Reporter's Notebook

Memphis, Tennessee
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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.

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.

Justin Rushing, advertising director of the online news site The Daily Memphian
Justin Rushing, advertising director of the online news site The Daily Memphian Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip / The Daily Memphian

It’s time for another look at new financial, editorial, and technological models for local journalism. You’ll find previous entries at these links: 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; and from points beyond. They all involve efforts to revive existing news operations, invent additional ones, and replace organizations that are being starved out of relevance by their hedge-fund or private-equity chain owners.

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 The Commercial Appeal; and has been a professor in the journalism department at the University of Memphis since 2011.

Otis Sanford, long a reporter and editor at the Memphis Commercial Appeal and other papers, now a professor at the University of Memphis and a columnist for the new Daily Memphian. (Courtesy of Otis Sanford.)

“Whether you liked the editorial opinions of The Commercial Appeal or not, it was of tremendous influence,” Sanford said. “You’d have to go to Atlanta to find comparable regional papers.”

The Commercial 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, The Commercial 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 The Commercial 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.

Home page of the Daily Memphian site this week

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.”

The Daily 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.

Andy Cates, chairman of the local non-profit that has created a news site for the city (Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip / The Daily Memphian)

“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 The Commercial 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. (The Texas 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.”

Eric Barnes, CEO of The Daily Memphian. (Patrick Lantrip, The Daily Memphian)

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.”

Hira Qureshi, an editorial intern at The Daily Memphian (Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip /The Daily Memphian)

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 The Daily Memphian, about the site’s reach across the racial divide.

“I don’t think that The Daily 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. ”

More from this series