The Mercury News Takes on its Immigrant Paper Carriers

A Grade the News analysis of the strike week’s coverage shows:


Such placement is important because most readers don’t follow stories to the end. Further, reporters are trained to put the most important information first, less important later, in what’s called the “inverted pyramid” style.

The stories’ dominant--but not exclusive--portrayal, was of Mercury execs, particularly Mr. Harris, valiantly trying to get out the news in the face of people who refused to do their duty.  One lead read:  “Threats of violence and vandalism have hindered efforts by the San Jose Mercury News to resolve a labor dispute….” Another: “The Mercury News on Tuesday gave newspaper carriers a 12 percent raise and scrapped two rules that workers considered punitive hoping to end a dispute….” A third: “San Jose Mercury News officials Monday continued efforts to resolve a two-day dispute….” Mr. Harris and other executives were described stuffing papers in the wee hours of the morning filling in for the strikers.

Mr. Harris did not respond to our questions. John Woolfolk, the reporter whose byline appeared most frequently on the stories, said reporters faced several difficult logistical problems. First, he said, the newspaper carriers do not belong to a union so there was no official spokesperson, only a “handful of more vocal employees.” Second, the carriers “work from 2:30 to 5:30 in the morning and sleep during the day,” a different shift than most reporters work. Third, reporters had to work through interpreters rather than being able to ask questions directly.

The Mercury’s own management also sandbagged reporters, according to Woolfolk. When reporters asked who Mercury managers were negotiating with, they were told “nobody,” Woolfolk said. Later, Mercury execs conceded that they were talking to strike leaders. “We’d ask for names of people repeatedly and they wouldn’t give us the names,” Woolfolk said.

Woolfolk said little was changed in his articles and his immediate editors pushed him to be aggressive. “Obviously, you understand it’s in-house coverage,” he added. “Every one of our stories got piped up the chain of command, up to the executive editor. We try to be as objective as possible, but none of us want to lose our jobs.”

-- John McManus

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