Matt Mansfield leaving Merc leadership post

The Society’s Vice President, Matt Mansfield, is leaving his longtime leadership role at the San Jose Mercury News, where he is a deputy managing editor and business development director.

Mansfield steps down as part of the paper’s latest voluntary staff reductions. The buyout announcements go out this week.

Mansfield joined the Mercury News as news design director in 2000, following the paths of Bryan Monroe and David Yarnold, who put the paper on the visual journalism map in the 1990s.

He rose quickly through the ranks, soon becoming design director and then assistant managing editor. His widely acclaimed redesign of the Merc in 2001 and subsequent coverage of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 garnered the paper a spot as one of SND’s “World’s Best-Designed Newspapers,” one of the last American papers to achieve the honor.

Mansfield ushered the paper’s impressive visual staff through an unprecedented string of news events: the recall of a sitting governor and the election of an action hero (for which the paper’s photography was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), the death of a pope and a beloved former president, a war and its aftermath, the world’s greatest home-run slugger and his subsequent disgrace in a steroids scandal, wildfires across California, the rise and fall and rise of the tech economy. The list goes on.

Mansfield assembled staff after staff of some of the best journalists in the business. He directed photographers and reporters. Editors and artists. Designers and illustrators.

The Merc quickly became the place to be, thanks in large part to his recruiting of top talent from far and wide. Columbia Journalism Review named the Mercury News one of the Top 10 papers in the United States.

Under his leadership, there were many SND highlights, too. Mansfield chaired the annual SND workshop in San Jose in 2004, the first time SND had visited Silicon Valley, and he was elected to SND’s leadership in 2005. He directed the editors who helped revitalize both Update and Design. And he worked with a small group to build the Society a better online site.

He’s also crafted a successful role for himself redesigning other newspapers, notably the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Spokesman-Review.

Now he’s trying something new. He’s just not sure what it is yet.

He’ll spend the next few months consulting, traveling and generally figuring out his next move.

I know Matt didn’t take this decision lightly.

I know because I drove with him from The Times of Northwest Indiana to the Mercury News in 2000. That’s 2,000 miles of not taking it lightly.

I was in the car because I was his first hire at the Merc. Matt hired me while we were still in Indiana, his second step after getting off the phone with the Merc, he liked to recall.

Matt and I started on the same day, along with Kevin Wendt, now an assistant managing editor in San Jose, and soon after Bonita Burton, an assistant managing editor in Orlando, and Gabi Schmidt, now a consultant based in Mexico City. That was an amazing first few months.

It’s been an incredible journey for Matt and the Merc, from the high-flying days of the dot-com boom to the challenging changes shaking the newspaper industry. All along the way, his leadership has been a beacon to guide the Merc. Matt’s been a constant in Silicon Valley, an innovator in one of the world’s most-innovative places.

Matt took a few minutes to talk to Update about his choice to step away from the Merc.
Let’s all wish him the best in his new challenges. Can’t wait to see what he does.

1. So, is it true? Is Matt Mansfield leaving the San Jose Mercury News?

It’s true. It’s also one of the hardest decisions I have ever made.
Without question, I love the Merc: the work, the people, the place.

Leaving here will be a heartbreaking end to an amazing ride and, yet, the time feels right to exit. The buyout seemed an appropriate moment to hit the reset button.

I must admit to being more than a little sad right now, but I think that’s just because I’m nostalgic for a time that was, ultimately, unsustainable. That’s the difficult truth for many of us in newspapers right now.

What amazes me, looking back on it, is how much of myself has become tied up in my Merc personality. I’m humbled by the work we have been able to do here. And I’m genuinely indebted to my colleagues — present and past — who have worked tirelessly to make the Merc smart, successful and daring. They made me look good every day.

At our best, I hope we were able to set a pretty high benchmark.

2. It’s been eight years and a whole lot of incredible work, what were some of your most memorable moments, pages and stories?

The hardest few weeks of my professional career were right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I can recall that day like it was yesterday. You phoned me. It was early here and your wife, Mari, was visiting Chicago so she was up and watching it unfold. You told me to turn on the TV just as the second plane was hitting the World Trade Center. We both knew what to do next: head to the paper.

I remember all of us being exhausted by the avalanche of information we were trying to navigate, feeling, absolutely and with a certain force of will, that we had an obligation to be thoughtful, careful journalists in the wake of such a terrible tragedy on U.S. soil. Our coverage had a special duty. Everyone’s did.

Those events proved journalism had the power to matter more than ever. I think about that often. It’s interesting how your breaking news metabolism kicks in during times like that, how much it builds to something better than you knew you could do.

That sensation of being part of the Merc going full out on a big story really has defined my time here. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

David Yarnold, the executive editor when I joined the paper, used to say that was the Merc’s DNA. I’ve been honored to be part of that tradition he and Bryan (Monroe) helped to foster. There has always been an incredibly large part of me that understood I was a steward of that legacy. My job was to extend it.

3. Given what’s been going on in the industry and what’s been going on at the Merc, what can other newsrooms learn from San Jose?

As many people know, I’ve been working on a rethinking project here (see the Merc rethink blog). Our aim was to use a great deal of observational research to reposition our product portfolio as massive change in media use has hit the newspaper industry hard.

That’s a fancy way of saying we needed to do something — and we needed to do it quick!

Look, I’ve been on the front lines of the online revolution.
I live in Silicon Valley, after all. My faith in what we do is stronger than ever.

But because I have grown up loving digital media, I know the imperative for change demands a different look at how we do business as journalists. I hope the industry begins to confront that in meaningful ways.

I have immense interest in and passion for the news, information, entertainment, technology and social media spaces.

I also know that building new audience segments is more important than ever because it helps define the overall impact of our media reach. So that means we have got to create some niche products that will draw in people who might never look at the traditional paper.

Trust me, I know that newspapers are in a tough market position because so much of the existing revenue model depends on the part of the franchise that’s getting less audience reach than it used to. I don’t side, however, with all the traditional folks who think that, if we hope and pray long enough, the good old days might just return. They won’t.

Media use has fundamentally changed. Smart people see this, both in that macro sense when they look out at the world and in the micro sense when they check out their own habits. We need to make media products that we want to use, and that other people might want to use even if we don’t.

For all those reasons, doing nothing (often the advice I hear) seems like doing harm. We must do something. Anything.

My advice: Try as many things as your organization can afford. And give until it hurts.

4. OK, so what’s next for you?

Want the scary answer? I have no idea yet.

My goal will be to use my skills in another media organization. I think there’s a lot I can offer as news and information shifts to online. The convergence of disciplines has been something I’ve been involved with and excited about for some time now. I know I’ll be lucky to find another institution that gives me the wide latitude for innovation I’ve enjoyed here at the Merc. Here’s hoping, though.

I’ll also be happily occupied on many things for the Society for News Design as vice president, working on everything from Quick Courses to the annual workshop in Las Vegas this fall (SND Vegas). I’m taking off on Thursday for the annual Malofiej Infographics World Summit in Spain, so you can expect reports from that great event right here on Update.

And, as the Society’s president next year, you can expect me to be a walking example of what mid-career change looks like, in a place so many members confront in this challenging environment.

5. Will you continue to work on the paper’s redesign?

Oh, right. I do know what’s next, at least for a month or two. I will be continuing to help the Merc because the paper’s new editor, Dave Butler, has asked me to finish some design work begun last year (when you and I tackled the business section). I’d like to get that work done. Dave has been kind enough to contract my services to see things through. My hope is to help set a solid architecture that can guide the excellent staff at the Merc for at least a bit of time to come.

6. What do you see as your legacy at the Merc?

Pushing for bold solutions.
Challenging the organization to reach.
Never accepting a single definition of my role or anyone else’s.
Those seem like lasting effects to me.

This would also be a good point for me to thank the Mercury News, our former corporate parent, Knight Ridder, and the current chiefs, Media News, for unflagging support of visual journalism. They leave a pretty decent legacy of institutional excellence in that regard.

The importance of the packaging and presentation of the news has not been lost on any of my employers, thanks in large part to the education that David (Yarnold) gave them. They have been stalwart supporters of my efforts inside the Society, giving generously of my time to the industry, as well as to my many other activities in journalism groups and associations. I could not have asked for a better cheering section.

On a personal level, I have two people to thank: You, for believing we could do this way back in that crazy bar in Miller Beach and helping me each step of the way every day since, and Susan Goldberg, who gave me the keys and never asked for them back. If I have a legacy in San Jose, you and Susan certainly share in it with equal measure. Thanks for helping me build this thing.

7. Over your time there you put together some pretty great groups of visual journalists (including, full disclosure, me … three times), any sage advice from The Professor to the rest of us?

My best advice is to spot talent wherever you can. Don’t be wowed by a big newspaper name or a slew of awards or any particular cult of personality.

Instead, really look deeply at what’s in front of you, the thought behind someone’s work, and take a mental judgment of how a person responds to coaching and feedback. Some of my best hires have been people whose greatest work was just around the corner.

In fact, I want to believe my own greatest work is just around the corner. Fingers firmly crossed.

• Jonathon Berlin is the editor of Design magazine and the design director at the Chicago Tribune. He’s been hired three times by Matt Mansfield, once in Indiana and twice at the San Jose Mercury News.

• Matt Mansfield remains the Society for News Design’s vice president. You can reach him by email: [email protected]

About Jonathon Berlin

is graphics editor of the Chicago Tribune and a past president of the Society For News Design.