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Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

"Smart. Fast. Easy." Is the New Merc a newspaper or a BREAKFAST BURRITO? Here's the thing: When Fly first heard that the Mercury News was launching a "New Merc," supposedly all hulked-up on local coverage and possibly even good enough to stem the hemorrhaging of their circulation numbers, we were like, "Holy cow! Maybe they actually get it! Maybe New Merc is going to kick Old Merc's ass from here to right over there!" We had dreams of huge investigative pieces; meaty, edgy design and typography built like a brick house. When the big day came last Monday, we ripped open our shiny white baggies, which boldly declared, "THE NEW MERC!," with the aforementioned slogan below. And what's the first thing we saw? Why, a new first-page column called "The Week Ahead," helpfully charting important local events for the week. And under "Today"? A BIG-ASS BLANK SPACE! We were stunned, to say the least. Had Monday been canceled? Had we missed the memo about ARMAGGEDON? If so, what were we doing at work? We also spent several minutes pondering the local significance of the gigantic center-front-page story, "Why Movie Fans Are Staying Home." Never did figure it out, but it did have two pie charts. Those are fast and easy, at least. There was still a Jackson story on Page 2; perhaps it was "new" because it was Janet and not Michael? A tiny "Valley News" header on 3A tipped us off we were now in true New Merc territory, which is good because the top-of-the-page story "Solstice, Planet Align in June Sky" was not exactly screaming "hard-hitting new approach to local coverage." We could go on and on, but the point is: WTF? The New Merc seems exactly the opposite of what we expected it to be: shorter, even more superficial stories; and little banners letting us know that their San Jose stories are from, duh, San Jose. Apparently, we're not the only ones with jaws slacked in disbelief, as executive editor SUSAN GOLDBERG ran one of those "uh-oh" type letters on Page 3 of last Wednesday's paper saying, basically, that readers hate it. Well, OK, not so much that as "some of you think you are getting less news in the paper ... that's not the case" and "this was not a move made to save money." This letter was, by the way, under three pictures of CUTE KITTY CATS that anchored the bottom of their "West Valley News" page. How did we manage to blow our predictions for the New Merc so badly? Perhaps we forgot that Goldberg was being considered just last year for the editor position at USA TODAY, the paper that has turned "fast and easy" into a journalistic scourge. Or maybe we just should have looked closer at the bag that our New Merc came wrapped in: Under "Smart + Fast + Easy" it reads "Caution! Keep away from small children!"

Marthews Bows Out

He arrived in October 2003 at a chaotic time in the history of San Jose's Preservation Action Council. Months earlier, the agency had hired its first executive director only to see her resign after being diagnosed with cancer. The group's board suffered from exhaustion fighting City Hall over projects like relocating the 95-year-old Montgomery Hotel. And the day before ALEX MARTHEWS became the Preservation Council's second executive director, the board voted to sue the San Jose city government for ignoring state law by electing to tear down the three-story Fox-Markovits building to make way for a City Hall parking garage without first considering alternatives. In the 18 months Marthews has been on the job, much has happened. The 27-year-old Oxford, England, native was also diagnosed with testicular cancer, but has thus far controlled the disease with radiation treatment. The Preservation Council won two lawsuits against the city, including the Fox Building (though the Mission Revival structure has now been torn down) and delaying, for the moment, the demolition of IBM Building 25, a 1950s glass-and-metal precursor to the high-tech campuses the valley has become known for. Marthews has also overseen tedious but necessary projects like creating a program to catalog historic buildings in neighborhoods outside of downtown. Along the way, Marthews, who resigned his position effective July 15, has fought the impression that preservationists were anti-development and whimsical in their decision-making. "I could feel the perception was that what we did and didn't pursue was arbitrary rather than grounded in historic research," he says. The Preservation Council doesn't act on an historic property, he says, until an evaluator conducts a report based on objective criteria. "When we intervene, we don't use personal reasons. I think Tudor revival homes suck, but I would still advocate for them if they had to be saved. Everyone has their own tastes." The council's lawsuits against the city grabbed most of the headlines, but Marthews says he's proudest of the behind-the-scenes advocacy his group was able to accomplish. Preservationists worked with developers of the former IBM property, now owned by Hitachi, to save buildings 11 and 9, which will likely be converted into a community center. Overall, though, Marthews gives poor grades to city officials for decades of pitiful urban planning, including the destruction of the old City Hall on what is now Plaza de Cesar Chavez. "The impression I get, from my limited time here, is that San Jose suffers from a lack of civic leaders who love San Jose for what it is, rather than how much like other cities it might become. People here have an identity crisis. They see their historic buildings as something bad or inferior, as if San Jose has nothing to be proud of. There are people up in the hills who haven't come downtown in 30 years and who are not about to start now. They work so hard at their jobs that they genuinely don't have time to learn about and understand our common heritage. All of which is very sad."

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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