In August 2000, three months before launching the Nashville City Paper, Brian Brown told me as I was working on a column for the Scene that he was interested in launching an old-fashioned daily with an emphasis on investigative reporting. If that sounded like a noble idea, particularly in the wake of the Nashville Banner’s closing only two years earlier, Brown would soon scale back his ambitions. In October 2000, on the very eve of his start-up’s debut, Brown now said that his new publication would merely be a — y-a-w-n — community newspaper.
“It will be about what happened in your neighborhood,” he told me. “What happened with your local high school sports team.”
Brown’s vision for his own paper was hardly foolish. After the Banner’s demise, The Tennessean, with its revolving door of out-of-town reporters, gave more attention to ring counties than local enclaves and often ignored the day-to-day operations of Metro government. So there was a void here. But if Brown’s vision had merit, it was still limiting and boring. Why start a newspaper, which even 10 years ago was an extraordinarily risky enterprise, if instead of producing a fist-pounding daily you were merely mimicking the Green Hills News? To put it another way, if you’re going to cheat on your celebrity wife, don’t do it with Kate Gosselin. What’s the point of that?
But Brown never entertained a grander role in the local media universe for his City Paper. A well-mannered software and insurance whiz who was not quite cut for the makeshift world of newspapering, Brown created an easy-to-read paper that was loathe to dig and fight. Debuting with a typo on its cover page (hyphenating “Inter-Net”), Nashville’s baby daily signaled as it rolled off the presses that it had no intention of investigating government, offending rich people or delivering any type of local commentary — left or right — that might provoke anger. Instead, this was a paper that was interested in chronicling the changing operating hours of branch libraries or giving note-by-note recitations of what happened at last night’s Metro Council meeting.
Brown’s pick to run his start-up, former Tennessean assistant managing editor Catherine Mayhew, exemplified his play-it-safe approach. Though a well-respected journalist at both The Tennessean and later at The City Paper, Mayhew didn’t have the editorial imagination of Scene co-founder Bruce Dobie, who was constantly willing to try new things in the weekly’s salad days, seemingly looking at every possible way to create a more honest, lively form of local journalism. In contrast, Mayhew didn’t seek so much to reinvent the newspaper as copy the stale ones she knew.
Though Mayhew and Brown were literally creating a paper from scratch, they couldn’t abandon the mundane writing conventions of chain dailies in which reporters’ stories resemble nothing more than grocery lists of randomly placed facts and quotes. As a result, never did their start-up feature the kind of well-crafted narrative writing that regularly makes up its pages today. (More on that later.) Instead, The City Paper merely listed what was happening in Nashville — road closings, Metro commission appointments — without ever trying to incorporate any of it into a larger story about the city and its characters. This was no way to make a mark.
In contrast, it’s not difficult to recall the fledgling days of the Scene and pick out stories that defined the paper and changed the city: Liz Garrigan’s mining of the many conflicts of interest of Peaches Simpkins, then Tennessee’s deputy governor; Kay West’s eviscerating review of Mario’s, then Nashville’s most famous restaurant; Willy Stern’s series of investigative stories into police abuse and corruption under then Metro Police Chief Emmett Turner. The formative years of The City Paper, by comparison, lacked a signature story. For most of its early years, The City Paper merely collected comments from people and called it a day. (One notable exception was Jeremy Heidt’s ingenious story on how WSMV-Channel 4 used a device called a Time Machine to eliminate duplicate frames in shows like Friends in order to add two minutes of commercial time.)
Still, I probably should walk back my criticism a bit. Let’s not forget that The City Paper, for all its meekness, carved a niche by regularly covering stories everyone else — including my old paper — ignored out of habit. In particular, The City Paper’s sports section regularly out-hustled The Tennessean’s, while the news and business folks also broke stories in part because they knew Nashville better than many of their befuddled rivals at The Tennessean. Unsurprisingly, The City Paper quickly earned a devoted following from readers who were tired of the Scene’s brashness and The Tennessean’s apathy.
The City Paper did become more aggressive under Mayhew’s replacement, Clint Brewer, a former reporter and editor of The Lebanon Democrat and publisher of the Mt. Juliet News. Under Brewer, an endearing political junkie, The City Paper featured more substantial reporting of Metro and state government — along with cops and crime. Unfortunately, Brewer didn’t focus as much on the paper’s clunky prose. Hobbled by bland writing and run-on sentences that rivaled the endurance of Mexican ultra-marathoners, The City Paper still labored to be taken seriously.
That’s no longer the case under new editor Stephen George, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is someone with whom I enjoy meeting for a beer or four. But I don’t think it’s a strained argument to point out that since George came to Nashville from the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO), a Scene-like alt-weekly, The City Paper has, at long last, become a reliable read. The cover stories, though timely and relevant, usually unfold like enjoyable magazine features: Telling details introduce characters and set scenes while the writing itself gives rise to varying thoughts about the subject. Or, to put it plainly, The City Paper makes reading enjoyable.
In addition, the paper’s stories delve beyond the “this is what happened at fill-in-the-blank meeting” last night to provide fresh looks at city issues. A few recent examples: E.Thomas Wood’s report on how local nonprofits spend their money (Cliff Notes’ version: to pay their CEOs), William Williams’ piece on Metro’s suspect choice to remake its riverfront, and finally J.R. Lind’s recent story on the proposed road connecting Jefferson Street to West End, a seemingly rote topic that turned into an enjoyable parable on the value of urban planning. Reporters Joey Garrison and James Nix also know how to write important stories with a fine dose of personality. Both of them, along with Lind, give The City Paper a young nucleus to build around.
Still, even under new management, The City Paper seems like a talented fighter on the take, pulling its punches when it should be hitting hard. Recently, Garrison, whose work I normally appreciate, penned a piece on Mayor Karl Dean’s penchant for appointing approximately 934 task forces and committees (I’m exaggerating slightly) to address some of Nashville’s more entrenched problems. Though the story worked from a promising premise, it inexplicably failed to explore whether the mayor’s strategy fits in with his irritating reluctance to take bold, definitive stands on key issues.
In other ways, too, The City Paper plays it safe when it should be taking risks. Whether it’s enlisting Teddy Bart, the beloved broadcaster, to write a nostalgia-tinged column or running press release-y stories about local banks (that should be just cut out, framed and mailed to the bank so they can hang proudly in the lobby already), The City Paper still seems too eager to please.
With a talented editor and staff who’ve been churning out compelling stories for a year now, The City Paper can become the most influential paper in town. All the parts are there. The paper just needs to infuriate bank presidents and politicians, not coddle them. Newspapers are born to cause trouble.
If not, they can learn.