Mercury News will shed 2 ethnic papers, 5 local 'Guide' editions

Nuevo Mundo to close, Viet Mercury to be sold

By Michael Stoll
Posted Oct. 21, 2005
Updated Oct. 22, 2005

The management of the San Jose Mercury News today announced the closure of its Spanish-language weekly Nuevo Mundo and the impending sale its Vietnamese language weekly, the Viet Mercury. The weekly local Guide sections will also be discontinued.

Today's announcement marks a major change in direction for the Mercury News, which has received national acclaim for publishing newspapers in three languages.

Jay T. Harris, publisher of the Mercury News when Nuevo Mundo, a Spanish-language weekly, was conceived, said the ethnic papers helped the Mercury News address one of its two major missions: diversity and coverage of technology.

"Our view was strongly that we had a journalistic obligation to all members of the San Jose community regardless of the language that they spoke," said Mr. Harris, now a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.

A group of investors from the Vietnamese community has agreed to purchase the Viet Mercury.

On Monday, at least a dozen Latino employees, calling themselves the Latino Coalition of the Mercury News, wrote a letter to the paper's publisher saying that a sale or closure of Nuevo Mundo, the company's nine-year-old Spanish-language weekly, would be ill advised.

The letter also objected to the introduction of another publication, Fronteras de la Noticia, which began publication in the East Bay last month with content from the Contra Costa Times. The Times, like the Mercury News, is owned by Knight Ridder Inc.

"No matter how trying these days may be," the letter read, "Nuevo Mundo and its sister paper, Viet Mercury, are among the finest examples of the commitment to diversity and excellent journalism expressed by the Mercury News and Knight Ridder."

Reported by Contra Costa Times reporters in Enlish, translated south of the border, and published for Bay Area readers.

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. It is distributed by the Times in partnership with Universal Press Syndicate.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a statement on the closure of Nuevo Mundo Friday night. Its executive director, Ivan Roman, said the organization is "troubled" by the offshoring of Spanish-language journalism.

"It is critical for local news operations to have a presence in the communities they serve so they better understand the informational needs of those they cover," Mr. Roman wrote.

De Tran, publisher of Viet Mercury, said he was proud of what his staff was able to accomplish.

"We brought objective journalism to the community," he said. "A lot of others practice advocacy journalism -- the majority of our peers in the community.The Viet Mercury staff has gone through a lot of things before. It's dramatic, but it's not the worst thing that's happened to us. We've experienced war, we've been refugees, and some of us have been political prisoners. I just wish that we'd be able to continue to practice journalism because we provided a great service to the community."

This is the third time in four weeks that Mercury News management or Knight Ridder has made a major announcement on a Friday afternoon, a time when few news organizations are likely to report it. On Sept. 23, the paper's publisher, George Riggs, and its executive editor, Susan Goldberg, told the staff that it was seeking to reduce payroll by 52 positions. Last Friday afternoon, Knight Ridder announced that it purchased the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, a chain of eight free local weeklies with a circulation of 157,000.

Twenty-two jobs will be affected -- 12 at the Guides and 10 at the ethnic papers. The Guide staff will be offered other jobs at the paper, while the ethnic paper staff will be offered the same severance package offered to buyout candidates at the Mercury News.

Luther Jackson executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, said the substitution of Fronteras for Nuevo Mundo was an attempt to hire low-wage workers in Mexico to do the job of union employees more cheaply.

"They made it clear that this is a bottom-line decision, but I think it's important that there's more than one bottom line working here," Mr. Jackson said. "The Guild and many in our community believe that the paper's primary focus should be to deliver first-class service to all community members, whether their principal language is English Spanish or Vietnamese."

People involved with the ethnic papers said they were surprised to hear that they were being targeted for elimination or sale because they believed them to be profitable. Management said that was not the case.

"Regretfully, as targeted publications, they have been unable to compete successfully with other locally based targeted pubs that serve the same audience, but operate on a lower cost structure," Mr. Riggs said in a press release.

At least in the case of Nuevo Mundo, its gradual replacement by Fronteras might increase profits.

"If their goal is to make money, there's a good chance they can do that because apparently it doesn't cost much to put it out," said one former employee of Nuevo Mundo. "If that's going to be the only alternative now, it's sad, because Nuevo Mundo is a much superior paper in terms of editorial content."

Victor Garza, chair of La Raza Roundtable of California, an advocacy group for Latinos, said he was not informed beforehand that the Mercury News intended to fold Nuevo Mundo, even though he is on the paper's advisory board.

"I personally feel that all the community newspapers and Nuevo Mundo provide a very valuable service to the people of the Valley," Mr. Garza said. "I think that there would be a loss to the Spanish-speaking people of Silicon Valley, and the outlying areas."

The possible sale of Viet Mercury to a member of the Bay Area Vietnamese community could be a positive development, according to Pueng Vongs, editor of ethnic media editorial at Pacific News Service.

"There has been a push for national or international-based media to start buying up these local community papers," Ms. Vongs said. "If you're going to cover a local community, the ownership ought to be local, because the ownership will be influenced by the priorities in that community."

"There were tears shed among the community when Viet Merc was started," she said. "Perhaps the corporate approach to ethnic media is not as permanent as a lot of the grassroots-based Vietnamese media, which play a role as advocates as well as reporters for the Vietnamese community."

Ms. Vongs criticized the cost-cutting strategy behind closing Nuevo Mundo in favor of a cheap translation of Contra Costa Times reports into Spanish. She said the cultural sensitivity of Latino reporters would be lost.

The Mercury News' five weekly community Guides would appear to be redundant because of the Knight Ridder purchase of the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers.

Knight Ridder has solidified its control of print news in the South Bay and Peninsula this year with the acquisition in February of the free-circulation Palo Alto Daily News and four sibling publications.