So It Begins: Outsourcing the Newsroom

In the face of continued economic pressures, the San Jose Mercury News announced Friday that it is shutting down two weekly niche publications and selling a third. Its Spanish-language Nuevo Mundo and a set of five neighborhood sections called The Guide will be getting the ax, while the high-profile Viet Mercury is being sold to local Vietnamese-American investors.

But Mercury News parent Knight Ridder has found an innovative, cheap and alarming way to replace Nuevo Mundo: Outsource the work to Mexico. (More about that dubious idea in a moment.)

The publications being axed “have been losing money consistently for several years,” Mercury News president and publisher George Riggs explained in his paper. “Despite our best efforts to increase revenue, we simply have not been able to gain the level of support to be financially viable.” (Both Nuevo Mundo and Viet Mercury are distributed for free, relying entirely upon ads for their revenue.)

In the current business climate, Riggs said in a press release, “we need to turn our focus to the core Mercury News.” Executive Editor Susan Goldberg, meanwhile, called the decision “sad and difficult,” but said that “Coverage of the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities always has been and remains part of our core mission in the daily Mercury News.”

And so, after a recent series of brutal job cuts by newspapers across the nation, followed by smaller but symbolically important decisions by the Baltimore Sun to close two of its five foreign bureaus (in London and Beijing) and by the Boston Globe to dismantle its national desk, we see another retrenching. After the Mercury News announced last month that it intends to pare 52 of its own editorial staff, now it sheds two foreign language offshoots that let it stand out. The Mercury News “received national acclaim for publishing newspapers in three languages,” wrote Grade the News’ Michael Stoll, while a Mercury News report said that its six-year-old Vietnamese-language weekly is “internationally known,” with its stories “read by people in Vietnam, particularly government officials.”

With all three niche publications unprofitable, however, the value of their prestige and their service to readers wasn’t enough — even as the 35,000-circulation Viet Mercury ranked first among nine Vietnamese publications in its crowded market.

But it’s not a complete retrenching for Knight Ridder. The Guide, for one, has a handy replacement. As the AP put it, “Mercury News parent company Knight Ridder Inc. recently announced it was acquiring Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, publisher of eight [free] weeklies in the same coverage area.”

In a more convoluted way, it seems nine-year-old Nuevo Mundo will be replaced too, as Grade the News ferreted out. In a report posted Friday, Stoll wrote that another Spanish-language weekly, Fronteras de la Noticia, “began publication in the East Bay last month with content from the Contra Costa Times,” another Knight Ridder property. Stoll added, “Fronteras has been appearing in news boxes in the San Jose region for at least a week, with stories oriented toward the East Bay. Local reports in English are outsourced for translation to a company in Mexico, Danilo Black, which sends a digital version of the paper back to California.”

According to an item in this month’s Editor & Publisher, Fronteras is a one-year-old weekly that appears in 14 U.S. markets, usually free, with 22 pages offering “non-local news and features,” and a whopping two pages of local copy in each. Mass news for Hispanics, straight from Mexico — and in the case of Knight Ridder’s new edition, the scant local news comes straight from a translation machine in Mexico, too. (Eight pages are devoted to local ads, according to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.)

In a statement, NAHJ’s executive director Ivan Roman said the organization “is troubled that the Mercury News decided to close Nuevo Mundo so it could cut costs and replace it with a paper that is produced in another country.” Roman added: “The Latino community is more than a consumer market to sell goods and products to. Spanish-language papers that cover the Latino community in the United States have a particular mission and have stronger ties to the community — qualities that an imported paper can not fulfill.”

Public newspaper companies are trapped in a vicious cycle, forced by the imperative to keep profit margins high to make cost cuts that will only reduce their long-term value.

Imagine if Ford started producing cars without doors; the move would save many millions in costs and might even boost short-term profits. But, somehow, we don’t see that as a shrewd management move. Fronteras might be cheaper for Knight Ridder to produce, but it defies reason to think that news from afar will engender the same trust among readers that Nuevo Mundo had, or the bond with the local community forged by Viet Mercury.

A newspaper is not a carpet factory. And outsourcing newspaper production — which can only undermine journalistic credibility and alienate the local community — is not the answer.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.