The Mercury News Changes Along with San Jose

“Today, the South Bay is known for silicon and freeways instead of orchards and bootleggers. But the newspaper remains. As [one of] California’s oldest continuously published daily newspapers, the Mercury News has lived and breathed and failed and triumphed and evolved with the community it has chronicled.”

Paul Rogers, Mercury News, 2001

When publisher Joe Ridder moved his morning San Jose Mercury and the evening San Jose News to 750 Ridder Park Drive in 1967, his newspapers gained much needed space. The move was also symbolic. San Jose was expanding, and Joe Ridder’s newspapers had been, and would continue to be, be a major advocate for that growth. Few were as supportive of San Jose’s development strategy in the 1950s and ‘60s as Joseph B. Ridder.

The newspapers, which the Ridder family had purchased in 1952, left behind a decaying downtown for a 36-acre site on formerly unincorporated farmland. The new building provided ample space for its 1,000 employees, and nearly double the press production space as its old building at 211 W. Santa Clara Street, but took his reporters and editors away from the heart of the city’s political and business scene.

Nearly 50 years later, in 2016, the Mercury News (the two papers merged in 1983) headed back to a revitalized downtown. Long a part of San Jose’s changing landscape, the Mercury News had embraced the region’s transition into a high technology gateway just as it shared the region’s dramatic booms and busts.

Click on the arrows next to headings below to read more about the Mercury News’ history at 750 Ridder Park Drive.

Joe Ridder's San Jose
Two years before Ridder moved his newspapers from downtown, Richard Reinhardt published his exploration of “Joe Ridder’s San Jose” in San Francisco Magazine (November 1965). San Jose, Reinhardt wrote, had been a “sleepy town, a farming town, whose greatest fame was based on the prune.” But a symbiotic relationship between Ridder and San Jose’s affable but single-minded city manager, Anthony “Dutch” Hamann, changed the dimensions and influence of the city while dramatically building circulation and advertising linage for Ridder’s newspapers.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, this partnership was a perfect convergence. As Santa Clara County sought to enjoy the same post-war boom in industry and technology, and infusion of corporate and government spending, as that of neighboring San Mateo and Alameda Counties, Hamann “guided and perfected an aggressive annexation policy that has been the city’s ideology for fifteen years,” noted Reinhardt. “Dutch is one of the most successful city officials in Northern California.” Others called him the region’s best salesman.

Ridder backed Hamann wholeheartedly. “Reporters who cover City Hall for the Merc or News soon learn that critical stories will not be welcomed at the City Desk,” noted Reinhardt. The thousands of people drawn to the area by new jobs and housing, made affordable by new FHA and VA loans and the lovely climate, were, to Joe Ridder, newspaper readers and, especially, shoppers. “Prune trees don’t read newspapers,” said Joe Ridder. [Rogers]

By supporting Hamann’s agenda, the Mercury and the News also helped attract manufacturers, shopping center developers, car dealerships, and other advertisers who relied on his near monopoly of newspaper readership for advertising spreads and classifieds for jobs, houses and cars. The city of San Jose grew in a scattered pattern of housing and shopping mall development, spreading fingers into unincorporated county lands where shopping centers and manufacturing plants could be located along major roads and intersections. Between 1950 and 1969, the city grew from 17 to 137 square miles as its population grew from 95,000 to nearly a half a million. (It tipped the 1 million mark in 2014). It’s nearly 1,400 “imperialistic” annexations between 1949 and 1977 (compared to 46 during the previous 100 years) provoked counter actions by towns from Palo Alto to Saratoga to Gilroy.

The Santa Clara Valley of the late 1960s can be seen in this George Bagnall & Associates, Inc. film, produced in 1968, from the History San José Collection:

While California’s population grew 77 percent in the two decades following World War II, Santa Clara Valley grew by 188 percent. “It’s hard for a San Franciscan to believe,” a smiling Dutch Hamann told Reinhardt, “but we will be the biggest city in Northern California—little old San Jose!” Today, San Jose is indeed Northern California’s largest city, and the tenth largest in the United States.

By 1967, the growth strategy clearly paid off for Joe Ridder’s newspapers. The San Jose News led evening newspapers nationwide in ad lineage, while the Mercury ranked in size among the nation’s top six morning papers. “Unfortunately for the cause of free enterprise and competitive journalism,” Reinhardt added, “this remarkable success is not the result of editorial distinction but of having a single ownership newspaper monopoly in an area of spectacular growth.” The circulation manager was quoted as saying they didn’t have a newspaper but an ad catalog, suggesting the News should sponsor a “Find the News Story” contest. Nevertheless, in addition to Ridder’s aggressive advertising promotion strategy, the newspapers maintained respectable news and feature services, and a relentless state capital reporter, Harry Farrell.

Leaving Downtown Behind

The move to 750 Ridder Park Drive was a natural step in this pro-growth strategy. San Jose’s aggressive annexation policy, which led to the bulldozing of many of the area’s fruit orchards, also led to movement out of the city’s core, including a move of City Hall to North First and Rosa in 1958. By the mid 1960s, two major shopping centers along Stevens Creek alone brought in the equivalent of half the business of the downtown district. Some 60 additional shopping centers now dotted Santa Clara County. The downtown area, however, “still has the careless, thrown-together look of most small California towns,” wrote Reinhardt in 1965, with its “dairy lunch counters, hofbrau taverns and Mexican record shops; Pan-Poker-Lo-Ball parlors going night and day; and Tree of Heaven springing up from the cracked edges of the parking lots.” Downtown San Jose became a “sad mix of empty lots, failed shops and winos,” another reporter wrote years later. [Rogers]

Within a few years of the move to Ridder Park Drive, Hamann’s rapid development tactics, like development throughout Santa Clara Valley and along the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, brought new criticism from residents, environmentalists, and city council members alike. In addition to the environmental damage brought by urban sprawl, the city’s awkward, topsy-turvy annexations (some simply spread along main thoroughfares, some were not even contiguous to city boundaries) had impacted the efficient delivery of water and sewer services and access to fire and police. Hamann stepped down in 1969 when it became clear that newer members of the city council would no longer rubber stamp his decisions.

Joe Ridder and his editors also noticed a disturbing trend. Few of the new residents of Santa Clara Valley now identified with the mushrooming “faceless, overblown small town.” But little changed at 750 Ridder Park Drive until the Ridder family’s newspaper chain merged with Miami-based Knight Newspapers in 1974 to form Knight-Ridder Inc. While the Ridders had always focused on circulation and advertising, the Knights were known for their interest in journalism (Jack Knight had won a Pulitzer for his weekly “editor’s notebook” at the Miami Herald.) Three years later, Joe Ridder retired under pressure as publisher and was succeeded by his nephew, P. Anthony Ridder. Tony Ridder had joined the Mercury and News staff in 1964, and had served as business manager since 1968 and then general manager before taking over as publisher in 1977.

Putting the Knight in Knight-Ridder

Joe Ridder’s editorial board wrote with little predictability except its tendency toward pro-growth, but new publisher Tony Ridder reflected the Knight’s emphasis on investigative journalism. He doubled the newsroom staff in the late 1970s, and expanded bureaus. “There was a source of friction between my uncle and me,” said Tony Ridder. “I was saying we have a highly educated, sophisticated population and the paper was not as good as it could be. We had a national reputation on the business side, but not a particularly distinguished reputation on the news side. I really wanted to see the Mercury News become one of the great newspapers in this country.” The Mercury News remained one of Knight Ridder’s top newspapers when Tony Ridder left San Jose for Miami in 1986 to head Knight-Ridder’s newspaper division, later moving up to president in 1989, and CEO and chairman in 1995. [Rogers]

Attention to redeveloping downtown began when Tom McEnery became mayor in 1982. Tony Ridder helped to restore the area, which in retrospect he says the newspaper should not have left behind. He helped lead efforts for construction of the San Jose Arena and the Tech Museum of Innovation, contributing more than $1 million to the latter. He used his editorial board to champion downtown restoration and encourage subsidies for redevelopment projects in the core district, as well as to support desegregation of San Jose Unified School District’s schools and to champion responsible growth. Editorials also began to endorse local and state political candidates, and took a strong stand against Proposition 13, the ultimately successful but problematic anti-property tax initiative.

In 1983, the morning Mercury and the afternoon News were merged, creating the San Jose Mercury News. The paper published in the morning and afternoon until 1995, when the afternoon edition was folded. Editor Bob Ingle later remembered the 1980s and early 90s as a golden age, when revenues were strong and the news staff was growing.

The Mercury News won its first Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1986 for “Hidden Billions: The Draining of the Philippines,” a three-part series on the corruption of the Ferdinand Marcos government. Its second came in 1990 for coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and its aftermath. The Mercury News had emerged from a “profoundly mediocre” newspaper, as one long-serving editor later said, to becoming the best in the West.

Changing With Its Community

The Mercury News was the first American newspaper to open, in 1994, a bureau in Hanoi when U.S.-Vietnamese relations thawed, and was among the first to hire Vietnamese-speaking reporters to cover the city’s booming émigré community. In 1996, it launched Nuevo Mundo, a Spanish-language weekly. Larry Romero interviewed prominent Latino leaders, including San Jose residents Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez. Three years later, when it created Viet Mercury, a Vietnamese-language weekly, it became the first American newspaper to publish in three languages. By the end of the decade, the newspaper was “fat, ambitious and admired.” [Shapiro]

The Mercury News, fortuitously situated at the heart of Silicon Valley’s emerging communications revolution, also embraced quickly evolving computer technology, both to do its work and to present it. Time Magazine dubbed it the most technologically savvy newspaper in the United States. In 1993, it was among the first newspapers to be available entirely online when it debuted on America Online, and was the first to use the site to break news. It was among the first to migrate online content to the World Wide Web. When he found it difficult to attract innovative technical people to Knight Ridder’s Miami hub, Tony Ridder, as Knight Ridder’s CEO and board chairman, moved corporate headquarters to San Jose in 1998. The 17-story Knight Ridder building at 50 West San Fernando Street, with its bold Knight Ridder sign, became an important addition to San Jose’s new downtown skyline.

Hard Hit by Recession

On its 150th birthday in 2001, the Mercury News was among the largest newspapers in California, with a circulation of 289,413 daily and 332,669 on Sundays. It had some 400 reporters, editors, photographers, and artists, along with 15 local, national, and international bureaus. It was hit hard, however, by the 2000-01 recession. The newspaper itself became the focus of news attention when Jay Harris, its publisher since 1994, resigned in protest over severe budget cuts to maintain Knight-Ridder profit targets despite the economic downturn. In his resignation letter to Tony Ridder, Harris voiced concerns that proposed cuts threatened to cause “significant and lasting harm” to the paper and community.

By 2005, Viet Mercury had been sold and Nuevo Mundo closed. With print revenue declining rapidly as classified ads moved to online services such as Craigslist, the Mercury News eliminated 52 more newsroom positions. Parent company Knight Ridder, the most respected chain in the news business, was facing self-destruction. The once privately owned company had gone public for an infusion of cash to develop its media presence. When Knight Ridder was unable to keep up its once high profit margin and share price to satisfy institutional investors, Ridder and the board of directors were pressured into putting Knight Ridder itself up for sale in late 2005. News chain rival McClatchy Company was the only bidder, at far under the stock price expected by major shareholders, including an influential hedge fund manager.

The sale ended Ridder’s 114-year-old family business, as well as Tony Ridder’s role as CEO. Ridder, and the plight of Knight Ridder Inc., became symbols of the state of American print media. “His journalistic critics say he has been too quick to answer Wall Street’s constant demands for higher profit by cutting costs,” wrote Miriam Hill, of Knight Ridder’s Philadelphia Inquirer, that year. “His fans say he has done his best to maintain quality in an era of declining ad sales and circulation throughout the industry.” Former reporter and Inquirer editor Bill Marinow added that despite Ridder’s business acumen, publicly held newspaper companies faced extreme pressure “to maximize profits at the expense of the paper’s traditional and important mandate to do public service journalism.” [Hill]

The Knight Ridder company’s former downtown headquarters on San Fernando Street, still remembered fondly as the Knight Ridder building, remains one of San Jose’s nicest downtown office buildings. Its landmark Knight Ridder sign did not come down until 2016, ten years after the company’s demise. “I know San Jose misses a corporate presence that blessed its hopes for remaking its downtown,” wrote columnist Scott Herhold in 2013. “The Knight Ridder sign testified to an era of big dreams.” [Pizarro, Herhold]

Mercury News Continues to Change Hands

Tony Ridder had assumed that Sacramento-based McClatchy, an historic company dating back to California’s Gold Rush, would appreciate the accomplishments of the San Jose Mercury News. He was “stunned,” he told Mercury News reporters, when McClatchy immediately resold 12 of Knight Ridder’s 32 newspapers, including the Mercury News, representing 40-45 percent of its revenue stream. Allegedly they didn’t fit its profile of papers in growth markets with no direct daily print competition, but since this did not describe the Mercury News, it was rumored that these also were newspapers with strong union representation. Dean Singleton’s Denver-based MediaNews Group acquired the Mercury News, and other papers in a $1 billion deal.

The newspaper was again a part of a reorganization in 2010 when Affiliated Media, parent of MediaNews Group, filed for bankruptcy and dumped $765 million in debt, accumulated from leverage structures and massive buying, and restructured in exchange for shares. This realignment placed major shareholder Alden Global Capital in charge. Alden (a hedge fund owned by Smith Management LLC, founded and owned by Randall Smith, an expert on junk bonds and distressed properties) was interested in “nimble, modern digital news enterprises” that earn a strong return on investment.

In 2016, the former San Jose Mercury News was rebranded as The Mercury News, a consolidation of San Francisco Bay Area newspapers published by the Bay Area News Group, a subsidiary of Media News Group. The original 16 newspapers, spanning from San Jose and Santa Cruz, up the Peninsula to Marin and up the East Bay to Oakland, are now published as local editions of the Mercury News.

Sale of 750 Ridder Park Drive

In April 2013, John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, which now manages the Mercury News parent, MediaNews Group, announced that the Mercury News headquarters at 750 Ridder Park Drive was up for sale in order to reduce “legacy infrastructure costs.” Paton was following the path of other metropolitan newspapers, such as The Washington Post and Detroit Free Press, in cashing in on expensive real estate no longer needed for production. Much of the Mercury News building was unused after a succession of staff layoffs, the transfer of some offices downtown, and the consolidation of production of many local newspapers to plants in Hayward and Concord. The site was sold to San Jose-based Super Micro Computer Inc., which intends to demolish the building to make way for a 1.5 million square feet of industrial, office and warehouse space.

In September 2014, publisher Sharon Ryan announced that executive, news, business, and advertising offices would move to the 7th and 8th floors of 4 North Second Street, a few blocks from the 211 W. Santa Clara building the newspapers had left in 1967. The return of the Mercury News downtown was praised by city officials, many of whom had worked hard to bring it back. Calling the newspaper “one of the nation’s best” and “an anchor presence,” former Mayor Chuck Reed hailed the move as another step in bringing downtown “back from the dead.” [Carey]

The return downtown has been generally well received by Mercury staff and former editors. “While I already work out of a downtown bureau at San Jose City Hall, I have to cheer the move,” commented columnist Scott Herhold in June 2014. “As a veteran who savors the serendipity of my craft — the benefit of bumping into a source — I know it will help newsgathering.” [Carey, Herhold]

“I will miss the smell of the ink, the miracle we used to perform every day,” commented Joe Boessenecker, senior vice-president for operations and production. “It’s still a miracle, but we perform it more remotely.” As the Mercury News, like other American newspapers, finds it way during a period of great cultural and technological change, Boessenecker remains confident. “I think it’s going to find its own place.”