Reporter's Notebook

Memphis, Tennessee
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On the Virtues of Statewide Journalism

The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee
The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

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.


For previous installments, please see these items: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York; from Tennessee; and from points beyond.

Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis
Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal

A few days ago I published an item about a new online journalistic site in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. 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.

Yesterday I quoted a response from a reader (and friend) in Knoxville, who noted the shift away from local emphasis but said there were virtues in statewide-network coverage.

Now, here is a response from the executive editor of The Commercial Appeal, Mark Russell. At his suggestion and request, this message quoted below is the same as what he published in his newspaper, under the title: “Enough! Time to Set the Record Straight About the CA.”

Here is what he wrote:

The Atlantic, as part of an ongoing series, recently profiled the Daily Memphian and described the non-profit’s journalistic mission. In doing so, the Atlantic and its reporter, James Fallows, asserted that The Commercial Appeal is declining and included quotes from DM leaders falsely asserting that Nashville reporters are routinely writing stories about Memphis and that The CA is not focused on the city where it has been based for 178 years.

All three assertions are hogwash and can be easily dispelled by the simple, easy-to-see facts. In response to such hyperbole from DM leaders, including CEO Eric Barnes, I’ve taken the high road, preferring to let our strong journalism speak for itself. But the misstatements have become so frequent—and are littered throughout this Atlantic story—that I thought it was important to set the record straight.

First, some relevant background. The DM built its staff last year by raiding The Commercial Appeal of 10 veteran staffers. It also hired several younger staffers, both from The CA and other Memphis newsrooms.

That staff exodus gave The CA a chance to recruit energetic local and national talent and we did that in quick fashion, rebuilding the newsroom. We added a second investigative reporter and hired a food writer and sports columnist. Our staff today is aggressive, passionate about telling the stories of Memphians, and is far more diverse and reflective of our city than before the DM raid. I am proud of the team we’ve built and how readers have responded to their work. For the last six months, we have seen a significant increase in our digital audience, an important measure of reader engagement.

For the last two months, our monthly page views have exceeded 8 million.

Our paid digital-only subscribers have increased by just shy of 10% so far this year and our overall market footprint dwarfs the Daily Memphian's. For example, our recent coverage of the Memphis Tigers and the NCAA’s action on James Wiseman generated some of the highest readership numbers this year, along with 50 new subscribers. So much for a declining CA.

I often hear from other journalists, but not many readers, that The CA has fewer staffers than it had a decade ago. That is true, and it’s also the case at every newspaper in the nation because of profound changes in journalism’s business model. The then-and-now comparisons are interesting footnotes, but add no context about the current work we do and The CA’s relevancy in the market.

Our staff size has been largely stable for a year, and we have more journalists covering Memphis and Shelby County than we had the day the DM raided our staff. Those staffers live in Memphis and the surrounding suburbs. None of them live in Nashville or any other city outside our market area.

The only Nashville-based reporters routinely writing about Memphis are doing statewide investigative or issue stories or writing about Gov. Bill Lee or the Memphis delegation to the state legislature. We’re similar to the DM in that regard; the Daily Memphian has employed a Nashville-based reporter, Sam Stockard, to write about the Shelby County delegation.

Regarding the “Tennessee network” branding that Barnes called the last straw for some readers, I’ll demystify what he miscast as simply branding. In fact, the USA TODAY Network allows The CA to punch above its weight class, to use a boxing metaphor. We routinely publish important, statewide stories on opioid abuse, state education and political issues because we are part of a statewide network. Our watchdog work has had a profound impact on issues affecting Memphians. We’ve broken critically important stories around TennCare, the state’s Medicare program. Despite Barnes’ parochial assertions, Memphians and other West Tennessee citizens do care about issues that affect the entire state. We also routinely fight for journalists’ First Amendment rights, spending thousands in court fees to stand up for our readers’ right to know.

The Network ensured that we had the most expansive coverage of the gubernatorial and Senate elections last year and Memphians got a chance to hear candidates themselves; we hosted a gubernatorial debate at the University of Memphis.

We at The CA are passionate about covering Memphis and shining a spotlight on important issues, such as our recent investigative story on the misleading ballots that some politicians paid to get on ahead of the Oct. 3 election. I also welcome the added journalism competition. It makes us all better and news consumers are the beneficiaries.

I thank Mark Russell for taking the time to respond; I regret using the opinionated word “declining” and have removed that from the original post; and I recognize the complexities of anyone in journalism trying to find a path forward. I agree with him completely that the competition among different business models of journalism, and different approaches to coverage, is beneficial to all in the community.