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. ”
Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.
These aren’t Hillary Clinton’s numbers. Biden has a wide lead because the landscape has changed.
Recent polls could hardly be more reassuring for voters who want to be done with Donald Trump. “Biden Builds Largest Lead This Year,” a CNN headline declared. “Biden Hits 55%–41% Against Trump in Biggest National Poll Lead Yet,” reported TheDaily Beast. “Republicans should be petrified by the polls,” a Washington Post opinion piece asserted. Yet the polls also frighten Democrats who, four years ago, got their hopes up amid favorable numbers for Hillary Clinton.
Noting reports that Joe Biden holds a healthy lead in Michigan—one of three Rust Belt states in which Trump narrowly upset Clinton—Representative Debbie Dingell told participants in a recent online Democratic campaign event, “I don’t believe these numbers.” And Dingell, who introduced herself at the event as “Debbie Downer,” has standing to dispute polls that look rosy for her party. In 2016, she’d warned me that the Clinton campaign was going badly in Macomb County—the suburban home of the white, working-class, Catholic voters whom my research decades earlier had labeled “Reagan Democrats.” Dingell’s fear that Clinton could lose Michigan was borne out.
There’s an immediate, narrow problem for the White House, and a broader, more strategic one. In the short term, the very tight “yes” vote imperils a plan to turn Medicaid funding into a block grant from the federal government to states, using Oklahoma as a pilot.
In a deeper sense, though, the vote is a warning sign for Trump, because it shows how he’s at odds with even many conservative voters on health care. Last week, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court (again) to throw out the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, voters in a state so red that the president chose it for his big comeback rally have voted to adopt an expansion of coverage under the law—the fifth time voters in a Republican-governed state have done so, and the fourth in the past two years.
In France, where I live, the virus is under control. I can hardly believe the news coming out of the United States.
I returned to Paris with my family three months after President Emmanuel Macron had ordered one of the world’s most aggressive national quarantines, and one month after France had begun to ease itself out of it. When we exited the Gare Montparnasse into the late-spring glare, after a season tucked away in a rural village with more cows than people as neighbors, it was jarring to be thrust back into the world as we’d previously known it, to see those café terraces overflowing again with smiling faces.
My first reaction was one of confused frustration as we drove north across the river to our apartment. The city had been culled of its tourists, though it was bustling with inhabitants basking in their reclaimed freedom. Half at most wore masks; the other half evinced indifference. We were in the midst of a crisis, I complained to my wife. Why were so many people unable to maintain even minimal discipline?
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
The government’s disease-fighting agency is conflating viral and antibody tests, compromising a few crucial metrics that governors depend on to reopen their economies. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and other states are doing the same.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conflating the results of two different types of coronavirus tests, distorting several important metrics and providing the country with an inaccurate picture of the state of the pandemic. We’ve learned that the CDC is making, at best, a debilitating mistake: combining test results that diagnose current coronavirus infections with test results that measure whether someone has ever had the virus. The upshot is that the government’s disease-fighting agency is overstating the country’s ability to test people who are sick with COVID-19. The agency confirmed to The Atlantic on Wednesday that it is mixing the results of viral and antibody tests, even though the two tests reveal different information and are used for different reasons.
What if a single, cheap, easy-to-administer, and race-neutral policy could help close the country’s chasmic racial wealth gap in less than a generation?
Reader, it exists. It is called a baby-bond program. For something like $80 billion a year—roughly 2 percent of the annual federal budget, less than a tenth of the annual cost of Social Security—the United States could not only end its most pernicious forms of poverty, reduce wealth inequality, improve social mobility, foster self-sufficiency among poor families, and increase family net worth en masse, but also put black and white families on more equal footing.
There is a strong moral case for doing that, and a strong economic case, too. The average white family is 10 times wealthier than the average black family. Black families with kids have a single penny in wealth for every dollar that white families with kids have. And white high-school dropouts have a higher net worth, on average, than black college graduates. Black individuals cannot close this gap on their own. Washington created the wealth gap. Washington needs to fix it.
We are still somewhat in the dark, but not completely.
Given that bars and restaurants in many parts of the United States are beginning to reopen, while the prospects for school remain hazy almost everywhere, you might think that scientific evidence about kids and the coronavirus is nonexistent. The truth is that we are still somewhat in the dark, but not completely. Here’s what we know, what we kind of know, and what we need to do to know more.
Back in February and March, when the pandemic was in its early stages, the big question was whether kids were at high risk for COVID-19. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they were; other respiratory diseases such as the flu are known to significantly affect both children and the elderly. But one of the robust findings about COVID-19 in the past few months is that children are among the least affected groups. They are less likely to contract the disease, and if they do contract it, they are more likely to have a mild or asymptomatic case. Death rates are much lower. This evidence doesn’t mean that kids cannot get sick, and or cannot fall seriously ill, but older adults are far more susceptible.
Higher education is often described as an investment. But it’s still unclear if it pays off in happiness.
Editor’s Note:“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
I magine a young man, a senior in high school. His academic performance has never been over the top, but he’s done well enough. Among his classmates, the assumption is that all of them will go to college. However, just as his parents are about to send the deposit check to a college where he has been accepted, the young man admits to himself and his parents that he doesn’t want to go—not now, maybe never. To him, college sounds like drudgery. He wants to work, to earn a living, to be out on his own.
What should he do? What should his parents do?
This is not a hypothetical situation for many families—and it wasn’t for mine, either. Our oldest son was valedictorian of his high school class and went to a top university. But right about this time two years ago, our second son told us he wasn’t interested in college. My wife and I consider ourselves free thinkers and are willing to entertain almost any new idea. But we are hardly neutral on the college question: I am a college professor; my father was a college professor; his father was a college professor, too. Some say college is different from real life. For our family, college is real life—it’s the family business.
For most of the past three years, the only thing more futile than looking for Donald Trump to pivot was expecting the American people to do so. No matter how successful the president was, or, more often, how chaotic and disorderly his administration was, nothing seemed to be able to shake up people’s views of Trump.
Popular approval of Trump hovered in the same narrow range, roughly from 39 to 45 percent, through Charlottesville and tax reform, supposed border caravans and mass shootings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impeachment.
As the election approaches, the president’s approval rating becomes less important than how he’s polling against his challenger. And in the past few weeks, something has shifted. After months of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading by single digits, a series of polls has recently shown him building a sizable lead. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College and Harvard/Harris have Trump trailing by 14 and 12 points, respectively. A series of swing-state polls shows Biden tied or leading in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016.