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.
We keep a running total of the CA exits on the Smart City Memphis Facebook page – and also on the Gannett Screws The News page.
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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I’m very interested in this story and thank you for reporting on it. But the outcry over editing by is not by any means limited to criticism of the CA (though egregious examples abound there). Look back at this very article for numerous examples of poor grammar (it’s for its, “more better”), an omitted quote, and poor syntax. Come on, people, it isn’t that hard!
I always appreciate stories about newspapers. To your point about the 50% of Memphians without internet access, I suspect the same people do not subscribe to the CA or other print media. But I’m not at all sure a digital newspaper will make it.
So what’s Chris Davis’s complaint? That only 50% of households have internet access (assuming that’s an accurate number, doesn’t count phones, and isn’t growing)? That’s way more than the percentage of households that currently read the C-A.
And Wendi Thomas is mad because the new venture is hiring Memphians who know the city and will be allowed to cover it instead hiring of out-of-towners? And that when Gannett refused to sell the C-A to a local buyer, he or she decided to do something about it instead of leaving the rest of us stuck with a lousy paper?
Davis surely knows that the cost of starting a new printed daily paper would be prohibitive–think of the paper, printing presses, and delivery network that would require? And if Thomas thinks that the jobs of those leaving the C-A for the new venture would be secure if they stayed there, she’s ignoring the unrelenting downsizing that’s gone on there for the past 20 years.
And by the way . . . anyone who has tried the C-A website knows why it’s so hard to get people to subscribe to it. The content is thin gruel and the display requires video-game proficiency to find the x’s and close all the ads that keep popping up in front of whatever you’re trying to read.
As far as criticism of the writing in this article, Tom is one of the best if not the best writer in the City. And I think his goal is to communicate first and to be grammatically perfect a distant second. Communicate he does. As far as the new publication, until the Philanthropists are disclosed, I remain HIGHLY SKEPTICAL. I see in Memphis a non-investigative non-questioning press of real power. An example of the range of reporting for the same event by 3 news outlets, can be found here http://justmymemphis.com/vitality-displaces-stagnancy/
We will see….
Congrats to all leaving the CA for the new venture. It’s sad to watch the CA continue the downhill slide, but that’s what Gannett does to their newspapers.
Aside from the daily typos, I gave up my CA subscription after being appalled at the Memphis-centric errors such as: 1) The misspelling of a former CA editor’s name. 2) Repeated errors on where MLK gave his last speech (including incorrect variations i.e. one of his last speeches, etc.). That’s still Mason Temple, not Clayborn. 3) The opening paragraphs of an MLK50 story on the aftermath of King’s assassination, based on a prominent Memphis businessman’s recollection, that indicated he “watched his city burn, one neighborhood at a time.” That’s a completely overblown assessment of what happened in Memphis. It’s simply not true.
And those errors bring up one of the more promising things about the new venture. They’re hiring a copy editor, an experienced Memphis hand in Kyra Cross who would have pushed back on such factual errors. Gannett seems to have no use for copy editors and it shows every single day.
Thank you SCM for keeping us updated on this important story!
Anon: Please forgive me for insulting your grammatical sense and chalk it up to writing most of these posts late at night after work. I welcome your continued editorial advice, but please know that it’s inadvertent, fatigued editing that often slips through. And I admit that the writing can be idiosyncratic but that’s my style. I’ve used it for 14 years on this blog and it’s too late in life to change, I fear.
Thanks for the volume of posts and the varied topics. I believe the grammar gods can forgive you.
Mike Nelson: If there’s anything of higher priority than the functionality and rationality of its website – as a result of our constant aggravation with the CA’s – that will tell us that the new media outlet is a success, it will be in the quality of its website. It could separate them from what has passed for a news website really fast.
It’s possible Chris Davis’ percentage of internet penetration may be high. He also made this point about smart phones: “‘But everybody has a phone,’ is the wrong answer to questions about the digital divide. Most people do. Many of them are smart phones that access lots of stuff when connected to the internet and charged with electricity. Many users will choose between paying their entire phone and electricity bill this month to make rent or maybe take their kid to the doctor. Having a phone isn’t the same as having meaningful digital access.”
Sorry but more and more people are getting internet from their smartphones. I for one will sign up for a subscription as soon as I can. Everyone should support this new paper.
It’s a first world problem. We read the newspaper on the phone, but what percentage of Memphis will actually fork over $10 a month to read the Commercial Appeal in a different building.
Aesop: a fable about Memphis.
The people all wailed. “It’s terrible. Why doesn’t somebody do something?”
Someone stepped forward–“I’ll do it!”–and did.
The people all grumbled. “Why him? Who does she think she is?”
Moral: Memphis likes its problems better than seeing someone solve them.
Ideally the year would be 1918 instead of 2018 and we’d have two or more competitive printed papers to choose from. Instead we have one lousy printed paper. The new venture won’t make things perfect. But it sure will make things better.
Why don’t a newspaper company start up a newspaper in chilton, wis. I will be more than happy to help them
Mike Nelson nailed it. And it’s always been this way.
My prediction: neither of them will rise to the level that we want. I thought the new guy was free, and I’ll have to see if it’s worth $10 month. I wonder if they’d be willing to give us a few months free so we can size them up.
Let’s get grip here. The reality is the vast majority of Memphians never ever read any newspaper either in print or online. The masses get any news from local tv or radio or something posted online. The majority of our city is highly uneducated and simply not able or motivated to care about local, national and world news. Memphis is a very backward and apathetic city.
Here’s the thing. Journalism in Memphis holds no one accountable and does nothing to explain background and context of any event. It reports on meetings, rewrites press releases, and move on while a hundred things that deserve attention get nothing. On a scale of 0 to 10, we are at best a 3, being generous. So do we now get to 5 and think we have the kind of journalism we really need.
So all of this is interesting but it means nothing in the long run.
Amen, Sam ! Forget about investigative reporting in Memphis when they dont even raise questions. Follow up penetrating questioning would be a nice start. The non questioning press is a key pillar in the rigged Memphis system that mirrors that of the Crump Machine almost 100 years ago. As far as public meeting coverage, they are very selective about what they choose to cover. I am constantly pointing this out in my blogs on Smart City and also very specifically in this blog – http://justmymemphis.com/vitality-displaces-stagnancy/
It’s very true that mostly called “journalism” in Memphis is largely just rewrites of press releases and flattering stories/interviews that are often “run by” the organizations before publishing. Absolutely zero investigative reporting. It’s our well known “good ole boy” network at its worst. Most of the well-liked CA and Biz Journal reporters are guilty of this practice. This is why I don’t expect much from any new media effort in our city. Just more of the same.
Here’s betting that all the behind-the-scenes “big money” folks are not going to try to create a cheerleading newspaper and interfere in coverage. It seemed that Andy Cates protests too much in today’s news conference about this venture.
So the folks at Daily News think they can put out a quality newspaper that’s four times bigger than what they do now. Apples and oranges. Too many white men of a certain age leading this paper for it to connect with city. Being mad at Gannett is not reason enough to cough up money every month to read it.
Well, it’s officially real. I was thinking I would be more excited.
Rollout today left me totally unimpressed.
If this forces Gannet to up its game – and that’s a big if – here’s betting the Commercial Appeal in time wins the battle of the newspapers. That’s the best future for Memphis. This feels like a warmed over Commercial Appeal. Why didn’t it try to put together a newspaper with fresh voices and national perspectives rather than just poach reporters and do more of the same?
“Those who donated money have literally no control,” Barnes said. Great then ! Disclose the donors !
Either Gannett will continue to degrade the C-A or it will fight back. If the former, at least we’ll have the new Daily Memphian. If the latter, we’ll have two competitive dailies. This is win-win for Memphis.
Right on, Joe Kent. Transparency matters. Here’s betting they try to avoid it.
The livestream yesterday was really bad. A high school class could do better. They better up their game.
Some say it’ll be a warmed over CA. Me? I’m all about “Local”. I never fully liked the CA, but I hung in there as long as it was local. You might say, I never left the CA; the CA left me when it left Memphis. I cancelled my subscription earlier this year. Don’t miss it. There was nothing left to miss.
I’m local. My businesses are local. My employees are local. The Daily Memphian is local. I’ll subscribe.