San Jose Mercury News: No One Reads Us Any More, So Let's Start Charging

from the this-will-end-poorly dept

When I first moved to Silicon Valley, the newspaper of record was the San Jose Mercury News. Everyone read it. It did a great job covering the local startup scene, and had some fantastic columnists and writers. But, one by one, those top notch writers left for greener pastures or to start their own things (such as Matt Marshall starting VentureBeat, which came out of the experimental Silicon Beat that he and Michael Bazely created while at the Merc). Then, of course, Knight Ridder came under all sorts of Wall St. pressure and got sold (and some of the papers then were quickly sold again). In the last few years, there's been fewer and fewer reasons to actually read the Merc, and I haven't looked at the paper (or the website) in probably a year or two. That's quite amazing since it used to be one of my first stops every morning. But, these days, all of the news that I used to get from the Merc can be found online from better sources with better writers. Back in March, I was on a panel discussion with a business editor from the Merc, and he and I got into a somewhat heated discussion on the wisdom of charging for news online. I told him that it made no sense, and he insisted that it could work. Apparently, he knew what was coming.

Media News, the current owner of the Merc, has announced that it's now going to start charging for online access to the paper, which seems like a move destined to fail dismally (and quickly). Already it's difficult to come up with any good reason to read the Merc online when it's free, and suddenly they want people to pay for it? All of the info that the paper provides is better provided elsewhere. It's difficult to see how they think that any significant number of people will actually pay to subscribe to the online version that's a tiny shell of what was once a great newspaper.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    YouAreWrong, May 18th, 2009 @ 1:20am

    they don't understand econ 101

    price is proportional to supply over demand. when demand drops, freshman economics says you're supposed to lower prices. raising prices just accelerates the demise.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Haywood, May 18th, 2009 @ 5:53am

      Re: they don't understand econ 101

      Reminds me of a city, where the transit head gave a speech every year, declaring increased fares due to reduced ridership.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Derek Kerton (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 10:16am

      Re: they don't understand econ 101

      Can I assume you mean "price is RELATED to supply AND demand"?

      It is not proportional.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2009 @ 2:09am

    this is what i bet is going through the minds of Media News exec.

    the Merc isn't working for us we have X amount of readers if we charge them then the paper could be worth keeping, if not we might as well shut it down.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Noam Chompsky, May 18th, 2009 @ 3:24am

    Isn't the Merc owned by the Bill Gates foundation? Didn't he buy it so he could intentionally discredit Apple and any Microsoft competitors from the valley right in their own backyard and in their local paper? Didn't the tech writers go through the Microsoft propaganda writers school?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    CmdrOberon, May 18th, 2009 @ 4:38am

    Irony!

    Your story almost identically maps how I feel about
    TechDirt.

    TechDirt is beating a small handful of drums these days.
    Multiple times per day.

    It's getting to be a broken record.

    1. Free. Blah, blah, blah.
    2. Newpspapers are hopeless.
    3. Copyright.

    Surely there are many other things in the world of
    business that could picked apart. Aren't there?

    1. Product quality?
    2. Product safety?
    3. Mistakes companies make?

    The mistakes of globalization? The unfairness of
    globalization (production can freely move, but
    workers cannot, for example).

    Better watch out TechDirt, or maybe a more innovative
    website in the near future will be writing your
    obituary on a daily basis, much as you enjoy doing
    for your favorite topics.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      mrrar, May 18th, 2009 @ 4:58am

      lol what?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Heywood, May 18th, 2009 @ 5:08am

      Re: Irony!

      If you don't like the content of the site, go read something else.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2009 @ 8:30am

        Re: Re: Irony!

        That's such tired BS. The point is NOT to eliminate those who see things differently than you.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          nasch, May 18th, 2009 @ 9:22am

          Re: Re: Re: Irony!

          The thing is, Oberon is not complaining that he disagrees with Mike, which would be fine. He's complaining that TechDirt doesn't cover the topics he wants to read about. It strikes me as similar to posting on Jalopnik "hey why cars all the time? You should write about something else too!"

          I think "go read something else" is exactly the right response. TD covers the topics its writers find interesting. If you want a blog about other things, go find one, or ask for recommendations.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      BobinBaltimore (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 5:47am

      Re: Irony!

      Amen, CmdrOberon! Look, I like TechDirt and have for some time. I've tried to contribute as a commenter from time to time, as well. But the relentless bleating on Free-ness and the unfairness of copyrights is really getting old. This is especially the case when the conversations have become academic to the point of ignoring altogether that real businesses have real issues TODAY and need to try some things QUICKLY in order to stay afloat and keep people employed. This is not an academic discussion where there are huge foundation/non-profit/VC pockets in the background saying "take your time." TechDirt seems to not understand that anymore.

      All that said, in this really very small case, I do agree that declining free readership is not a good sign for the Merc in this endeavor. The critical mass in this microcosm may have been lost long ago. This is precisely the challenge that the free web model has created for so many good media organizations: the siphoning of money over the last 10 years to create a free online presence which gives away costly-to-create content has deeply contributed to the financial problems of these for-profit organizations. While it would be great to have an advertising-supported free model forever, the fact is that it has shown to be unreliable, at best - as all digital advertising is - and tragically faulty at worst. We are now in the "worst" phase.

      But we get it: TechDirt thinks anything not free is folly. While this flows nicely with the socialism-of-the-moment we're experiencing (and note the small "s"...I'm intending that to be an business-government economics statement, not a political one), it really ignores the fundamental problems for so many businesses, especially media: it costs money to create and distribute stuff.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Baloney Joe, May 18th, 2009 @ 9:20am

        Re: Re: Irony!

        INDUSTRY SHILL ALERT!

        You realize the the newspaper industry was/is an "advertising supported" model right, you remember that right. "Hey our ad revenues are down we have to cut pages"

        I love revisionist history, it's always so much more interesting than the actual events.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        Mike (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 10:58am

        Re: Re: Irony!

        This is especially the case when the conversations have become academic to the point of ignoring altogether that real businesses have real issues TODAY and need to try some things QUICKLY in order to stay afloat and keep people employed. This is not an academic discussion where there are huge foundation/non-profit/VC pockets in the background saying "take your time." TechDirt seems to not understand that anymore.

        I have to admit that I find this an odd statement. We've highlighted numerous stories of businesses making use of new technology and trends to make money today. I find it odd that you think we haven't. I guess I'm just sorta left scratching my head about this claim.

        But we get it: TechDirt thinks anything not free is folly.

        Whoa, actually the opposite. We think putting in place a bad business model is folly. That means we believe quite strongly in charging for things *correctly* -- in ways that you're more likely to make money. I'm a bit stunned that you got the other message, but I guess I haven't done a very good job explaining our position.

        While this flows nicely with the socialism-of-the-moment we're experiencing (and note the small "s"...I'm intending that to be an business-government economics statement, not a political one), it really ignores the fundamental problems for so many businesses, especially media: it costs money to create and distribute stuff.

        Again, I find this rather stunning. We've been quite outspoken against the "socialism-of-the-moment" as being very bad for the economy, while at the same time detailing how many businesses are creating business models that allow them to fund the creation of stuff.

        Perhaps you're confusing us with another site?

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      David T, May 18th, 2009 @ 6:05am

      Re: Irony!

      I think you are being unfair.

      Techdirt is among the best commentaries on issues concerning "free", "copyright", and the dangers facing legacy business models. Mike seems to know who his community is and offers content that provokes and encourages discussion.

      Tbh, the above issues cover alot of ground, even if they are "a small handful of drums."

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2009 @ 6:29am

      Re: Irony!

      It would be ironic if Techdirt was suffering from lower viewership or losing revenue AND they were turning the site into a subscription site.

      Yea I agree Techdirt can be like a broken record, but when I want to know what is happening with poor business models and antiquated laws I know where to go. Techdirt typically links to articles and people the the comments section usually set the record straight when the authors go out of bounds with their wild claims that we should all wear fig leaves, love each other, and give everything for free.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2009 @ 10:31am

        Re: Re: Irony!

        "It would be ironic if Techdirt was suffering from lower viewership or losing revenue AND they were turning the site into a subscription site."

        ...and asking government for support in terms of very favorable legislation, tax subsidies, and rules that harm competitors.

        Even more ironic if in the mid 90's, (when news should have been strategizing how to take advantage of the upcoming www), Techdirt decided to consolidate with other similar blogs, list on Wall Street, shift priority to dividends, fire half the writing staff, syndicate national stories, produce a lower-quality product, cater to the base interests of the masses, and then act surprised years later when a radical competitor offers something better.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Mike (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 10:53am

      Re: Irony!

      Your story almost identically maps how I feel about
      TechDirt.


      I'm sorry to hear that. However, I will note that, unlike the Merc, our traffic has continued to increase -- suggesting our community is happy with what we write about. However, if you're not, you are free to submit stories. Our content is often driven by what people submit.

      The problem with the Merc was that it went against what its audience wanted, made it harder to get the content, and got rid of all its good writers.

      Surely there are many other things in the world of
      business that could picked apart. Aren't there?


      Sure. And we do, in fact, talk about many of those. But there are a lot more stories on those other topics, and the issues dealing with copyright/newspapers/free are trend issues that we think are important to get a handle on now, because the same issues are about to impact nearly every other industry out there. If you don't understand them now, then many of those other issues aren't going to matter.

      1. Product quality?
      2. Product safety?
      3. Mistakes companies make?


      We're really not in a position to discuss quality or safety -- and, in fact, there are many sites that do that quite well. So what additional advantage is there for us to do so? But we do discuss mistakes companies make quite frequently.

      The mistakes of globalization? The unfairness of
      globalization (production can freely move, but
      workers cannot, for example).


      We have discussed that in the past... but there hasn't been much *new* on that front to discuss.

      Better watch out TechDirt, or maybe a more innovative
      website in the near future will be writing your
      obituary on a daily basis, much as you enjoy doing
      for your favorite topics.


      Fair enough. If we can't keep up with what our community wants, then we deserve to die. To date, however, all info suggests we are keeping up for the vast majority of our audience. I'm sorry that doesn't include you, but I'd suggest you submit stories you find interesting.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    JMG, May 18th, 2009 @ 6:03am

    RE: Irony

    @CmdrOberon and @BobinBaltimore:

    Not sure what you're getting at here, since this isn't really a good example of what you guys are "complaining" about. The article is about a newspaper (a business) that isn't doing so well with what they're currently charging for their paper (a product), so now they want to increase the prices (and decrease demand). This almost has nothing to do with "free" or "copyrights" or anything of that sort. It's an example of a newspaper thinking that they can do whatever they want with their product, and their readers/customers will just take it.

    It may come as shock, but badly run companies don't do well in the long-term. Newspapers are no different. It really has nothing to do with socialism, politics, or anything of that sort. Badly run businesses just don't tend to do well.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      BobinBaltimore (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 6:24am

      Re: RE: Irony

      @JMG

      Agreed that poorly run companies will not survive. And for the Mercury News, that may been the beginning and end of the issue. The broader question is not about a poorly run company, but a sea change for a whole (and very large and very ancient) industry. And I disagree that this isn't about "free": this posting is yet another of TechDirt's "free is best, pay is stupid" rants, so it has everything to do with "free." In this case, in order to make the "pay is stupid" point, the Merc is used as an example. A rather good one, I admit. The position may not be incorrect, but because of the specific situation of a relatively small paper with a tumultuous recent past, rather than pay being evil.

      And @David T., TechDirt does foster some interesting commentaries, but the view point it delivers in its original postings is ALWAYS "free is best, pay is stupid" and, increasingly, "copyright is multi-generational theft." Academically, I find these discussions to be interesting, yes. But they are increasingly out of step with the real, for-profit, complicated world in which actual businesses and artists and content producers live.

      All that said, I have no "problem" with TechDirt taking its "free-ist" point of view and I will continue to read the site and be largely annoyed, regularly frustrated, occasionally surprised and less occasionally convinced to change my own thinking. I will continue to occasionally call this out and see what, if any reaction/response/refutation I get. I take this as pretty much an intellectual exercise, since its applicability to the real world in its present circumstance is rather (and increasingly) limited.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Chronno S. Trigger, May 18th, 2009 @ 6:51am

        Re: Re: RE: Irony

        Yes, this article is kind of about free but not really. It's more in line with bad business. This company's reporting went downhill and they lost viewers. They see this and decide that, instead of increasing the quality of their reporting, to start charging for the quality that's loosing readers. This is not a good business strategy. If you want to start charging for something you must have an advantage over the competitor. One way to do this is to have better reporting. Free would be a good idea but good reporting would be a better idea.

        "But they are increasingly out of step with the real, for-profit, complicated world in which actual businesses and artists and content producers live."

        That's the exact point that Techdirt is trying to make. These content producers don't live in reality any more. The market is taking a different path than what they want and they refuse to accept it. And I don't think it needs to be as complicated as we make it.

        And the main reason, I think, that Techdirt is focusing on these kinds of things is because there is nothing else. This entire planet is turning into a whiny tight ass ball of crap. Everyone thinks that they are entitled to getting rich even though they didn't do anything. Thus it turns into a sue-first-and-ask-questions-later society. Good reporting can only work with what is given. Bad reporting gets to make shit up.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          CmdrOberon, May 18th, 2009 @ 7:10am

          Re: Re: Re: RE: Irony

          Instead of 'loosing', I think you meant 'losing'.

          > And the main reason, I think, that Techdirt is
          > focusing on these kinds of things is because there is
          > nothing else.

          Are you mad?
          That's like saying everything has already been invented.

          I listed a whole bunch of other topics in my original post.
          Here are a few more:

          o unreasonable executive salaries
          o short term -vs- long term view affecting
          decision making
          o declining corporate taxation
          o lobbies which write legislation
          o unfair trade policies
          o non-compete clauses in contracts
          o 'at will' employment (an unbalanced game tilted
          in favor of the employee)
          o corporate espionage
          o foreign gov'ts subsidizing their industry
          to unfair advantage
          o surveillance societies
          o incompetence in the workforce
          o accountability of executives when things
          go bad
          o small business trends
          o dying large businesses

          There are so many other things that TechDirt could cover.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            icon
            m3mnoch (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 8:04am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: RE: Irony

            maybe, just maybe, mike is following his own advice.

            your option: cover a lot of broad business topics at a cursory level and eventually lose readers who can find deeper coverage of "incompetence in the workforce" or "unreasonable executive salaries" or whatever topics they are deeply interested in.

            mike's option: cover a handful of related topics to unplumbed depths and successfully fulfill a niche.

            um. so, mike's decision is why this site went from a passing-rss-consumption for me to a daily-hit-the-site required stop.

            maybe it's kinda trite, but, dude. if you don't like the content of the site, why do you feel like you need to whine like an 8 year-old girl about it? "waahhhh... but, but, but, i don't wanna read about that... i wanna read about something else!" do you think mike's gonna go "oh, shit. i'm sorry. lemme write about stuff i don't want to just for you!"

            if you don't like it, just go away.

            m3mnoch.

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            •  
              identicon
              CmdrOberon, May 18th, 2009 @ 10:20am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: RE: Irony

              > maybe it's kinda trite, but, dude. if you don't like the
              > content of the site, why do you feel like you need to
              > whine like an 8 year-old girl about it? "waahhhh... but,
              > but, but, i don't wanna read about that... i wanna read

              It is trite, and it's always refreshing to see an adult
              conversation.

              Why is it that people like you feel that others must
              take or leave everything? Can there be no middle ground?

               

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            icon
            Mike (profile), May 18th, 2009 @ 11:02am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: RE: Irony

            I listed a whole bunch of other topics in my original post.
            Here are a few more:


            Oddly, we actually do cover almost all of the issues you list out on a regular basis. So, again, I'm sorta scratching my head. Also, again, if you see stories on these subjects that you don't think we covered adequately, please submit them.

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        David T, May 18th, 2009 @ 7:09am

        Re: Re: RE: Irony

        "... But they are increasingly out of step with the real, for-profit, complicated world in which actual businesses and artists and content producers live."

        I don't agree with this (condescending) assessment, and I feel this kind of dismessivness is the reason so many powerful trade groups are now failing.

        My feelings are that the current business environment is undergoing creative destruction to move towards "free is better," infinite goods economics. Techdirt and its readers tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to technology issues (as I judge from reading user comments) and can see the counter-productive limitations inherent in patent and copyright law designed for an era past.

        Techdirt makes real-world predictions that will be proven true or false in the free marketplace over the next decade and lets people talk about it. Being part of the discussion is fun. Perhaps if newspapers engaged their readers like Techdirt does, they wouldn't be in such trouble.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          CmdrOberon, May 18th, 2009 @ 7:14am

          Re: Re: Re: RE: Irony

          > I don't agree with this (condescending) assessment,
          > and I feel this kind of dismessivness is the reason
          > so many powerful trade groups are now failing.

          There are?
          Could you please be a little more explicit, I'm
          not aware of this.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      CmdrOberon, May 18th, 2009 @ 6:59am

      Re: RE: Irony

      My comment was not meant as a diatribe on free, copyrights
      and the like. Instead it was pointing out what, I thought,
      was irony.

      Mike was bemoaning the fact that one of his favorite
      papers was no longer his favorite, and is now going
      down the route which will likely spell doom.

      This mirrors my feelings about TechDirt. I've been reading
      since 2002 or so and have become less an less thrilled
      with the content as it becomes narrower and narrower.

      The writing is pretty good, though there are many phrases
      that are overused. The trend I see is that the content
      is becoming too focused on too few topics.

      Overall, Techdirt is not a bad site. I just wish they
      would find a few new vamps to play once in a while.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Bjorn Tipling, May 18th, 2009 @ 7:20am

    I dunno

    I like the Merc. I'd pay for it if they started charging. I just moved from Campbell (San Jose area) to Berkeley though and no longer really have a need to read it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Greg Andrew, May 18th, 2009 @ 7:24am

    I'm not as negative on the prospects of newspapers charging for content as techdirt is. I believe that, like everything else, news is subject to the laws of supply and demand, and if most of the free news on the net disappears, the remaining sites will be able to charge. But The Mercury news has already driven readers away from its free web site by eviscerating the quality and quantity of its content. No one is going to pay for that kind of website. Charging for the website might temporarily stem the decline in sales of the print edition, but since they don't have enough advertising in the print edition to make that profitable, this strategy is akin to trying to stop the Titanic from sinking by using brooms to sweep the water off the ship.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Dave Barnes, May 18th, 2009 @ 7:27am

    Delusional

    Dinky Singleton proves, yet again, that he has no understanding of the InnerTubes.

    P.S. @Noam Chompsky
    The Merc is owned by MediaNews.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Noel Nadur, May 18th, 2009 @ 9:27am

    They charged about 14 years ago when they put their newspaper online and that failed dismally so they stopped charging. Now, when they are arguably not as big a draw, they are going to start charging? Laughable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Stirling Westrup, May 18th, 2009 @ 9:43am

    Not worth reading.

    I spent a few months last year working in Silicon Valley on a project, and as I enjoy reading a daily paper while lingering over a cup of coffee, I spent some time trying to find a local paper to buy. It was very frustrating as I couldn't find anything that I would even classify as a newspaper. Yes, there was the San Jose Mercury News, and a number of other papers but none of them were worth reading for free, never mind paying for. And keep in mind that I'm addicted to reading a daily paper.

    Now I'm told that Montreal is blessed in still having a daily newspaper worth reading, but there are second-string papers in this city that are better than the San Jose Mercury News.

    In the end I started reading the free give-away papers than only come out every two weeks or so. They were few and far between, but at least they were worth reading. Could it be because they had learned to compete in an environment where free was common?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      CmdrOberon, May 18th, 2009 @ 10:25am

      Re: Not worth reading.

      Yes, they've learned to compete by decreasing the news hole and filling it with stories of little consequence that people like to read while doing nothing else.

      By decreasing the news hole, they opened up the space for
      advertisers of day spas, discos, bistros, wineries and other
      feel-good businesses.

      It's fun to read to find out what concerts are coming up, but it's not really news.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    trapper, May 18th, 2009 @ 11:23am

    Online Merc

    If the verision of the online Merc they are talking about is the eEdition. I have no problem with that. I paid $25 for a two year subscription that is basically an exact digital verison of the paper complete with layout and all the ads. I can read it via their browser app on all my computers (Solaris, XP, Mac OSX). I find it nicer than the paper when I want to email articles to friends and family search for articles (archived or current) and get extra copies of coupons. The $12/year is a resaonable cost and definitly cheaper than the $99/yr I currently pay for the home delivered version. Now, I still have and prefer the paper version but I like the eEdition version for digital reasons.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    The Mad Hatter (profile), May 19th, 2009 @ 4:51pm

    Newspaper Suicide

    Yep, you got that right. I doubt that they'll last six months.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This