The newspaper cap and a changing industry

San Jose Mercury News cap, circa 2002

San Jose Mercury News cap, circa 2002

This post is a tough one. As a journalist, I’ve accumulated several newspaper caps from hundreds of visits to newsrooms and industry conventions. Collectively, they are among my favorites because they represent the vitality and pride of my profession.

But the newspaper industry is in decline, severely so in towns deep in the clenches of economic recession and stagnation. The handsome black cap above, which I picked up at a California Society of Newspaper Editors convention, is from a happier era at the San Jose Mercury News.

During the dot-com boom of the 1990s, the Merc was rolling in money — and spending it like crazy. In that decade, the most vexing question for newspeople was whether they should follow some of their colleagues to Internet operations that flowered in the spray of venture capital in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jerry Ceppos, executive editor at the Merc for many of those high-rolling years, would slyly refer to the Merc as a “poor suburban daily.” At the time, the paper had the highest classified ad lineage in the nation.

Today? The Merc and so many other dailies have watched their classified revenue crater under the two-sided siege of a severe economic downturn and the proliferation of online advertising ventures.

I photographed my cap against a backdrop of the July 21, 1969, San Jose Mercury that loudly proclaimed man had landed on the moon. The industry was vastly different then, as most big cities had two or more dailies. In the two decades ahead, many papers would fold and many would combine as the Mercury eventually did with the San Jose News.

The industry is contracting again, and it’s distressing to see so many dedicated and talented colleagues losing their jobs, bolting for other industries or succumbing to despair.

For centuries, newspapers have charted the ups and downs of industries and institutions. We newspaper folk are not immune to those cycles, and I think many journalists lose sight of that. No industry is immune to change. Nothing — no business, no job — is permanent.

We journalists are most energized pursuing the hot story, a time of rapid change and even danger. We’re unwittingly in the midst of such a story in our own industry. We need to draw deeply from the well of principles and ideals that got us into this business so we can re-invent and perpetuate it, no matter what form it takes.

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