Mercury News head steps down to urge look at practices

The Associated Press
Tuesday March 20, 2001

SAN JOSE — Jay Harris, chairman and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, resigned Monday, saying he hoped his action would prompt the newspaper’s parent company, Knight Ridder, to “closely examine the wisdom” of the paper’s profit targets. 

Harris, 51, who had been publisher for seven years, announced his surprise resignation in a wistful e-mail to the paper’s employees. 

“In a letter to Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder and the Newspaper Division president, Steve Rossi, I explained I was stepping down ’in the hope that doing so will cause them to closely examine the wisdom’ of the profit targets we’ve been struggling to find a way to meet,” Harris wrote. 

In a self-profile published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Harris described himself as a “journalistic traditionalist” and bemoaned when short-term demands cause papers to sacrifice core values. 

“We all know we must make significant adjustments in the face of the currently severe economic downturn,” Harris wrote Monday. “But so far, we have been unable to find a way to meet the new targets without risking significant and lasting harm to the Mercury News – as a journalistic enterprise and as the special place to work that it is.” 

Calls to Harris’ office, as well as to a spokesman for Knight Ridder, were not immediately returned. Mercury News spokeswoman Patty Wise said the paper had no comment. 

Earlier this month, Harris had announced plans to lay off an unspecified number of employees, blaming a dramatic fall in help-wanted ad revenue and other signs of Silicon Valley’s economic slowdown. 

The paper, which has 1,700 employees, is the third-largest in Northern California with a daily circulation of 289,000. 

In a March 5 memo to his staff, Harris said that early retirement offers might help, but that “we will be unable to achieve the level of expense reduction we are seeking to achieve without layoffs.” 

A newspaper industry analyst said Monday that Harris’ resignation was unexpected. 

“He’s always been one of the company’s most highly regarded executives and has successfully run one of the company’s biggest profit centers,” said John Morton, a newspaper analyst from Silver Spring, Md. “I’m very surprised.” 

Harris has been noted for efforts to bring increased racial diversity to American newsrooms.  

In the last five years, he also launched weekly Spanish- and Vietnamese-language newspapers tied to the Mercury News. 

Harris said he will stay in the Silicon Valley area, but that he did not know what his next professional step would be. 

“I’m looking forward to a brief break from public life and a period of reflection and rejuvenation,” he wrote his staff. “I will look for another platform from which to serve the public interest. Maybe I will do some writing. I used to do that for a living.” 

Also on Monday, Knight Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper publisher group, lowered its expectations for first-quarter earnings for the second time. 

After warning a month ago that first-quarter earnings would be down “modestly” from the same period a year ago, the company said that the “revenue environment continues to deteriorate, and we do not see relief in March.” 

The company now expects first-quarter earnings to fall 15 cents to 20 cents. Analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial had expected Knight Ridder to earn 71 cents a share in the first quarter, down from 74 cents in the period a year ago. 

The San Jose, Calif.-based company, whose newspapers include The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Detroit Free Press, said advertising revenues fell 2.7 percent in February compared to February 2000, with markets in San Jose, Philadelphia and Detroit showing the most weakness. 

Knight Ridder’s stock was off $1.13 to close at $54.36 Monday on the New York Stock Exchange. 

Other newspaper publishers have warned of lower profits in the first quarter due to a drop in advertising revenues. Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, also has warned investors twice of lower profits. 


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