Reports this week that Digital First Media, a project of newspaper conglomerate MediaNews, is shuttering its nascent initiative to centralize production of national and digital news is reverberating through the industry and may have direct impact on papers in this area.
Dubbed Project Thunderdome, the idea was to have a central location for national stories while local papers concentrated on local news. An aside, the name should have been the first clue this idea was doomed. Was it really named for the third (and terrible) installment of the Mad Max movies? And where would Master Blaster fit into all this? But back to the point, the concept originated in another effort for national newspaper chains to somehow keep up with the ever-changing news industry that has been brought into warp speed by the Internet. Thunderdome was to organize national news and digital content for a host of newspapers including the San Jose Mercury News, the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Daily News and their respective newspaper groups. Word is that now the print publications in areas around the country will soon be up for sale because of the increasing losses in the print industry.
So what does that mean for you, oh Bay Area reader of news? It may mean the Mercury News will once again be up for sale. And it’s not just the one with that name at the top. You see, the Mercury News is also the San Mateo County Times, the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune. Exact same paper, different names. It was worked out that way so the Mercury News would seem to have a larger circulation.
And depending on how this all goes down, changes are surely afoot at these publications. But that’s nothing new. Newspapers have been in a whirlwind for the past 15 years with ownership changes and restructuring. When I first started as a journalist on the Peninsula in 1997, there were two newspapers — the San Mateo Weekly and the San Mateo County Times. But that has changed.
Here’s a quick rundown. The Fang-owned San Mateo Weekly was part of the Independent Newspaper Group with its flagship being the San Francisco Independent. The San Mateo Weekly became the San Mateo Independent then the Fangs bought the Examiner with a nice subsidy from Hearst which bought the Chronicle. The Fangs sold the Examiner to billionaire Phil Anschutz which swallowed the Independent and eventually sold it in 2011 to Black Press Group Ltd., a Canadian-based operator, which also bought the SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Examiner, while based in and focused on San Francisco, still circulates on the Peninsula.
In 2000, the Daily Journal was started by venture capitalists who had already started the Berkeley Daily Planet, which went out of business and the venture capitalists lost interest. Daily Journal Publisher Jerry Lee led a buyout of the other investors in 2006 and has navigated sometimes choppy waters by focusing on what we do best — local stories and local advertising.
In 2005, the Palo Alto Daily News was sold to Knight Ridder, which also owned the Mercury News, that, in 2006, was sold to McClatchy that owns the Sacramento Bee. About one month later, McClatchy sold the Mercury News and the Daily News to MediaNews, which owned the San Mateo County Times and the Oakland Tribune. The Mercury News swallowed the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, the Marin Independent Journal, the San Mateo County Times and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which are all now published as “an edition of the San Jose Mercury News.” That’s why the poor sap who pops quarters in the Mercury News box and the County Times box expecting different news will be sadly disappointed to be greeted by the exact same newspaper aside from the name.
The Daily News has since shifted its focus south of San Carlos and shares much of its content with the Mercury News.
When the Daily News was sold, its previous owners had a three-year noncompete agreement and the day that was up in 2008 started the Palo Alto Daily Post, which also distributes in this area.
But all this history may soon change again if the Mercury News and its affiliates are up for sale. And at this point, it’s all hearsay, but I can’t imagine what another restructuring may look like.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.