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The Shrinking News

To the Editors:

In Russell Baker’s review of five books about journalism [“What Else Is News?,” NYR, July 18], he says that one of them cites the San Jose Mercury News as “a superior paper in the Knight Ridder group until its budget was shrunk to accommodate the stock market.”

The authors of that book are wrong in tone and in fact.

In my eighteen years at the Mercury News (as associate editor, managing editor, and executive editor), the newsroom grew from about 200 equivalent employees, who were publishing morning and afternoon papers, to 377 publishing only a morning paper when I left in 1999. That the number is down about 5 percent now does not seem to me shocking in the face of the worst recession ever to hit Silicon Valley. I also do not know of any newspaper with a daily circulation of 275,000 that has anywhere close to that number of newsroom staffers.

Finally, I’d like to point out that, contrary to the thesis of the book, Knight Ridder has just announced the addition of a four-person investigative team to its existing 48-member Washington Bureau.

Jerry Ceppos
Vice President/News
Knight Ridder
San Jose, California

Russell Baker replies:

Robert Kaiser and Leonard Downie Jr. have sent the following response to Mr. Ceppos’s letter:

The characterization of the Mercury News that has prompted Mr. Ceppos’s letter—“a superior paper in the Knight Ridder group until its budget was shrunk to accommodate the stock market”—came from Russell Baker, not from our book. We did not characterize the Mercury News, but we did describe what happened to it under economic pressures in 2001: 10 percent reductions in the staff and the space allotted to news, at least a 25 percent reduction in the newsroom expense budget (the money spent to cover the news), the elimination of its Sunday magazine, and radical shrinkage of its book pages. The paper gives its readers substantially less today than it once did.

Mr. Ceppos can find a paper with a staff comparable to the Mercury News‘s at the Portland Oregonian. The Oregonian, an ambitious and improving newspaper, has a daily circulation of 342,000, and a newsroom staff of 315 full-time employees and another 60 part-timers.

Sadly, Knight Ridder executives seem determined to act as if the cuts they have made in all their newspapers, notably including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald as well as the Mercury News, are small adjustments to economic difficulties, when the journalists who work for those papers know the truth: they are shrinking in quality and ambition.

Robert G. Kaiser, Associate Editor
Leonard Downie Jr., Executive Editor
The Washington Post
Washington, D.C.

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