One of the things that’s making for explosive online growth right now is the fact that communities are forming around popular social platforms (think Yahoo, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter – the list goes on and on). These places are all about conversation and content. And sharing.
Conversation about content leads to relationships. Those relationships then lead to affinity, as many smart people have noticed. We want the Mercury News to be the place where people come to get information about Silicon Valley, talk about their lives, and connect with other people.
In both print and online, we want to move away from broadcasting news to people and find better ways to inform them and make them participants so that the Mercury News becomes the meeting point of the larger conversation the community is having about itself. Think of it as Silicon Valley’s front porch.
Providing information, facilitating this conversation, and being the hub of this community should be our goals, the things that guide both our journalism and our business.
Mention these concepts to people in the newsroom now, they’ll often claim that we do this thing, or offer that feature. We have comments. We have blogs. We have multimedia. People can upload photos and videos. But fundamentally, we’ve failed to become the gathering place for our community. We have not learned how to do these things as part of dialogue.
Beyond this big thought, several other broad themes have emerged from this process …
- Choice: People get their news and information in a variety of formats and places. In print, we offer them one option. Online, we offer them a version of that product, but one that’s not especially dynamic yet.
- Convenience: People say they are busier than ever, too busy to consume the newspaper. But in fact, they find time throughout their day to get news and information: In their car, picking up newspapers left in a coffee shop, talking to friends, surfing the Internet (usually through Google). We believe the age-old argument of too little time does not work because people find time for things they find important — and, unfortunately, for more and more people we are less and less important than the other things that fill their time.
- Networks: People told us that one of their most important sources of information was other people. And while they have networks, they are interested in expanding them or creating others with folks who share their interests or needs or will help them accomplish certain tasks. We believe there is opportunity here.
- Personality: The Merc has none. Or at least it’s not one that’s immediately apparent. We repeatedly heard that people felt the writing and storytelling was flat, monotonous. They wanted some more lively pieces, with more flair. Our writing needs to reflect the personality of our community. Our presentation and packaging needs to show that we live in this amazingly innovative place.
- Innovation: Our technology tools and our online presence in particular are considered dated, both by the casual consumers of media we talked to and inside Silicon Valley’s tech elite. Changing the perception that we’re behind the times is a major hurdle we must get across.
On a more specific level, we heard several things …
- International news: There was a widespread desire for more international news. People are now often going directly to foreign news organizations’ sites to get it. We began seeking ways we could help build conversation around the global scope of life here without feeling the need to deal in commodity news that people can get anywhere.
- More business and technology: Not surprising. But this breaks down in two ways. There are folks who are working in the industry who are constantly searching for information and people that relate to their business. And then there are users, both geeks and casual users who don’t define themselves but still carry around multiple gadgets.
- Better navigation: Our Web site is too cluttered and confusing. While it may be packed with interesting content or features, people are often unaware of these things or can’t find them even if they know they’re there somewhere. People we talked to found it unhelpful.
- News that’s important to me: A large part of what we heard was that people were very interested in things at the micro level, whether that was high school football scores or soccer leagues to where to get the car fixed or have dinner. We think there is a chance to build here, exploring ways to take the many Bay Area resources available to us and help people see we can be their one-stop shopping point.
The challenge now, of course, is to take these concepts and use them to think about how we can better serve our wide-reaching community. Our goal is to create a Mercury News that is distinct and that serves the needs of a smart and vibrant community. We want to accomplish several goals with this process:
How do we deepen and re-imagine our relationship with our community? We want the Mercury News to be a place where people go to connect – to us, to each other – and to become participants and not just consumers of news and advertising.
How do we become the premier source of information about Silicon Valley? This cuts across news, practical knowledge, and learning opportunities.
How do we make the Mercury News the most dynamic, most innovative place to work in our industry? This is not just an imperative driven by our fundamental business challenges. This is necessary for us to truly reflect the region that we want to serve.
The story of global innovation is happening here. We need to not just cover it; we need to be part of it.
What can we start doing right now? We should always be asking that and jumping in with all we have on the best ideas we can get to market quickly.
THE BIG IDEAS
As a starting point, we generated several high-level concepts that suggest new directions …
1) TECH + INNOVATION FOCUS: A completely refocused news product, built around the frame of technology and innovation. The San Jose Mercury News would see its overall story as the narrative of this place called Silicon Valley.
We would redeploy the staff, sectioning and online effort to reflect this news frame. This focus would help give us the kind of momentum we need to drive enthusiasm about the Merc and add personality by giving our products a better a sense of place on a local story that has global implications.
2) A PRINT PRODUCT BASED ON PASSIONS: Inspired by consumer feedback that the news product we make is built for our needs and not for the way people live their lives, we would change the paper to have a focus around these four areas:
- Learn (the news and information section)
- Work (the part of our lives around money, investing, and workplace issues)
- Live (the business of living life in Silicon Valley)
- Play (the leisure part of life here)
We see these ideas playing out in ways that a news product categorized by topic area might not. This needs fleshing out and prototyping work. But we see potential in connecting to people’s likes, hopes and dreams.
3) ZERO BASE THE STAFF, REFOCUS 75 PERCENT OF THE STAFF TO ONLINE FIRST: We dub ourselves an information company that’s platform agnostic, thinking online first and using print as a vehicle to reverse publish from our first platform: mercurynews.com
4) NICHE PRODUCTS IN THE MAIN PRODUCT: Rather than having a single, main print product, create a range of sections and formats that allow readers to get what they want, when they want.
The goal would be to maximize choice and flexibility. There would be a series of sections, anywhere from 8-12, that people could choose to have delivered to their homes. Teams could come together to produce special topical sections when these opportunities are identified. There would be a free afternoon tab (printed and downloadable to letter size paper), with fresh content generated by a staff that comes in early to write for the Web.
There would be a weekend “catch-up” edition with that provides the “Best of the Merc” from that week, perhaps replacing the traditional Saturday newspaper. It might also be printed on better stock and have some coffee table shelf live.
There would be an audio edition designed to reach people in their cars, either via podcast or a broadcast partnership with local radio. An editor would be assigned for each of these sections or formats, and there would be some dedicated staff for each, but some “flex” staff who move across multiple fronts.
Underlying all of these potential directions is a need to engage our community in a different way:
- Community managers: We need to have a team specifically assigned to fostering conversation and identifying places where we can connect with people in ways that will be good for our journalism and our business.
- The rethinking process itself: Starting next week, we will be taking our “Rethinking the Mercury News” process even more public. The steering committee has begun blogging about our sessions and will soon be posting prototypes for comment. And we’ll promote these through our networks, through public appearances, and possibly a weekly column in the Sunday or Monday paper. We’re considering holding a town hall meeting at the Merc (would you come?).
We think this will help on several fronts …
We can build a community around the process. The Merc is Silicon Valley’s resource and everyone here can have a voice. We’ll learn a lot, and, we hope, gather some even bolder ideas. And we can go to places where communities have already formed and tell our story.
We can use this as a way to educate and market what we plan to do. Radical change is coming. If people were that upset about the puzzles, what will they think when we “blow up” the whole paper? We need to begin engaging and educating now so there will be easier adopters of what we make later.
Many Merc staffers remain cynical that this process is going to lead anywhere. Or they think there will be some beat restructuring. By taking this public, we’ll begin to help folks understand that the Merc is about to become a far different place than the one they know. As part of that, we will continue to emphasize that our goal is to produce journalism that is better than anything we’ve ever done and to be a successful business that can sustain our role as the leader of conversation in Silicon Valley.
Community ownership: One challenge we’ll face is the reaction from our long-time readers, as noted above. So we’d like to propose a community ownership program. The idea is to give our long-time readers a “share” in the paper. This would be a non- financial share. But it would be something we could give as a reward to folks who had subscribed for some amount of time, say 2-5 years.
The plan might give them the right to attend a quarterly shareholder meeting where they could here reports from editors and the publisher about various developments. They could ask questions, elect a slate of shareholder representatives that would have an advisory role (maybe we give each representative a column, or blog where they comment on the Merc). People could also earn shares through other means, like participating with us as community managers, posting a certain number of comments, and helping us beta test our ideas for improving.
All of these changes have had – and will continue to have – an enormous psychic impact on the people who work here. At the same time, we believe that the Mercury News could truly be the most exciting place to work in journalism. And we want to convey that to all employees. The Mercury News needs to become famous for innovation. And rather than a one-shot reorganization, it needs to become a place that can constantly reinvent itself. It needs to be a constant cycle of innovation.
To do that, everyone needs to be motivated by more than just fear of losing their jobs. We understand that financial rewards will be limited. But we’ve been trying to think of ways to provide employees with incentives and rewards that will inspire them and convey the idea that they work at a place where anything is possible:
- Storytelling: Reporters in particular would be thrilled to have more opportunity to write with more voice and personality.
- Equipment: For people to embrace new mediums, they must be users. We should state this as a philosophy, but also create programs that either provide, or help people buy new equipment, like laptops, video cameras. We need to live the story to tell it well.
- Incentives for advertising, circulation and production: We should establish an even more far-reaching program for departments beyond the newsroom. Those departments already have a lot of interaction as the public face of the Mercury News many days. Can we establish some novel methods for rewarding the experimentation that will be needed across the board?
- Innovation program: Anyone in the newsroom can propose a job, or a beat, or a product that they want to try. People will submit proposals each month, and the steering committee will review them and pick the most promising one. The two top editors will OK the proposals and have ultimate veto power. If chosen, that person will get three months to pursue their proposal and prove that it is worthwhile. The progress will be re-evaluated and either given additional support or discontinued.
- MediaNews venture fund: For larger ideas that involve new products, we’d like to create an advisory board, of folks in-house and some local venture capitalists. We will make and suggest P+Ls to local management and, ultimately, to MediaNews. (And if you’re reading in Denver, what do you think of this idea?)
- Flexible schedules: Blowing up the newsroom will likely wreak havoc on people’s personal lives. Let’s find ways to mitigate this by creating jobs or opportunities where people can work schedules that are flexible. Besides, if we get the technology right, this will be a lot easier.
THE THINGS WE CAN DO RIGHT NOW …
Some of the ideas will take more time to fully realize, of course. But here are some things we can do right now to show readers and staff that we’re thinking big – and fast.
- Puzzle section: Assign, or possibly hire, a puzzle editor. Create a puzzle only section. Readers have spoken. Let’s give them what they want. This could be a big immediate win to show our audience that we are listening to their concerns, and we’re reacting to how they use the newspaper to fill their time.
- Stories and length: Simply announce that we are changing our writing style. Today. Either a story is worth doing in depth, or it’s a 10-inch piece that respects people’s time. And whenever possible, the writing should reflect the writer’s personality. I want to know it’s a Mike Antonnucci or Sean Webby or Karen D’Souza story even if that person’s byline isn’t on it.
- Begin planning for a single newsroom: Whatever we do, we would argue that we should find a way to place everyone, including the online staff and multimedia people, in a single space. Our newsroom lacks energy, in part because people are spread out over a vast space. And if we cannot all get together physically, let’s figure out virtual space to make that happen.
THE NEXT STEPS
Rapid prototypes and feedback: The steering committee met all of last week to build some rapid prototypes of each of these major ideas. We hope to have the rapid prototypes ready for the senior leadership at the Merc to check out by next week and the rest of the place to see later in the week. Then we want to get some buy-in, refine a little, take those prototypes back to “extreme users” we can identify, as well as hold audience, advertiser and thought leader round-tables. This would all be done in the month of November, so we clear the decks for the holiday season.
The overall implementation: We’re realistically looking at early 2008 for the biggest things, given that we do not want a major product launch during the busy holiday season.
Thanks for reading this far! Please let us know what you think by dropping a comment on this post.