Elisabeth Rubinfien of Palo Alto worked for the San Jose Mercury News for 12 years until she left in July, most recently serving as metro editor in charge of city and local coverage. She saw the news staff decline from about 400 staff to around 200 and experienced the first year of MediaNews ownership.
During Silicon Valley's boom times she said the paper saw itself as being one of the best, certainly best in its size category. When the Mercury's parent, Knight Ridder, dissolved in the McClatchy Co sale (and the newspaper was then bought by MediaNews), many were sad to lose such a venerable and respected organization and "there was sadness that journalism in America would lose a national voice," she said. This was particularly true because MediaNews in the Bay Area was not as respected as Knight Ridder, she said.
However, there was a window when it looked like MediaNews might invest in local news, Rubinfien said.
"Dean Singleton talked about being positioned well to help define what the future of newspapers in the morning would be," she said.
While feelings were mixed, the dynamic process was an "exciting prospect." Maybe he would invest online in a big way, staff members hoped. What they saw instead, Rubinfien related, "was six months of hands-off followed by six months of cutting another 15 percent and shifting some resources to online. The contraction was at a point where they had to cut some local news gathering to do other things. Shifting resources is not investment."
Prior to the MediaNews purchase, Knight Ridder was already viewing foreign and national news as "commodity news" that could be obtained from the New York Times, the Washington Post or other sources. Readers could go to Web sites for the London Times, Al Jazeera or other sources, media chiefs figured.
"While that's not untrue, it's dissembling," Rubinfien said. "If papers start believing what they are saying, close foreign bureaus and lay off staff, it will not be easy to re-create that capability."
Rubinfien sees MediaNews as doing a similar thing, only on a more local and regional level in the Bay Area.
"The goal of newspapers has always been to produce something for everyone -- watchdog journalism, fine writing, entertainment. That said, sometimes you see decisions made that create a drift one way or the other. The Mercury News had devoted page three to a feature called 'In Depth,' which looked more closely at important issues. It recently eliminated 'In Depth' in favor of a more chatty features and entertainment-oriented page. The paper had already cut special sections such as 'Perspective,' 'Science and Health' and 'Religion and Ethics.'
"If you are supposed to be part of the process that exposes commodification and you are doing it yourself, you are part of the problem," Rubinfien said.
A Knight Ridder colleague who worked in Contra Costa County and did not want her identity known said what concerns her is that there is a high need for government-watchdog journalism because the public needs and wants to know what's going on in the community. She hopes that more community newspapers will take up the task of covering city councils and schools "to keep the news out there because we're not going to get it from MediaNews."
She said newspapers are forgoing serious investigative reporting. The Contra Costa Times' four-person investigative team was dismantled as a luxury the paper couldn't afford.
Rubinfien believes that the wonderful thing about a newspaper is that it helps build community. There is a "serendipity of exposure," which connects people on issues that they wouldn't search for on the Internet. While the Internet is a fabulous tool, its function is different from newspapers. She said she has great respect for the process that goes into news gathering, with its many layers of checks and balances. It produces a reliable final result, something she doesn't see as the case with one person writing on the Internet.