Print journalism in Memphis these days resembles the free agent chaos that follows the NBA season, but in this case, every journalist is a free agent.
At the eye of the storm – and the cause of it – is the new digital newspaper – likely to be called The Daily Memphian – that has roiled the market by hiring 14 journalists – 10 present and one former reporter from The Commercial Appeal, one from Gannett’s Jackson Sun, and two reporters from Memphis Business Journal.
Some observers now suggest that the new digital-only newspaper’s raiding party appears as intent on destruction as disruption, particularly when it comes to The Commercial Appeal, where the attack feels visceral and personal.
The damage to Old Reliable is not just in hiring away so much of the reporting team, but in driving other reporters to the door because, as one put it, the “water is circling the drain.”
In that regard, three marquee talents from The Commercial Appeal, have exited in recent months – Jacinthia Jones, team leader and deputy metro editor, became Tennessee Bureau Chief for Chalkbeat; Marc Perrusquia, investigative reporter resigned to head up an investigating reporting and public service at the University of M Memphis Department of Journalism and Strategic Communications; and Tom Charlier, community and environmental reporter, resigned to take a position at ALSAC, the fund-raising arm for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The List Grows
They are part of an accelerating list of Commercial Appeal journalists who have hit the door for the safe confines of the new media outlet:
Geoff Calkins, sports columnist
Jennifer Biggs, food editor
Chris Herrington, 9:01 columnist
Jim Weber, photojournalist
Clay Bailey, editor, government and politics
Wayne Risher, logistics and business reporter
Otis Sanford, weekly columnist
Kyra Cross, former copy editor
Tom Bailey, development reporter
Yolanda Jones, crime and breaking news reporter
John Varlas, prep sports reporter
Another escapee from Gannett, this one from the Jackson Sun, joining the digital newspaper is Omer Yusuf, business/government reporter. He was a sports intern for The Commercial Appeal in 2015 and that beat seems his passion.
But raiding 495 Union wasn’t the only place to feel the impact of the open checkbook of the new media outlet. At the Memphis Business Journal, two reporters are leaving to accept reporting gigs at the Daily Memphis: Michelle Corbet, Downtown Memphis, transportation, the business of city government, higher education, advertising/marketing, legal and economic development; and Elle Perry, digital manager, social engagement manager and tourism, health care, and startups reporter.
The Daily Memphian will launch in roughly three weeks and that time can’t come too soon for the media outlet. There are many questions that are being lively debated on social media, and the direct hit on The Commercial Appeal has even resulted in sympathy for that newspaper and the reporters left there.
On Facebook, Chris Davis, the always provocative and thoughtful Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine writer, wrote:
“Two questions I’m tired of being asked that have the same answer: Q1: Would you leave the Flyer for the new digital newspaper? Q2: Isn’t the new digital newspaper just the most exciting thing? A: All talent considered and respected, in a city where roughly 50% of all households don’t have internet access, why is anybody anything but skeptical about a philanthropically supported, digital-only clone of the recent Commercial Appeal?”
Former Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas wrote:
“Instead of raiding local publications, did the unnamed founders of this unnamed new/old venture ever consider recruiting new talent from outside of Memphis? I want every journalist who wants a job to have a job, but it feels like after the founder/philanthropist’s bid to buy the CA was rebuffed by Gannett (according to my sources, the founder got mad and decided to try to destroy the CA). The CA was already doing an excellent job destroying itself, but still. Why not grow the piece instead of simply slicing it differently?”
Then, there was the reaction of former CA University of Memphis basketball reporter and currently co-host of a popular radio sports program on 92.9:
Gannett’s Arrogant Disregard
This takes us back to where this all began – the careless and arrogant disregard by Gannett for the special place that The Commercial Appeal had in Memphis and its ability to destroy so much of this 177-year relationship in just over two years.
There is so much that Gannett has done wrong for The Commercial Appeal, but mostly, it did itself in by simply applying the malignant and soul-draining culture of the newspaper megalith to each of the newspapers that were jammed into the USA Today Tennessee Network.
It’s always striking how easy it is for some business executives to lie to your face. Reminiscent of the Delta Air Lines executive who assured our community that the air carrier was here to stay, a Gannett executive said: “Gannett has always valued and recognized the individuality of each community.”
Immediately thereafter, Gannett drained all individuality out of coverage by removing most local decision-making in favor of highly centralized dictatorial management style that demeans local editors, degrades its reporting staffs, demands cheapness over all else, and shows no response to the louder and louder outcry from readers for better editing and more local knowledge to eliminate stupid errors that a high school newspaper would have been ashamed of.
Low Internet Penetration
It’s no wonder that there is such a visceral dislike by former CA reporters to a newspaper where many of them had spent their professional lives and did in fact love the traditions of their employer. These days, even the bleak days of Scripps ownership look bright compared to the way Gannett is allowing the newspaper to crash and burn.
That’s not to say that the future of the new newspaper will be simple or that it’s business model will actually offset its costs. We understand that the Daily Memphian will cost $10 a month after a specific number of views, which essentially replicates The Commercial Appeal’s online subscription rate.
In this way, the new media outlet will lean more toward The Commercial Appeal than the Texas Tribune, the most honored and respected digital-only newspaper in the U.S. This raises the fundamental question of whether a digital-only business model can work in Memphis, which has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates of major U.S. cities, a reality that contributed to the CA’s lack of success in substantially increasing online subscriptions.
Will Gannett Put The Gloves On?
We have witnessed the results of Gannett’s flawed management structure and top-down autocratic approach, but we suspect the same frustrations are seen in most of the much-vaunted Tennessee Network: Jackson Sun, (Clarksville) Leaf-Chronicle, (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal, Dickson Herald, Ashland City Times, Robertson County Times, Gallatin News Examiner, Hendersonville Star News, Fairview Observer, Stewart Houston Times, (Nashville) Tennessean, Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Commercial Appeal.
Some of the once proud smaller newspapers are now positioned as part of larger newspapers in the network, once more belying the Gannett pledge for appreciating the individuality of each community.
The next move seems to belong to Gannett, which raises the question of how long the uncaring owner will allow The Commercial Appeal to limp along. Already, journalists have declined the opportunity to work for the once proud newspaper and if Gannett runs true to form, it will try to combat the departure of its most seasoned staff with interns and stringers.
It hardly even seems a fair fight at this point.
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