A few days ago I published an item about a year-old online effort to revive local news coverage in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. It was part of an ongoing series about efforts to revive, reinvent, preserve, and in other ways shore up the crucial-but-imperiled function of local journalism. Links to previous pieces are at the bottom of this one.
In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.
Here is a note from a reader on the other side of Tennessee from Memphis—Neil McBride, who lives in Knoxville—about a virtue of the statewide-network approach that he thinks has gotten short shrift. McBride, whom I have known since we worked together on a Ralph Nader project in Georgia back in the 1970s, is the former director of a public interest law firm that focused particularly on health policy and poverty issues in the South. He is now on the board of the Tennessee Justice Center, where you can read more about his background.
Neil McBride writes:
In fairness, it is important to acknowledge some of the benefits of the statewide newspaper network that we now have, even while recognizing it has drawbacks.
In Tennessee, the trend toward statewide ownership of media has had some negative effects on local news coverage, and probably on local circulation. But it is also important to acknowledge that local readers across the state now have the significant benefit of reporting by investigative journalists from different local areas.
Nashville reporters, especially, are effectively covering important policy issues that affect all of Tennessee:
In recent months, they have produced national-caliber reporting on several state policy failures and changes that vitally affect families across Tennessee.
They have produced (and the local Knoxville News-Sentinel has been publishing) long-running, readable and detailed stories that have exposed several critical failures of state policy.
They have addressed the state’s previously-unreported failure to spend over three-quarters of a billion dollars in unspent federal funds for assistance to our neediest families—funds which it is apparently now holding for general purposes in the state budget.
They have consistently published similar reports on Tennessee’s failure to accept and spend tens of millions of dollars for medical assistance to working families, children and the elderly, and on the impact of these policies on rural hospitals as well as family health.
Tennessee leads the nation in its rate of hospital closure and is one of the most unhealthy states in the country. Some of this reporting has attracted our new governor’s attention, and may stimulate changes in state budgeting. These are vitally important but complicated issues, which have been actively hidden from public and sometimes even legislative scrutiny.
These policies might not even be in debate now but for the statewide reporting and publication that has become possible through consolidation. And, of course, these policies affect the people of Memphis more than any other community.
I am grateful to Neil McBride for spelling out this side of the balance. The tradeoffs in local journalism were so much easier to deal with, when papers from the Los Angeles Times to the Louisville Courier-Journal were cash cows. In those days, papers could just throw more money at whatever seemed to be the problem of the moment. In future installments I’ll try to go deeper into the complexities of the chain-versus-local, business-owned-versus-nonprofit, print-versus-digital tradeoffs today’s news sources are wrestling with.
Today we go to Memphis, Tennessee. This is of course the metropolis of western Tennessee, with the state of Mississippi just across the border to the south, and Arkansas just across the Mississippi River to the west. Memphis is the second-largest city in Tennessee, after Nashville. Its population is around 650,000—more than 60 percent African-American, about 30 percent white, and the rest a variety of others. On average its people are poor. The median household income for the United States is above $60,000, whereas in Memphis it is below $40,000.
The best known Memphis-based company is FedEx, which has operated there since the early 1970s. Other major operations include the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the AutoZone company. In 1956, local phenom Elvis Presley broke the local color line by performing alongside Ray Charles and B. B. King at a benefit for a black radio station. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis includes the site of the Lorraine Motel, where, on what I several times heard described as the worst day in the city’s history, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968.
Through the ups and downs of the city’s modern evolution, its main morning newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, played an outsized regional role. “I’ve been around newspaper journalism since the 1970s, breathing it in as a kid before that,” Otis Sanford told me. Sanford grew up in northern Mississippi; worked as a reporter and editor for several papers including TheCommercial Appeal; and has been a professor in the journalism department at the University of Memphis since 2011.
“Whether you liked the editorial opinions of TheCommercial Appeal or not, it was of tremendous influence,” Sanford said. “You’d have to go to Atlanta to find comparable regional papers.”
TheCommercial Appeal had been owned since the 1930s by the Scripps-Howard group. During the Great Extinction of local and regional papers over the past dozen years, the paper went through several changes of ownership, and is now part of Gannett.
Through this process, TheCommercial Appeal shrank by all locally important measures: the size of its news staff, its circulation and influence, and even its connection to Memphis at all. Its printing plant moved out of town, 90 miles away to the city of Jackson, Tennessee. “Why did that matter?” Otis Sanford said to me. “That means earlier deadlines every day, so you can’t get any late-breaking news into the printed paper, or even late afternoon news.”
The overall spiral of contraction sounds similar to what has happened in many other areas. It was accelerated for TheCommercial Appeal by Gannett’s decision to operate the paper as part of a statewide network of Tennessee coverage—in a state with very distinct regional identities and differences. “They were having people in Nashville write about Memphis,” Otis Sanford said. “People were hungry for something that was much more local.”
“This ‘Tennessee network’ branding was kind of the final straw,” Eric Barnes told me. Barnes is a prominent Memphis journalist, a novelist, and host of a popular weekly PBS news show. “West Tennessee doesn’t like East Tennessee, and they both don’t like the middle. Lumping them all together in a ‘network’ might make sense on a whiteboard in the headquarters, but it made no sense to people in Nashville [in the middle], or Knoxville [on the east], or Memphis [in the west].”
“Memphis is wildly proud, and we’ve also got a chip on our shoulder,” Andy Cates, who is CEO of a nationwide outdoor-resort company based in Memphis, told me. “We don’t get along with Nashville—it’s like Boston and New York. We think it’s incredibly important to have journalism about our community that is rooted in our community.”
That is the central idea behind a one-year-old online publication called The Daily Memphian. Eric Barnes is the CEO; Andy Cates is chairman of the board; Otis Sanford is a columnist; and together with some three dozen journalistic colleagues and many Memphis-area donors and supporters they are trying to bring locally based, serious journalism back to town.
Here is a summary of what I learned by talking with the three of them, by following news on their site, and by asking for judgments from other figures in Memphis.
What it is: The “paper” is an online-only, by-subscription news source, which began operations in September of 2018 after initially raising some $6.7 million in startup funds from local donors. Subscriptions are $7 per month, or $84 per year—with some news items provided outside the paywall and free or reduced-price offerings for schools and libraries and some other users.
According to Eric Barnes, the paper’s target was to attract 4,500 paying subscribers within its first year. It reached that target within three weeks and now has about 11,000 paying subscribers. “We’re not doing any dollar-a-week, dollar-a-month introductory offers,” he told me. “The churn rate”—people dropping subscriptions—“is less than 6 percent, and our web traffic is solid and growing.”
TheDaily Memphian is owned by a new 501(c)3 non-profit, Memphis Fourth Estate Inc., which has no editorial control of its content. Memphis Fourth Estate continues to encourage donations toward the paper’s survival, and since the launch has raised another $1.5 million.
The paper’s total editorial staff is about 40, many of whom were familiar names in local journalism who came over from the Commercial Appeal or other publications.
Why it was started. The “About” page of the paper’s web site minces no words:
Frustrated by the gutting of local journalism in Memphis, a group of seasoned journalists, media professionals and concerned citizens gathered to discuss the need for strong, locally focused and locally produced daily news.
“People realized this was what it was like not to have a hometown paper,” Eric Barnes said, of the Memphis reaction when news operations shifted to the statewide network.
“We didn’t do this haphazardly,” Andy Cates told me. “We spent years exploring it,” as the local-news crisis in Memphis intensified. “We took the best journalists from TheCommercial Appeal, and other stars from other publications. We realized that there was mounting anger, across the community, that a civic function that was so critical had gone so far down.”
How it’s paid for: According to Andy Cates, the $7 million raised for the Memphian is the largest-ever charitable investment in one city’s news organization. (TheTexas Tribune, a well-known non-profit founded ten years ago, is a larger operation but covers an entire state.)
“It is like a political campaign,” Cates told me. “We have been to every Rotary meeting. We have gone to every church. We have spoken with every group that will listen to us. We have shaken hands, kissed babies, hugged people. We have asked everyone for support, and we have gotten it.”
The supporters include local foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals and families. Cates and Barnes both stressed that donations went to the Memphian’s parent foundation, with no conditions or guidance accepted about its coverage.
“We think of this as ‘philanthropic venture capital,’” Cates said. “Question one to donors is, Do you believe that a healthy newspaper is important for a healthy community? And question two is, Given all of Memphis’s other needs, is this a high enough priority to be worth this much capital. The answer to both has been an overwhelming yes.”
Eric Barnes, whose background is in journalism rather than Cates’s in finance, stressed that while the paper was structured as a non-profit, its operating outlook is as a “real” business. “Our head of subscriptions, our marketing people, our ad people, we downplay that we are a nonprofit,” he said. “We want to become sustainable, which means getting to about 25,000 subscribers per year,” or a little more than twice the first-year level. “We try to run this like a business. Our goal is to put up high-level content, and have people pay for it.”
“People will pay for news,” Barnes said. “They did so for decades if not centuries. That the industry ever got away from that is a real historical anomaly.”
How it is being received across Memphis’s racial divide: Barnes and Cates, and most members of their board, are white. Most of Memphis’s population is black. What are its intentions for covering the area’s African-American community, and what have been its results?
As for intentions, Andy Cates said, “We’re very clear that if the entire community does not buy into this venture, and support it—if the entire community does not feel that its story is being told—then we have failed.”
Eric Barnes told me that when the site launched, he went to talk with a number of African-American church communities. “I said that one decision we made was, We weren’t going to feature coverage of ‘last night’s crime.’ Of course we’d cover crime trends, and not shy away from problems. But we weren’t going to splash out mug shots and be driven by the police blotter.” Barnes said he got applause for that line—but that a “wait and see” attitude understandably remained.
I asked Otis Sanford, one of the area’s best-known African-American journalists, who now writes a featured column for TheDaily Memphian, about the site’s reach across the racial divide.
“I don’t think that TheDaily Memphian has quite resonated yet with the African-American community,” he said. “That’s not to say it has not registered at all. But by and large it has not penetrated the market. They are working on it, and they are doing a relatively decent job so far.” Sanford’s own column is routinely one of the best-read on the site.
Why it all matters, outside Memphis: “We want to be known as the lab experiment of whether the Fourth Estate can flourish in Middle America,” Andy Cates told me. “We want to be a national model, but our mission is local.
“The life boats aren’t coming to save us. We have to do this ourselves. ”
I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them.
One phone call changed my life.
On Thursday, July 25, 2019, I was seated at the table in one of the two Situation Rooms in the basement of the West Wing. The bigger room is famous from movies and TV shows, but this room is smaller, more typically businesslike: a long wooden table with 10 chairs, maybe a dozen more chairs against wood-paneled walls, and a massive TV screen. This was the room where President Barack Obama and his team watched a feed of the Osama bin Laden raid. This morning, the screen was off. We were all focused intently on the triangular conference-call speaker in the middle of the table. President Donald Trump’s communications team was placing a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and we were there to listen.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived.
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
A recent arrival at the International Space Station created a little too much excitement.
Mission control in Houston first noticed it Thursday morning.
The International Space Station was drifting. The station is always moving, of course, in a looping trajectory around Earth. But this, what mission control was seeing in the latest data, was unexpected, and unnerving. On Thursday morning, the space station was suddenly and mysteriously deviating from its course.
The massive pieces of NASA-built hardware that hold the space station in place couldn’t keep up with the motion, and within minutes, the station had been thrown out of its usual orientation.
NASA quickly turned to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. To counter the shift, Moscow’s mission control commanded one of its modules on the space station to ignite its engines, then instructed a cargo ship to fire its thrusters too. Inside the station, astronauts reconfigured important systems. Twice, ground control lost communications with the crew for several minutes. The longer the space station remained off track, the more scrambled its operations, including the communication system and solar panels, could become.
If you can shrug it off as just another incident of Trump talking too much, then you have already signed up for the next incident—and the one after that.
While he was president of the United States, Donald Trump tried to overthrow the election of 2020, first by fraud, then by violence. His efforts were defeated in great part because of the integrity and courage of state-level Republican officials.
Half a year has now passed since supporters of the president stormed Congress in an effort to coerce Vice President Mike Pence to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election. In that time, honest and brave state Republican officials have been reviled, condemned, and punished by their own party.
The president was impeached, but most Republicans in the House voted against the impeachment, and most in the Senate voted to acquit. Trump has otherwise to date escaped all consequences for his attempted destruction of the Constitution. He remains the Republican Party’s best fundraiser, and the clear front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Two students went to Amy Chua for advice. That sin would cost them dearly.
Every striver who ever slipped the rank of their birth to ascend to a higher order has shared the capacity to ingratiate themselves with their betters. What the truly exceptional ones have in common is the ability to connect not only with their superiors but also with their peers and inferiors. And only the rarest talents among them can bond authentically—not just transactionally—with the people who will help them be who they want to be in the world. It’s a preternatural, almost Promethean gift if you have it, and Amy Chua does.
Thus begins the scandal dubbed “dinner-party-gate,” the latest in the annals of Amy Chua, Yale Law’s very own Tiger Mom, whose infamous defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the “dinner-party-gate” of its day approximately three years ago. Then, as now, Chua’s differences with some denizens of her milieu played out in the press, vituperations, allegations, insinuations, and all.
In the time I spent with Mike Lindell, I came to learn that he is affable, devout, philanthropic—and a clear threat to the nation.
When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.
Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.
Just as concerts return, a new film reveals the cynicism and cultural rot that led to one of the most notorious shows ever.
We’re halfway through the first summer of full-capacity crowds at American arenas and nightclubs after pandemic-induced hibernation. Have you attended a glorious, mythmaking concert to mark the occasion? Perhaps Foo Fighters reopening Madison Square Garden gave you chills, or maybe you air-tromboned to the band Chicago at New Jersey’s first big comeback show (NJ.com’s review: “Enjoyment came in many forms Thursday night”).
Persistent hype around mRNA vaccine technology is now distracting us from other ways to end the pandemic.
At the end of January, reports that yet another COVID-19 vaccine had succeeded in its clinical trials—this one offering about 70 percent protection—were front-page news in the United States, and occasioned push alerts on millions of phones. But when the Maryland-based biotech firm Novavax announced its latest stunning trial results last week, and an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent even against coronavirus variants, the response from the same media outlets was muted in comparison. The difference, of course, was the timing: With three vaccines already authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the nation is “awash in other shots” already, as the The New York Times put it.
The frustrations that burst into public view this month have been simmering for decades.
Every Thursday at 5 p.m., my grandmother would go into her bedroom in Havana, lock the door, and tune her Soviet-made radio to Radio Martí, a Miami-based station run by Cuban exiles who had fled Fidel Castro’s revolution. She always set the volume barely above a whisper. “Walls have ears,” she would say. Despite being an ordinary and compliant citizen, she, like the rest of my family, avoided controversial political topics on the phone, afraid that the lines were tapped. We acted as if the state were always staring directly at us. Its presence was everywhere.
For my mother’s generation, the following things, among others, were forbidden: listening to the Beatles, being openly gay, displaying religious beliefs, and reading certain books. As a kid in the late 1980s, I wore the same clothes as everybody else did, received an identical education, and even used the same and only toothpaste brand, Perla. Individual autonomy and freedom of choice did not exist.
Instead of propelling students into the middle class, many public institutions such as the University of Alabama are leaving them saddled with large loans.
Weeks into his freshman year at the Marion Military Institute, a public two-year college in Alabama, Thomas was bored. The campus, in the sleepy, hard-luck town of Marion, lacked the glitzy amenities of modern-day universities. To escape the institute’s starchy military uniforms and rigid schedule, Thomas would jump in his truck on weekends and head to Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama.
The University of Alabama had a meticulously groomed campus and stately redbrick buildings whose white colonnades conveyed scholastic gravitas. It had the championship-caliber Crimson Tide football team and legendary game-day tailgating with students swilling beer on fraternity-house rooftops. It featured amenities such as a state-of-the-art recreation center with a climbing wall and a “lazy river” pool complex with a 30-foot water slide. Fraternities hosted world-class rock concerts. A campus dining hall served steak cooked to order.