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Guest commentary

Loss of Merc's foreign-language papers will hurt communities

I would suggest that the economics are not the biggest reason why the Mercury News has given up on Viet Mercury and Nuevo Mundo. I think the differences between Jay T. Harris, publisher when we started both these newspapers, and George Riggs, publisher now, are the biggest reasons for the change.

I am saddened by the decisions the San Jose Mercury News has made regarding Viet Mercury and Nuevo Mundo.

One of the things I am most proud of during my 20-plus years at the Mercury News was the successful start up of Viet Mercury. As the ad division project leader I hired the first Viet Mercury sales manager and the salespeople. I also pushed the Mercury News sales staff to sell the product to their customers. A few months later I was asked to add Nuevo Mundo to the projects I was leading. It was a very interesting time. I would visit the offices of each publication almost daily and my head would sometimes spin from the rapid shifts in mind set required when moving from a room where everyone spoke (and was) Vietnamese to a room filled with Spanish-speaking Hispanics.

During those years I was a regular attendee at meetings the Mercury News had with the citizens' advisory boards for each of these publications. It was fascinating to see how important it was to the leaders of the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities that the Mercury News was interested in them. Both groups were very aware of their minority status. To have a major "American" institution care enough about them to have a newspaper for them was incredibly important. It was also very funny to see Victor Garza, a Hispanic activist from La Raza Roundtable, grab Jay T. Harris, publisher in those days, in a bear hug at the end of Nuevo Mundo board meetings. Jay is a good bit smaller than Victor. He also was not a person much given to hugging.

But despite these fond memories there was nothing easy about running the sales effort for these two publications.

Viet Mercury was -- economically -- the more successful of the two. Vietnamese people are ferocious readers and welcomed our professional, well-edited newspaper. There were already a dozen or so Vietnamese newspapers in the county, so Vietnamese businesses were used to advertising in ethnic media. And the target audience was -- by definition -- Vietnamese. They all read and spoke the same language, with only minor regional dialects. They were all only a generation or two separated from the same homeland. Unfortunately, the community is dominated by "mom and pop" businesses which could not afford high-priced ads. Rates had to be kept very low. We made a little money on Viet Mercury but not much compared to the time and energy the newspaper required.

Lou Alexander

The situation was much different with Nuevo Mundo. Spanish radio and TV stations had a decades-long head start on us. They had convinced local advertisers that Hispanic people did not read and that they depended on radio and TV for news and information. Changing potential advertisers' minds was not easy. Also, the Hispanic community is very diverse. There are Hispanic people in Santa Clara County from a dozen or more different countries in South America. These people may all speak Spanish (with slight variations) but culturally they can be very different. Producing a newspaper that filled their varied interests was challenging.

It would be easy to assume that the current continuing advertising slump is the reason the Mercury News has chosen to walk away from these publications. I am sure this is a major factor. Nuevo Mundo and Viet Mercury always struggled to stay in the black. They take a disproportionate amount of management time. Also, the production facilities and press time they take up are valuable commodities. Commercial printing or a new Mercury News section could use the same number of press hours and generate much greater margins.

But I would suggest that the economics are not the biggest reason why the Mercury News has given up on Viet Mercury and Nuevo Mundo. I think the differences between Jay T. Harris, publisher when we started both these newspapers, and George Riggs, publisher now, are the biggest reasons for the change.

Simply put, Jay was determined to improve the Mercury News and to use the Mercury News to change the community. George understands the need to serve the community but has a ferocious drive to make sure the Mercury News meets the profit demands of Knight Ridder, the parent company.

Jay is a proud black man. He grew up in heavily segregated Washington, D. C., the son of a disabled war veteran father and a social worker mother. He was very lucky to arrive at the Mercury News just as we were climbing out of a recession and headed into the years of Clinton prosperity.

Jay brought a unique set of experiences to the job when he came to the Mercury News as publisher. He had been a reporter, editor, college professor and Knight Ridder corporate executive before he arrived in San Jose.

He was determined to find new ways for us to make money, but he was equally committed to using the newspaper to set the community agenda. The Medill School of Journalism wrote a profile of Jay in 2001 and noted that "Under his leadership, the paper rose in prominence to be ranked one of the ten best newspapers in the country by the Columbia Journalism Review.

"One way he did this was by launching Nuevo Mundo, a Spanish-language weekly in 1996, and then following it up three years later with Viet Mercury, a Vietnamese-language weekly. This emphasis on broadening multicultural readership set the Mercury News apart from most newspapers nationwide."

Comments reported in a California Newspaper Publishers Association "Publishers Profile" in the June-July 1995 edition of California Publisher are very revealing of what drove Jay:

Why did you decide to get into the newspaper business?

I got into the newspaper business because it seemed a way to combine an appreciation for writing with a desire to work for community betterment. I have not been disappointed.

What do you like about being a publisher?

Being a publisher provides an opportunity to create an environment in which people are free to do their jobs well and supported in their efforts to do so. Beyond that, it provides an opportunity to work with others to make this community a better place.

George Riggs is a much different man and is driven by very different things. Although he grew up in an equally segregated community -- Hattiesburg, Miss., -- he was a member of the majority. He later owned a couple of newspapers in Southern California.

He did not have the good luck to come to the Mercury News during a period of great prosperity. In an article in San Jose Magazine in April 2005 Riggs said "We all prefer a leader with an inclusive, consensus-building style. But sometimes one doesn't have that luxury. In those instances, it's important to deal with the crisis at hand, rather than worrying about making certain everyone has an equal voice. Unfortunately, the problems at the Mercury News are serious. So out of necessity, I'll be pretty directive and urgent, particularly in the early going."

The CNPA profile for George Riggs was done while he was still publisher for Contra Costa Newspapers. Also, CNPA did not ask Riggs the same questions asked Jay. Still, some of George’s comments are quite telling about what drives him:

What prompted you to ultimately go into the newspaper business?

I worked my way through college by doing a variety of odd jobs. I was a dishwasher at a country club, I was an oil field roughneck, I sold dictionaries door to door, etc. But I finally got a "real" job selling advertising for the local daily newspaper. After that I was hooked on the newspaper business and knew I wanted to become a publisher.

What's your approach to being a good newspaper publisher? What do you think makes a good publisher good?

I think it requires someone who is comfortable and adept at balancing the divergent interests of several groups, which, while they overlap, have goals that are often contradictory.

Any business, newspapers included, exists to serve three constituencies: First, the stockholders or owners, who are risking their capital and have a right to a fair return. Second, the customers, who are really the essence of the franchise and demand and deserve quality services and products. And third, the employees, who make it all happen and deserve respect, fair treatment, good pay, as well as the opportunity to grow and develop in their own careers.

Lastly, and somewhat related but separate from these three groups, I believe any business that draws its livelihood from a community owes it to that community to give something back. We shouldn't merely be takers. Helping improve a community's quality of life involves more than just publishing a good newspaper.

Publishers have the difficult task of balancing these interests. Doing what's best for one group -- stockholders, for example -- means maximizing profits, while doing what's best for customers and the employees often requires doing things that lead to less than maximum profits.

Being able to make the proper tradeoffs between these differing objectives, and equally important, communicate the need for those trade-offs in ways that each group understands, respects and is willing to support are what it's all about.

The fate of Viet Mercury and Nuevo Mundo was probably sealed that sad and confusing day in 2001 when Jay T. Harris walked out of the Mercury News, resigning without notice. A frustrating thing about working for Jay was that he did not always make his priorities clear. One of the leaders of the Viet Mercury project team used to complain that Jay was not clear why we had started the newspaper. She used to ask, "Did we do this to make money or because it was the right thing to do?"

Joe Natoli, Jay's successor as publisher at the Mercury News, left no such ambiguities. He was very specific about the revenue and margin goals for the ethnic publications. I am sure George Riggs was just as demanding. The announcement last Friday is a clear indication that the goals were not met.

Finally, I would not automatically assume that Knight Ridder has walked away from the ethnic markets in Santa Clara County. There may be some way to use Fronteras, a new Spanish-language newspaper put out by Knight Ridder in the East Bay.

And there is another possibility: A week ago Knight Riddder announced the acquisition of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. One of the appeals of publications like SVCN is that they have very low operating expenses. Salaries, fringe benefits and overhead are much lower than they are at a metro like the Mercury News. I do not think it is out of the question to see non-English-language newspapers added to the roster at SVCN.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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