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. ”
Only one top Biden adviser isn’t joining him in the White House—but she’ll still stay close.
When Julián Castro wasn’t given a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in August, he complained that Joe Biden’s campaign wasn’t showing proper respect to Latino voters. The real explanation for the snub is much simpler: The former housing secretary and presidential candidate had implied that Biden was senile in a primary debate and then didn’t endorse him until June, though the primary race had been over since April, when Bernie Sanders dropped out.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign from the start, declined to comment on what happened with Castro. (An aide to Castro insisted he offered to endorse in April, but the Biden campaign sat on that, and an offer for advice on Latino outreach.) But keeping track of who crosses Biden—staff, reporters, politicians—is part of what she does. She watches. She listens. She remembers. She is completely comfortable with giving a firm no.
The movie and book don’t show the positive side of the area, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes.
My Aunt Ruth won’t watch Hillbilly Elegy, the movie adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in and eventually escaping Appalachia and a mother coping with addiction. Practically speaking, my aunt doesn’t have a Netflix account or any of the smart technology she’d need to stream it. But she also has no interest in watching a story of her community that doesn’t reflect what she sees and that she knows will be exploitative, harmful, and not helpful to moving her or her neighbors forward.
Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t show the positive side of Appalachia that my aunt and I know, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes. The film and book need Appalachia to be poor, broken, and dirty, because they depend on us believing that the mountains are somewhere we want Vance to escape. They need to frame poverty as a moral failing of individuals—as opposed to systems—because they have to imply that something about Vance’s character allowed him to get away from his hillbilly roots. Hillbilly Elegy has to simplify the people and problems of Appalachia, because it has decided to tell the same old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that so many of us reject.
Just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out.
How well do we know Donald Trump? Pretty well, it would seem. Nobody has ever accused the outgoing president of possessing a complex personality. His behavior in office confirmed the common view, barely disputed even by his allies, that he is a shallow narcissist, blind or indifferent to common decencies, with poor impulse control and a vindictive streak. His futile attempt to litigate away electoral defeat may appall you, but it probably doesn’t surprise you.
Still, just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out. Journalists like to pretend that we know everything about a president in real time, but our information is never close to complete. There’s always more to learn, and it’s seldom reassuring.
The U.S. entered the coronavirus recession with a few structural advantages. Its success may not last for long.
Here is a remarkable, underappreciated fact: The U.S. economy has performed far better than that of many of the country’s peers during this horrible year. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, versus 5.3 percent in Japan, 6 percent in Germany, 7.1 percent in Canada, and nearly 10 percent in both the United Kingdom and France.
This fact is not a result of the United States managing its public-health response better than those countries, allowing it to reopen from lockdown sooner and for consumption to roar back. Indeed, many of those peer nations have had significantly better outcomes, as measured by COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. Nor is it a result of the U.S. preserving more jobs. The unemployment rate here is far higher here than it is in Japan, Germany, or the U.K.
What the president and his lawyers have been attempting to do deserves punishment that will likely never come.
Donald Trump will not serve a second term. The litigation launched by his campaign and the Republican Party to overturn the election results has no chance of preventing Joe Biden from swearing the oath of office on January 20—as Trump himself seemed to haltingly recognize last week after his administration finally allowed the presidential transition to begin. But even though the worst has not come to pass, Trump and his team are doing lasting damage to American democracy as the president struggles to come to grips with the reality of his loss. And yet, these lawyers and officials will likely face no real consequences for their actions—and if they do, those repercussions will not be enough to address the scale of the problem.
Americans’ social lifelines are beginning to fray. As the temperature drops and the gray twilight arrives earlier each day, comfortably mingling outside during the pandemic is getting more difficult across much of the country. For many people, it’s already impossible.
To combat the loneliness of winter, some of us might be tempted to turn to pods, otherwise known as bubbles. The basic idea is that people who don’t live together can still spend time together indoors, as long as their pod stays small and exclusive. And pods aren’t just for the winter: Since March, parents have formed child-care bubbles. Third graders have been assigned to learning pods. Some NBA teams were in a bubble for months. A July survey of 1,000 Americans found that 47 percent said they were in a bubble.
This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
The departing president neither embraced nor fully repudiated America’s mission.
Since the day he entered office, President Donald Trump hasn’t been able to make up his mind about whether the United States should keep fighting in Afghanistan. His most recent decision to arbitrarily reduce U.S. troops’ presence to a nice, round number by January 15 was no different. Far from ending what he calls an “endless war,” Trump has only put the 2,500 troops who will remain in Afghanistan at greater risk. The situation was already bad, but he made it worse—just in time to hand the problem to President-elect Joe Biden.
Trump, a self-proclaimed dealmaker, campaigned in 2016—and again in 2020—on ending the war, which began in 2001. Instead, he grudgingly followed the advice of his military advisers and added 4,000 troops in August 2017. But that policy debate took its toll. Trump began to realize that the officers whom he describes as “my generals” weren’t his after all. Like Barack Obama before him, Trump felt boxed in by the Pentagon.
In an extended interview, the Reverend William J. Barber II explains why healing the soul of the nation will take more than returning to “normal.”
On November 7, after four days of counting votes, Democrats celebrated the end of a “long national nightmare.” And when former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver his victory speech that Saturday night, he quickly extended a hand to President Donald Trump’s supporters, who may have felt demoralized by the loss.
“I understand the disappointment tonight,” Biden said. “I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now let’s give each other a chance... This is a time to heal in America.” Prior to the November election, Trump and Biden supporters alike argued that if the other candidate were to be elected, “it would result in lasting harm to the country,” according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.