The City Paper ceases publication today with a history marked by strong readership, poor advertiser support, a seemingly nonstop rotation of editors, publishers and sales directors, and a cast of journalism characters defined by skill, passion, occasional inexperience and just enough eccentricity to keep things interesting.
Perhaps it is unfortunate — all things considered — that the unconventional daily with the generic name and loyal following will not end publishing on Nov. 1, which would have marked exactly 13 years of existence. For a niche newspaper that was never profitable and, as such, fortunate enough to have survived this long, an unlucky 13 might have been a fitting finale to what ranks among the most distinctive stories in the history of Nashville media.
From the November 2000 days of locals complaining about an unwanted, unrecognized newspaper being tossed onto their driveways to this final issue, The City Paper ’s journey — like the many thousands of stories its staff edited, photographed, designed and reported — has been a genuine Nashville tale.
“We were smitten with the idea of telling real stories about real people in our community and believed in the model of a free daily,” Danny Solomon Bonvissuto, an original City Paper staffer who now freelances from California, said about the first few years of operations in an anything-but-old-school-newsroom-like workspace in a Green Hills office park building. “But most of all, we lived for the buzz of scooping The Tennessean or flipping a big middle finger to corporate-owned communication. And somewhere between the early mornings, the late nights and the Friday field trips to the Indian lunch buffet, we formed a family.”
Over time, that family was parented by three ownership entities, four publishers, four editors, three interim editors and eight sales directors — an almost staggering number of higher-ups for a small paper that operated 12 years and nine months.
Adding to the instability was the frequent change in both office space (five locations) and the paper’s physical presentation.
Nashville-based entrepreneur Brian Brown, with some investor support from the Thompson family, launched the first incarnation of The City Paper as a Monday through Friday newsprint model that lacked a website.
In June 2008, SouthComm Inc. bought the paper from the Thompson family after Brown, who could not be reached for comment for this story, had long since bowed out. SouthComm shifted the focus to a twice-weekly publication on glossy paper stock with one weekly issue emphasizing news and the other targeting entertainment. With SouthComm came an enhanced Internet presence.
By 2009, SouthComm reduced publication frequency to Mondays only.
In March 2013, SouthComm shifted weekly publication to Fridays and, in what would be a final cost-saving move, nixed printing on glossy stock and resumed the use of newsprint.
Throughout the paper’s history, circulation hovered around 40,000.
Chris Ferrell, SouthComm president, said that after years of The City Paper being partially subsidized by the company’s investors and other SouthComm publications, he and his leadership team finally determined there would never be sufficient advertiser support for a free newsweekly.
“The model proved very popular with readers, but in publishing the revenue doesn’t necessarily follow the readership,” he said, declining to disclose financials.
Catherine Mayhew, who served as CP editor from early 2001 to early 2006, recalled the day she realized the paper was having a strong positive impact on those readers.
“It was a day we’d actually published a mistake in a sports story, about a year into our existence,” said Mayhew, who now serves as executive director of the Nashville-based Community Resource Center. “A coach from the school in question came in to complain about the story. At the end of the meeting, he looked at me and said something along these lines: ‘I hope you realize this paper is the real deal. Don’t screw it up.’ ”
Avoiding the screw-ups was a challenge in the early days, as many CP staffers were hired with little or no newspapering experience, including Bonvissuto.
“If there’s a patron saint of journalism jobs, she was watching over me the day I applied at The City Paper,” she said. “I met with Brian Brown, who asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘I want to write about food and people.’ He walked me into an office with two male editors, both of whom spent a lot of time talking and looking at my legs. Then they showed me to my desk.”
Pat Embry, a former journalist and newspaper executive in various roles for more than 25 years, including stints at the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean, said Brown calculated properly by quickly scrapping the driveway drops in favor of delivering the paper via racks, boxes and office drop-offs.
“I know [the paper] had far too many distribution points to economically make sense,” said Embry, who now works as editorial director for Brentwood-based Magellan Press/Local Eats. “But consistently dropping the papers in doctors and dentists offices, pediatricians offices, hospital lobbies, office buildings and the like was brilliant and helped build readership quickly.”
In spite of the poor Web presence during the paper’s formative years, the free model — a radical move for a five-day topical newspaper introduced in 2000 — helped The City Paper garner attention and eventually respect from other journalists.
Asked what folks at other local media used say to him about The City Paper, Stephen George, who served as editor from January 2010 to September 2011, said they often simply asked, “Are you hiring?”
Despite providing its team members modest salaries and a smaller bully pulpit compared to that of The Tennessean, The City Paper began hiring name talent not long after its start.
“We all knew we were playing for the underdog,” said George, who moved to Washington, D.C., and now serves as communications director for U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “But we had the sense that with every issue, we had done something pretty righteous.”
Bonvissuto, who has transitioned from being an unknown writer in 2000 to having her work appear in, among others, Travel + Leisure, Food Network Magazine, Modern Luxury and Brides, said the paper changed Nashville, while providing her countless fond memories.
“We were professional on the phone or in the street, but behind closed doors we cussed like sailors and violated as many sexual harassment rules as possible on a daily basis,” she said. “We played pranks, held baby showers and showed up for family funerals. When I married sports editor Dom Bonvissuto in 2005, I looked out at a church full of co-workers wiping the tears out of their eyes. And a year later, Brian Brown — who was dabbling in real estate after leaving his post as publisher — sold us our first house.”