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Silicon Valley thought leaders: Be more disruptive

November 11, 2007 | Author: mattmansfield | Filed under: Inspiration, Resources, Community, Online, Prototypes

Group meets at the Merc

A group of invited Silicon Valley thought leaders came to the Mercury News offices on Friday for a debrief session on two different plans we have for revisions to the print paper, as well as some work we’re already kicking off online.

The headline? We like that you’re thinking in new directions, but we think you need to be more disruptive in how you change the Merc. The clear consensus was that our ideas, which look bold from an insider view, appear to be just tweaks around the edges when you’re looking with fresh eyes. They wanted us to push the process far more, almost to a level of discomfort “so you’re challenging all the regular assumptions about the Merc.”

The group also suggested that the Merc try to see itself as “owning” the story of Silicon Valley. They even suggested we re-brand ourselves as the Silicon Valley Mercury News. They thought that the San Jose name and frame might be limiting our scope. They also know we own the siliconvalley.com domain so they believe we should leverage better that competitive advantage.

Other suggestions from the gurus for our steering team?

  1. Do try new things. Be more experimental to show that we’re part of the innovation economy we cover. Try all the new tools in delivering video, multimedia and storytelling. Get the audience more involved in helping the Merc tell the story of Silicon Valley.
  2. Do all news first online. Go full speed ahead with the online-first strategy because immediacy is important. Many in the group said they never even think of picking up the physical newspaper, but that they are viewing our content all the time online (and not just through our site, but with their own custom feeds and aggregation tools).
  3. Do help facilitate the conversation. Do try to be the conduit for growing the discourse community about what it means to be a resident of this very special place. “No one else in Silicon Valley is connecting those dots,” one observer noted. And go places where the conversation is already happening to spread the word.
  4. Do encourage and grow our relationship with citizen journalists. Help the pro-am journalist conversation with better outreach efforts. Work hard to make our platform be one where people know dialogue is happening. Help train people and provide tools for a working relationship between citizens and the Merc in coverage.
  5. Do cover start-ups and early stage aggressively. The story of “the next big thing” is one that the group felt the Merc used to be very good at doing. They feared that has become lost in recent years. They also noted that it’s an area where we could create a franchise in coverage few news organizations could touch.
  6. Do not forget women and people of color as we do all of this. One of the things the group believes the Merc has been good at doing is reflecting the diversity of this region, but they expressed a fear that greater coverage of innovation and tech not be dominated by a focus on the parts of the field that are traditionally dominated by men.

Thanks to the Silicon Valley pros who came by on Friday … We’re revising our rapid prototypes based on your ideas, and we’ll be giving a download to senior leadership here at the Merc next week. We’ll report back and reconvene the group soon!

~ By Matt Mansfield

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26 people have left comments

I’m already thinking I should be prepared to be disappointed. Whenever you hear some manager talk “design” and “technology”, bad things always follow. Despite previous comments, I do not think nor believe these changes are design-driven, these changes are clearly nephew-art driven (http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons/?id=19980905).

Newspapers require a sense of tradition, they are not solely about news (otherwise TV and internet would long ago have killed them off). And newspaper readers want a sense of continuity, something to read, something to handle, something to write on, something to flip through, something to hold in one hand to balance the coffee in the other.

Resist the temptation to cut things short and add in “for the rest of the article, visit us online.” That way lies failure. Despite appearances, those of us living in silicon valley do not have a computer in every room. We do not want to spend the time lugging the laptop into the kitchen, plugging it in, waiting for Windows to boot up, find the wifi signal, attempt to logon to a site just to look at what should have been included in the paper in the first place.

Design-driven means the designer pays attention to the customers, the subscribers who actually buy the paper, read the paper, use the paper, to the constraints of tradition and expectation, not “Silicon valley thought leaders”. Nephew-art means changes are made for no other reason than design-for-design’s sake, for the elitist attitude that the designer knows best, because the manager of the design department has been suckered into believing that shinier is better.

Edward Stapleton wrote on November 11, 2007 - 4:24 am | Visit Link

Thanks for the comment, Edward. I think you’re essentially capturing the struggle that many of us who are longtime journalists feel and that we particularly were aware of as the folks we invited in challenged us.

We’re keenly aware that the reading experience in print is very different than online. Many of us love that experience and are seeking ways to preserve it. We know that we’re not alone, since so much of our revenue and audience loyalty comes from the good old newspaper. We think it will for a long time (at least, we hope it does).

So, while we heard that we need to be boldly experimental with our online offerings, we also are interested in making our print Mercury News more than a way to refer to “more online” or be some such vehicle for giving a less than desirable product.

And there’s our challenge. The Mercury News, trust us, is hardly alone in trying to grapple with this.

Let us know more ideas for how to strike that balance.

mattmansfield wrote on November 11, 2007 - 4:37 am | Visit Link

You know how I said, “Despite appearances, those of us living in silicon valley do not have a computer in every room.”?

Well, speaking personally, I want my comics back. All 6 pages of them. Not cool. Our subscription is for the print edition. If you want to keep cutting content, then you can damn well pro-rate the subscription costs.

Be very wary of forcing people into the online field. You currently don’t have anything that sets you apart from any of the other online news sources (and you are significantly behind already established sites). For current and accurate news, I already use Google News, for topical news, I use digg, for comics, I go straight to the creator’s site. I definately do not use a portal (especially a portal that doesn’t even have basic navigation like Previous and Back buttons — yes, I’m talking about mercurynews.com/comics).

Edward Stapleton wrote on November 11, 2007 - 7:09 pm | Visit Link

Hi as a long subscriber we have played the word game which was published in the comic section. Your recent (last year) change to Web only was OK until the last few weeks when the format was changed eliminating the printable option. Now the printed copy resulting from the print command is incomplete and often overlaps the ad text. NOT OK. I’m sure you can fix this.

(Eds: Anyone else having this issue? If so, tell us what browser, etc. It’s working OK on PC running IE and Mac running Safari or Firefox. Thx.)

Rex Osborn wrote on November 11, 2007 - 7:30 pm | Visit Link

Thanks again for the comments, Edward … Like we said, it’s a hard balance to strike and the change in the comics was one we knew would strike a chord. That kind of longtime habit and reducing content in one area so we can retain locally produced original work in another is tough. We’re sorry we had to make those cuts.

As for the things that make us different online: We hope you’re noting that neither Google nor Digg are producing content. They’re gathering the work of lots of people in a convenient format, but they are not producing that work. News organizations across the country (including the Mercury News) are the content providers for a place like Google News.

TheEds wrote on November 11, 2007 - 7:35 pm | Visit Link

The changes we have seen since the sad departure of Susan Goldberg have resulted in a move to tech news of the tech savvy reader. Not sure how you reached out to focus groups, but on line blogs only reach those individuals a segment of the population. How did you reach out the senior citizen population that relies on the paper and not online news? I have been a subscriber many years and read the paper daily, but never received notice of the focus groups. Don’t forget your paper subscribers. Please return my comics as they were. Perhaps I can skip the paper ritual in the morning and save some money as well. Something for me to consider in my analysis of the benefits of subscribing or are there benefits anymore?

Frustrated Mercury subscriber wrote on November 11, 2007 - 8:43 pm | Visit Link

My emphasis was not on the originality of the content, but on the currency and accuracy of the content.

But on that note, it is hard to see Mercury News as either a producer nor a provider for content, you buy your comics, your horoscopes, you weather reports, your stock reports, your puzzles, your columns (and even, rather unashamedly, several of your articles) and simply rebrand them under the Mercury News header.

The one area I would be willing to admit to being 100% original content would be the TV listings since they bear so little resemblance to reality.

Edward Stapleton wrote on November 11, 2007 - 8:46 pm | Visit Link

Watching all the comments on comics cracks me up. Poor folks who don’t get it: The Merc should not be your stop for that stuff. They do have a different job, you know. They are covering San Jose in all its glory. No one else is doing that, really. Who else would be watching city hall or the mayor? Who else is showing us the corruption in the court system (I think that one got some people out of jail who should never have been there)? So bag on the Merc for ditching some comics, but don’t say they have no original content. They do. Go get your comics somewhere else.

Steve wrote on November 11, 2007 - 9:05 pm | Visit Link

I have another suggestion for the online version of the Merc. Initially, I really loved the idea of enabling your Web site visitors to comment on the news stories, editorials, etc. I thought it’d be a great way to let your audience weigh in on different issues and make the site more interactive.

Unfortunately, the feature has instead seemed to attract people looking to start an argument with others who do not share their views. It also seems to provide a platform for people with racist views.

To see what I mean, all you have to do is to pick a news story from your site and peruse the comments. Ninety percent of the time, the comments left are hateful, racist, or insulting and do nothing to further the experience of your online readers.

I suggest disabling this feature. I’m sure it would save the Merc a lot of time moderating the comments.

Valley Girl wrote on November 11, 2007 - 11:23 pm | Visit Link

Nobody asked me.

Nobody asked me if I wanted the Sunday comics chopped to only four pages.

Nobody asked me if I wanted Victor Chi, Brad Kava, Marian Liu or a bunch of other fine columnists fired.

Nobody asked me if I wanted to dump your Sunday Op-Ed section in favor of a watered-down daily editorial segment.

Nobody asked me if I wanted to read a scaled-down business section. Okay, Dean Takahashi is great. But I miss the full daily stock quotes.

Nobody asked me if I wanted to read your new Sunday supplement from USA Today (which is a *lousy* replacement for Parade – let’s not kid ourselves!).

You believe a more business-techie-oriented Mercury News will save your bacon. Fine. But not at my expense.

Please bear in mind that there is a “silent majority” of subscribers in this area who read the Mercury News for what it is – a daily newspaper. We are not plugged into the Internet 24/7. We don’t have devices to read the news, anytime, anywhere – hell, some of us out here don’t even have computers. We really couldn’t give a damn about your Web site. You have taken us for granted. This is a huge error on your part, and I have no doubt it will sink the Mercury News for good.

While I consider myself somewhat Internet-savvy, I have precious little time to read “the news” online. What snatches of time I do have (being in a captive environment aboard BART one hour each weekday) is spent reading the print version of the Mercury News, and relaxing with your quickly irrelevant Sunday issue on the weekend. For what it’s worth, I can now read your scaled-down newspaper in as much time as it takes to read USA Today, although your special reports take a little longer.

There was a time, not long ago, when I believed the Mercury News was the best newspaper in the Bay Area, if not California. The Mercury News’ attractions then included some of the best investigative reporting on the West Coast, a cadre of longtime, experienced and believable columnists, reporters and reviewers, and a better-than-average sports and business section. Your special reports are still well worth reading, but I miss a lot of the latter.

I grew up in Silicon Valley long before it acquired that now-tired moniker, and I miss the Mercury News as it once was. When I moved further up the Peninsula, I still subscribed to you because you were a better alternative than the San Francisco “Comicle.” Now, I’m not really sure.

What I wrote just now probably is of little use to you in your quest to survive in the age of declining print revenue. But you could do a lot less to alienate your current readers.

Bruce in Burlingame wrote on November 11, 2007 - 11:40 pm | Visit Link

So far so good. I feel you have successfully met your internal goals while minimally upsetting the majority of readers. However you hit a nerve by messin’ with my jokes. Please put Monty, Lockhorns and Overboard back in Sunday’s paper. I also miss Parade, but I bet it cost you a bundle, so I let it go.

Don Bradley wrote on November 12, 2007 - 4:31 am | Visit Link

Why can’t you have the same amount of comics, but just reduce the size so that they all fit on four pages? It seems that would continue to achieve the effect you hoped for (cutting costs on color and pages) without causing as much frustration from your readers. You failed to realize that Sunday comics are considered an American tradition by many of us. Please don’t take away our traditions!

Geek Girl wrote on November 12, 2007 - 5:43 am | Visit Link

[…] Rethinking the Mercury News » Blog Archive » Silicon Valley thought leaders: Be more disruptive (tags: Innova) […]

links for 2007-11-12 | The Uncharted Backwaters of the Unfashionable wrote on November 12, 2007 - 6:15 am | Visit Link

We did try making the Sunday comics smaller and tried squeezing them on to the four pages. Many people told us that they were too small to be useful at that size, that the readability was not worth the trade-off. But it’s worth revisiting. We will bring it up with the features team (which made these changes) when we meet with them on Monday. Thanks for pushing us again, Geek Girl!

TheEds wrote on November 12, 2007 - 6:45 am | Visit Link

For heaven’s sake, could you configure the comments to show time in Pacific Time rather than GMT?

David Marshall wrote on November 12, 2007 - 1:54 pm | Visit Link

I agree with David Marshall about using local time.

I doubt that the Merc. has many readers in Newfoundland or Guam.

Jean Benavides wrote on November 12, 2007 - 2:50 pm | Visit Link

In the name of full disclosure, I worked at the Merc for 7 years, so my views are not totally unbiased. I’ll focus on the online site, which is where I see the most potential for growth. I can’t understand how after all these years, so little attention has been paid to siliconvalley.com (and sv.com, which the merc also owns). The key to online success is offering compelling functionality, not just shoveling offline content into a new format. SV.com should be the one-stop shop for all things about technology in the Valley, starting with a focus on companies, but including sections on News, Culture and Jobs. There should be a big search box on the top of the homepage that lets you find every article about a specific company written in the last 20 years in chronological order. There should be blogs about every startup with commenting. The ethnography department at SJSU, which has been chronicling the Valley’s evolving culture should be given a weekly column to talk about what’s new in the Valley and what’s become passe. Job opportunities at startups should be highlighted. John Murrell should be given an editorial space bigger than GMSV since he’s one of the most original and interesting voices writing about technology today. Then maybe people will have a reason to come check out the site every day. Just my .02.

doug wrote on November 12, 2007 - 2:52 pm | Visit Link

Our bad. The blog time reset when we changed the clocks. We did not notice. Post times should be back to PST. Sorry about that!

TheEds wrote on November 12, 2007 - 3:01 pm | Visit Link

Maybe people would think of picking up the print Merc if they couldn’t get all its content for free online. What we happen if we all unplugged and went back to our old pay-for-content models?

Sara in Oakland wrote on November 12, 2007 - 5:03 pm | Visit Link

Add my wife and I to the list of people who do not have a laptop at the breakfast table (or CalTrain) to read what has been moved to the web for sake of space, cost-cutting, etc.

You are driving away the people who PAY for the paper for the possibility of briefly catching the eyes of someone who can may find (for example) the “missing comics” on the web at your site or may find them at sfgate.com or seattlepi.nwsource.com just as easily.

Oh, and bring back Mutts to the Sunday comics and print the splash panel it comes with as well as long as I have your attention.

robert r wrote on November 12, 2007 - 6:27 pm | Visit Link

WTF is a “thought leader”? “Many in the group said they never even think of picking up the physical newspaper…”

“Boss, I have a great idea! We’ll bring in a bunch of people who don’t buy or read our newspaper, but that’s OK — they’re THOUGHT LEADERS! They’re going to give us great ideas about how to change the newspaper! I won’t be surprised when they recommend changes that make it easier for them to leech all the content they are already leeching, but that’s the wave of the future. Maybe they’ll come up with some equally useless idea, such as changing the name of the newspaper!”

“What? Subscribers? Advertisers? Why should we listen to them? There’s nothing cool about talking with grubby businessmen or low-tech media consumers! They might get ink on my hands! If someone isn’t using some Web 2.0 news aggregator to read the news, what good are they to us?”

Whatever rethinking you’re doing, don’t rethink common sense in business. Advertisers and subscribers pay the bills. It is they to whom you should be listening rather than representatives of the very large group your Internet users who cost you money on the whole.

David Marshall wrote on November 12, 2007 - 7:50 pm | Visit Link

PLEASE get some new columnists! Mike Cassidy is a welcome addition, but the Merc. is BLAND!! When Mr.Roadshow is the highlighted columnist, you know there’s something wrong.

As far as the comics & puzzles, those were too small to begin with, so I never bothered with them. Now I won’t miss them.

Your TV guide had improved, then went downhill fast. First of all, yesterday was the first Sunday since you got the new format that the section was properly folded. Before, the 7-pica gutter would be divided 3/4 at best, and 1/6 at worst.

But I’ve noticed that you no longer list Sun. Early AM. I miss that, as I’m a night owl. Now there’s no daily Early AM, either!

And this week, you got the morning and afternoon listings lined up wrong. Instead of both Morning and both afternoon pages facing each other (even/odd), they’re overleaf (odd/even). This is not user-friendly.

Jean Benavides wrote on November 12, 2007 - 7:54 pm | Visit Link

It’s great to see so many people that still enjoy reading news on a paper - I’m glad that I’m not the only one. That said, when it comes to news on paper, I rarely read the Merc. My newspapers of choice: NYTimes, WSJ, Economist Palo Alto Daily News, and THE WEEK. Why?

For the Times, WSJ, and the Economist because I like original content. News from AP or off any other wire service is fine, but I typically read it online hours before the presses even start running. I like a bit more meat on my news and appreciate a longer form (investigative style) article. When the Merc has longer form articles, I tend to buy a paper.

Palo Alto Daily News because it’s more local than the Merc. While the Mercury may have more regional news, I hate having to dig around for cash, let alone change to buy it from a machine. People my age (late 20’s) and younger HATE coins and prefer not to use cash.

THE WEEK magazine because I like points and counter-points. The main topics of the week are reviewed from commentary on all sides. While I don’t mind a slanted article, it’s good to hear the other side (at the least, to discredit it). A funny thing here is that I know several households who stopped their subscriptions simply because they thought the was too liberal. I say ‘Welcome to the Bay Area,’ but for a company, that’s revenue lost.

So, some raw thoughts on ways to improve:

1. Pull non-AP articles from WSJ, NY Times, etc.
2. Allow reporters to write long form articles. Length is far less of an issue on the internet and hopefully the great pieces are added to the paper issues.
3. Let citizen journalists write on their communities so that we can get hyper-local content. Pull the good stuff to paper.
4. Pull in more views on different topics, whether from other newspapers or blogs or user comments on the site. Most wire news is well digested by junkies within hours.
5. Aggregate blog/news for different topics a la TechMeme http:www.techmeme.com . I love tech and techmeme is always the starting point for this niche.

Clint wrote on November 13, 2007 - 2:16 am | Visit Link

[…] about half the size it had in 2001—recently launched Rethinking the Mercury News, an effort to go to the community for ideas on what the newspaper should become. (See this report.) It says it’s prepared to […]

Traditional journalists team w/live social network to form beats in BeatReporting.org | Writes Like She Talks wrote on November 14, 2007 - 5:46 am | Visit Link

The one area you seem to be missing is that you need totally unbiased reporters who are willing to encourage the “other” side of the story. Media in the past have always had a theme that the reporter builds upon. They are taught to give lip service to the “other” side but it is almost always superficial and often does a really poor job of representing alternative viewpoints. For example, suppose one of your stories is negative toward a company. Just once, why not publish, at least electronically, the company’s statement without comment?

It seems that the whole notion of the media is that newspaper people are smarter than the average reader. An example of this kind of thinking is prevalent in centrally planned economies. History has shown that millions of average citizens can outperform the best bureaucrats in the business.

Your idea of involving lots of people in the news reporting is good in that you will get far more information than with a centrally planned effort. But the gate-keeper (reporter) has to be totally intellectually honest and willing to publish all the views, and not promote his.

This is the major problem with today’s newspapers. You at the Mercury are ignoring probably 40% of the Silicon Valley population who tend to be conservative. And now you take away the Sunday version of Mallard Fillmore, the only really conservative cartoon in the whole paper, including the editorial pages. So you don’t seem to care about losing this audience. No wonder your circulation is diving.

I submit that if you include all sides to an issue and not the reporter’s view, you will find an increase in conservative readership. You will also get lively discussions between the various factions in the Valley. All of this would make for a much more interesting paper and everybody would be better educated.

Give your readers a break and let them make their own conclusions.

Bill B May wrote on November 15, 2007 - 9:04 pm | Visit Link

Well, several people have commented on the cons of being forced towards the online paper and away from the paper paper. And aside from “original” content, many of us don’t see the online version offering anything unique.

Let’s instead approach things from the other side. Suppose you convince your subscribers to wholeheartedly embrace your online edition. What’s to keep us from simply canceling our paper subscriptions (and encouraging friends and family to do likewise)? Your online edition is free and doesn’t require registration, therefore there’s no reason to keep paying.

Edward Stapleton wrote on November 15, 2007 - 11:17 pm | Visit Link

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