San Jose Mercury News Editor David Yarnold addressed more than 100 participants
in San Francisco on Jan. 11, 2002, at the Pew/Maynard workshop, "Community Media
Thank you, Jan, for that nice introduction. Happy New Year, everyone and welcome to the second largest city in the Bay Area. I'd like to show you how the Mercury News began the new year. It's our front page from January 2 and the centerpiece is about the first babies of 2002 born in Silicon Valley hospitals. The stars of this show are Julie Vu and Joseph Castro, born one second apart to unwed, working mothers in Santa Clara County. We also wrote about the first births of the new year at four other area hospitals. The Aguilars and the McCulloughs hadn't picked names for their babies at that point. But we did learn about Ares Farzad Malek, and Medha Upadhyay, whose mother's name is Lovely Choubyay.
These babies are the vanguard of the new Silicon Valley. They're why we've
chosen to bet our connection with our community on the coverage of two
stories: the changing demographics of our region and the impact of the technology
created here. Together, those stories comprise what Roy Peter Clark from the
Poynter Institute calls our community's master narrative. That master narrative
is what I'll talk about tonight.
It's hard for me to imagine a community in America where diversity of interests and backgrounds wouldn't be a part of a newspaper's master narrative. Because, like the Maynard Institute, our definition of diversity is inclusive: from socioeconomic diversity to sexual orientation to gender to ethnicity.
So, I'd like to begin by asking you this evening if your newspapers and television and radio stations are successfully reflecting the diversity of your communities. I'll be frank. Despite our good intentions, the only differences between the so-called best-practice stations and papers (like the Mercury News) and the rest of the industry is the degree to which we're falling short of the goal.
We all need to heed the words of Bob Maynard. In 1979, he wrote that a newspaper should be "an instrument of community understanding." And that begins with the recognition that, first, we have to demonstrate our understanding of our richly varied community. Too often, we view diversity as something we discover in our cities and towns -- and then we report about it as outsiders. Instead, consider this proposition: Reflecting diversity is as much about what we bring to the community as what we take away from covering it. Reflecting diversity is as much about what we bring to the community as what we take away from covering it.
Are we bringing an unmistakable passion for the richness of life around us? Are we opportunistic storytellers? Do we crave the authenticity that seeing the whole community brings to our news reports? Do we understand that diversity isn't just a business proposition, but that it can make us more confident in the quality of our journalism? Do we take seriously our obligation to record history's first draft for the whole community? Do we demonstrate a healthy curiosity about their multi-hued traditions and values?
Can our news reports be joyful, celebrating the things that bring our varied readers pleasure -- family, romance, rites of passage? To be sure, there are poor and disempowered who need our help. There are the ill and infirmed whose stories need to be told. But most of the time, for most of our readers, children and grandchildren bring joy, holidays unite us and terrorism reminds us that America was built by immigrants. Do we willingly bring an understanding of all of that to our daily reports? Or do we slip, benumbed, into the conflict model of storytelling and follow tired, traditional news judgment blissfully into irrelevancy?
Do we focus on civic solutions or slink down from the hills to shoot the wounded? The agenda for this program is ripe with the opportunity to broaden our view of news, from telling untold stories to understanding what readers want. Frankly, I think we know what they want. They want a lot of what we already give them: hard news, investigations, information about schools and health. But they want news to be told through people and they want to see people like themselves in our reports. They want a reason to hope. They want to see their successes reflected in our work as well as their tribulations. Hell, we know what they want. Either we don't know how to give it to them or we don't want to give it to them.
Can we build on the good work of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism "to create and refine better ways of reporting the news to re-engage people in public life?" There is no surer way to engage readers than to help them see people like themselves in our newspapers. After 25 years in journalism, I believe this as deeply as anything I know: To the extent that people see their communities represented in our papers, they view us as credible. Credibility and coverage are inextricably linked -- and therefore vital to our future as conveners of community and as viable businesses.
I keep hearing about diversity burnout. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson: You can't afford diversity burnout. If you have it, get over it because anyone who can read a census table knows it's the path to the future.
Tonight, we're going to explore what Connecting With Community means at the Mercury News. We are far from perfect. In fact, we can't even see the finish line. But it's the only paper I can talk about authoritatively and I'll try to make a point or two that might resonate.
This is our mission statement, which appears every day at the top of Page 2. It says: "We are passionate about serving readers in Silicon Valley and its global electronic community, reporting and writing accurately and fairly, shining a light on injustice and defending the public's right to know.
"We will reflect the changing demographics of the community in both coverage and hiring, recognizing that diversity is a core component of accuracy.
"Two stories are central to our mission: the impact of technology and the changing demographic landscape of America. These two stories create powerful connections between our community and others, both domestic and international."
That mission statement -- which reflects our core values -- drives our coverage goals, which drive our structure, which determines our decision-making. We turn to these values when delivering evaluations and determining who our top performers are. And I can tell you, in tough economic times, it's essential to have these values to guide us. Here's an example: Despite reducing staff by more than 40 people, our five-person race and demographics team has remained fully staffed throughout.
Let's take a look at some of our diversity coverage.
When the U.S. Census Bureau released its California data, our lead detailed how a surge in California's Latino and Asian populations, combined with an unexpectedly large drop in the white population, had turned California into the nation's most diverse state. A sidebar on state growth seized on a fact that other papers missed: For the first time since the Gold Rush, a majority of Californians live outside the Bay Area and Los Angeles. With growth booming in traditionally rural parts of the state, California's two largest areas stand to lose some of their political clout. We also zeroed in on the Asian boom, the population trend that had the most dramatic effect on the Bay Area.
Even as the Bay Area grows more diverse, a growing number of Latinos and Asians are living in places where they make up more than 70 percent of the population. To examine this pattern, we profiled two Union City neighborhoods. On this day, we wrote about Decoto, an 80 percent Latino enclave that wears its ethnic identity with pride. The following day, we wrote about an affluent new subdivision, 75 percent Asian, where developers and marketers helped shape the neighborhood by highlighting features that appealed to Asians. But there is tension in the new California.
This centerpiece tells the tale of a group of parents who want to secede from a local school district and create their own. But the proposed new district -- filled with affluent, highly educated, ambitious families -- would be more than 60 percent Asian. It would be what some educators call a racially segregated enclave of privilege. This story explores how California's swiftly changing demographics are leading, inevitably, to tensions that are reshaping suburbia.
Diversity for us also means getting young voices into our pages. These five teenagers in East Palo Alto may be the most unlikely philanthropists you will ever meet. They come from families struggling so hard financially that doing without is a way of life. But for one year they have had $15,000, provided by a foundation, to give away to finance youth-led projects in their area. Our philanthropy reporter found that the East Palo Alto Money Crew is part of a growing nationwide effort to use philanthropy to build self-confidence among young people and point them toward college and a lifetime of community leadership. Teens are an incredibly tough community to penetrate and we can all learn from Sandy Close about how to better do that.
It didn't take long after Sept. 11 for people to become the target of hate just because of the way they looked or the way they talked. We spent time with families -- Muslims, Sikhs, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iranians -- to learn how their daily routines had changed. One man told us that returning to Iran was not an option but living in America might not be, either. I feel very strongly that the Mercury News has an obligation at this time to promote tolerance -- and that's another way in which we can help readers reach out to one another.
This full-page graphic told our readers about Islam. It also included a Q&A by our religion writer with an expert on Islam. Creating understanding builds common ground for healthy communities.
I want to be clear when I talk about technology coverage. It's not our job to celebrate technology, but rather, to elevate it as a coverage topic. In fact, after being boosterish in the mid-90s, our coverage has grown more critical and, I think, more thoughtful over time. For example ...
As part of our coverage of the bursting of the dot-com bubble, we did a thoroughly unflattering post-mortem on Pets.com. We used the online pet industry as the vehicle for that examination, since it provided a textbook example of the giddiness that drove the dot-com boom to bust. What were we thinking? Why did we ever think it was necessary to have three national sites to buy Puppy Chow on line?
After years of sizzling growth, Cisco Systems, the region's largest corporate employer announced in March that 8,000 people would lose their jobs. This cutback eventually led to Cisco abandoning an ambitious development planned in South San Jose's Coyote Valley. But in order to explain the food chain that Cisco sits atop ...
It was important to explain how the fortunes of smaller companies were directly tied Cisco's success. We devoted the back page one Sunday to a graphic that showed how low demand for delivering high-speed Internet connections to homes and offices contributed to Silicon Valley's economic downturn. It bankrupted the big-name ISPs and trickled all the way down to Vietnamese immigrants who assemble circuit boards.
Before "Shrek" opened, one of our film reviewers looked into the technology used by animators to create the lifelike characters. They actually had to tone down one of the characters, because her features were "too real." This is a good example of how covering our master narrative is not just the responsibility of one department.
The battle over the Hewlett-Packard/Compaq merger was the Silicon Valley business story of 2001. In a highly technical industry where the real news is often hidden in the details, this is the stuff of grand drama -- the families of Silicon Valley's founders going to war with the current management of the valley's flagship corporation. From the birth of the electronic era, Hewlett-Packard had always been an icon of stability and sound management. When HP heir and board member Walter Hewlett announced Nov. 7 that he would reverse his position and oppose the deal, everything about HP was called into question: the company's vaunted culture, the future of the personal computer business, the fate of the company and its charismatic, hard-charging CEO, Carly Fiorina. However, I have to tell you that I've consistently criticized our coverage on one count: the lack of female voices when we've quoted industry analysts.
A couple of weeks ago, I was sharing my outline with Jan Schaffer. She asked if it was difficult to cover both diversity AND technology. I told her that I think diversity and technology intersect at ambition. Let me show you how:
In less than a decade, a cluster of modest suburbs has become a land of stark contrasts, and the gulf has widened between the comfortable and those who serve them. In "A Valley Family's Supporting Cast," we described one high-tech family's support network. We met the pool cleaner, salon owner, gardener, speech therapist, preschool teacher, grocery clerk and dry cleaner. These uncelebrated workers get by with few resources beyond their time, their energy and their willingness to sacrifice. What drives them? The same ambition that drives the technology class.
With their homeland torn apart more than 7,000 miles away, two dozen Indo-American groups came together in the Bay Area to announce a coalition to collect millions of dollars for survivors of one of the deadliest earthquakes to strike India in more than 50 years. About a third of the 150,000 Indian-Americans living in the Bay Area are from quake-ravaged Gujarat, the western Indian state that sustained the most damage in last January's 7.9-magnitude quake. Many of these Indo-Americans work in technology -- and they used that background to form this coalition. Talk about a solution story.
There is yet another way we connect with communities that's still central to our service of the public trust: local investigations.
Our two-day investigation of East Palo Alto's impoverished Ravenswood School District was a classic tale of cronyism and fraud -- within shouting distance of Stanford and affluent Palo Alto. The outcome? Pending charges and increased scrutiny.
While covering a special hearing in November, Mercury News Sacramento reporter Dion Nissenbaum discovered there was data on a Web site -- data bought from the state of California -- that created the opportunity for identity theft. Two days after Dion reported his first story, the records were removed.
This story detailed how the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office let personal grudges on the part of several ADAs drive the prosecution of a veteran educator on a charge she failed to pursue a case of child abuse.
After vigorously defending his office in a Sunday front-page article, three days later, the district attorney recanted in this front-page story, which also shows the story about the state's about-face on the records issue. Now, that was a good day's work.
We've covered a lot of ground tonight. I don't want to leave you with the impression that the Mercury News is satisfied with its coverage of its diverse community. We're not.
Where is the Mercury News headed? Pardon me if I can't stand the thought of another incremental step along the road to covering a diverse community. I want to see the status quo in my rear-view mirror. I want each of our newsroom professionals to bring to bear their life experiences in all of their work. How would their beats change if they really did that and reflected the community?
I can tell you with conviction that this approach is paying off. I received a letter from a reader who told me that she started receiving the Mercury News during the week of Sept. 11. In addition to our coverage of the attacks, she was also impressed with the coverage of our diverse community. She wrote, " As a half white/half Mexican-American teacher living in Sunnyvale and teaching for Redwood City School District, I often have felt the media (be it print or television -- news and entertainment) ignores my reality. Whether it was growing up in Los Angeles or living here in the Bay Area, it's hard to find true diversity (especially not just black and white) fully represented. Your coverage has been exceptional. ... I feel like I'm actually seeing my reality and my perspective of the world in the Mercury. As a single, Latino mother from Sunnyvale, I can see myself in your newspaper. And that hasn't always been the case with newspapers."
That's high and humbling praise from a reader. And it'll take that kind of commitment to ensure that this won't be the last time that Julie Vu and Joseph Castro see themselves in the Mercury News.
Thank you for your time.