I am pretty close to ending my subscription to the San Jose Mercury News. I've been reading it for 30 years. It was once one of the finest half-dozen or so in the country. Really. (Even today, it's still number 34 according to "2007 Top 100 Daily Newspapers in the U.S. by Circulation" (PDF), from BurrellesLuce. But the quality and quantity have been degrading in the past couple of years. Each morning I wonder if it's finally time to move on.
Part of the decay is just inevitable: Younger readers get their news from the Internet, and many don't read the news at all. Some don't read at all. All newspapers are struggling.
Part of it has to do with the passing of the baton from Knight-Ridder to McClatchy, then to MediaNews.
But I think the Merc has contributed to their own decay. As each owner trimmed staff and expenses, they de-featured the paper, contributing to the downward spiral. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle seems to me to have increased quality and content.
I think that most newspapers are in a quandary. Phil Bronstein of the Chronicle has talked about how many years newspapers have left as we know them and the fact that most papers know they need to go to the 'net but don't know how to make a business of it.
As a marketer, I think about what I would do with this product and the answer is what it usually is: Figure out what you have and what you can do that's special. The answer, to me, is in your local content and local voice. What can you say that's special for your community? And who do you have with a face and voice that people know? In the Mercury, they have a few columnists with a personality and special contribution. Gary Richards, Mr. Roadshow is the best example. If I owned the paper, I would have been all over my people to develop a voice, a following, something special that makes people look for them. Their TV and movie critics, for instance were easily replaced by syndicated content. Newspapers should seek quality and distinctiveness that makes their people the ones who are syndicated. Like the Merc used to.
If I owned the Chronicle, I know what I would do: I'd cannibalize business from neighboring papers and the Mercury, in its weakened state, would be my primary target. I would be developing content for the South Bay and promoting it. I would be pushing the Chron all over the area, with intro deals, advertising, and friends-and-neighbors promotions. I would be trying to convert Merc readers en masse.
And I don't think it would be hard to do because even today, quality sells.