CP10: Desperately seeking the newsworthy

Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 11:45pm
Matt Pulle
pulle-ver.jpg

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.

Filed under: City News

10 Comments on this post:

By: dkleinfelter on 11/1/10 at 7:43

When one's writing style tends towards smug superiority, it's probably best to make sure your facts are correct. Peaches Simpkins " then Tennessee’s lieutenant governor"? Ms. Simpkins was never a member of the Tennessee Senate, much less elected by them to be lieutenant governor. She was "deputy governor" at one time, but the distinction is significant since deputy governor is really nothing more than a staff member in the governor's office.

In Pulle's defense, I've never much cared for the deputy governor title because it does suggest the person is something more than a staffer. If memory serves, the staff position was first created in 1993 when Ned McWherter needed to apply an appropriate level of gravitas to a staff position since it was being filled by the former state treasurer, Harlan Matthews. The move made sense at the time, but the title should be retired until another person of similar stature decides to serve a governor.

By: megan moriarty ... on 11/3/10 at 12:07

Wow, it must be exhausting rewriting history. There was a time when Matt Pulle applauded The City Paper and its staff for the work it did and the fresh pieces it turned out daily.

I joined TCP three days before it launched and saw first-hand the impact we made. It’s not surprising Pulle doesn’t “get it,” nor is it relevant. The people and the neighborhoods we covered got it – and appreciated it. We focused our efforts on giving the people of Nashville a voice, not just writing to hear our own.

For a more accurate portrayal of TCP’s early days, I suggest looking through the web site’s archives, or better yet, reading some of the comments Pulle made so many years ago.

Here are just a few:

Pulle writes in this piece, “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.”
Yet in April 2001, while recognizing TCP’s William Williams as the Best Neighborhood Reporter in the 2001 Nashville Scene Reader’s Choice, Pulle points out, “Over the last year, [Williams] has penned stories on a veritable zoning Armageddon in Cherokee Park, a controversial hotel proposal on Murphy Road, and a nasty neighborhood dispute in South Nashville straight out of Deliverance.”

http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/media/Content?oid=1185506

August 23, 2001, Pulle wrote:
What matters for now is that Brown’s hardworking staff has managed to put out a consistently informative paper. The machinations of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, school director Pedro Garcia’s decision to shake up two major administrative posts, Watkins’ decision to ditch its controversial plans to move to the Richland Park neighborhood—those were all stories the City Paper had first.

http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/fuzzy-math/Content?oid=1185987

December 27, 2001, Pulle, while reporting about the Davidson A.M. wrote:
“The new publication could mean further difficulties for of The City Paper, whose very existence continues to irritate 1100 Broadway. Since its launch in November 2000, the tabloid has run the kind of local news stories the entrenched daily typically neglects or outright misses. In fact, it was The City Paper that broke the recent controversy over the neighborhood speed hump plan—a story The Tennessean has since diligently followed. Since its inception, The City Paper has scooped the morning daily on a host of other stories, ranging from intrigue at the Metro Police Department to business development in East Nashville.”

http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/more-is-more/Content?oid=1186453

Pulle now asks, “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?”
Yet reported December 5, 2002, while reported on the firing of Sport’s Editor Raleigh Squires: “It was a week and a half ago when The City Paper launched its crusade, running a fist-pounding, back-page story...”

http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/sporting-news/Content?oid=1187892

April 10, 2008, Pulle wrote, while reporting on SouthComm Communications plan to purchase TCP: “The City Paper, though, will be SouthComm's highest profile purchase yet. Launched in the fall of 2000 by former insurance executive Brian Brown, the free daily quickly become a well-read, if not particularly influential, newspaper capitalizing on The Tennessean's occasional disinterest in local news.

http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/chris-ferrells-new-company-buys-the-city-paper/Content?oid=1196466

And finally, Pulle writes in this piece, “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,” [Brown] told me. ‘What happened with your local high school sports team.’” Making it sound as if Brown changed his mind at the last minute.
According to The Scene archives, Pulle printed the very same quote October 19, 2000 – 12 days before, “the very eve of the start-up.”

http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/start-me-up/Content?oid=1184897

By: gatormikey on 11/3/10 at 3:47

Megan, you rock!!
Pulle, you're a Putz!!!

By: colleencreamer on 11/4/10 at 10:45

Matt, did Megan, with two babies on her hip, just spank you? And I think I recall that you wrote that we both wrote "fresh-picked" stories and that "nothing" happened in East Nashville that I didn't know about -- or something. Just sayin' ... in defense of the early days at CP during which we often scooped the Tennessean with stone tools and "Hooah".

By: MattP on 11/4/10 at 5:45

Hey Megan, I appreciate you going to bat for your old paper but in the piece above I credited the City Paper for breaking stories and out-hustling The Tennessean:

"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."

My point was that CP didn't make its mark by doing really notable investigative reporting or feature writing. And that the paper was, by in large, too nice and as a result didn't make much of a difference in how the city was run. In one of the excerpts from my old column that you quote above, I make that point when I refer to the CP as well read, "if not particularly influential."

Again though, I admire you defending your old paper. Hope you're doing well.

By: megan moriarty ... on 11/5/10 at 8:33

Hi Matt, I am very well, thanks and hope you are too. I’m so happy you responded to my post because it has been eating at me since I made the comment that the only point I really conveyed was that you once said kinder words about us. What I did not mention were the things TCP did that set it apart – other than just the scooping the other publications, which by the way, thanks for pointing that out. I did not express that it did in fact, “have merit,” wasn’t “limiting” nor “boring” and was far from “meek”. Furthermore, we did not, “loathe to dig and fight.” We dug deeper than any reporter in town and fought with the best of them.

The truth is, perhaps you weren’t rewriting history. Maybe you were just recalling it from your vantage point. Simply because you say we didn’t do investigative pieces or feature writing, doesn’t make it so. I would venture to guess that not a week went by that at least one of our news reporters (I can only really speak for the news department because that is where I was writing at the time) wasn’t working on an investigative piece.

Maybe that wasn’t made clear because, as a start-up, we had serious space constrains, so our investigative pieces never resembled those of your old paper, The Scene, because we weren’t able to make the entire front page a teaser for the 12-plus page story that ran somewhere in the middle. I assure you though, because we didn’t draw attention to our investigative pieces with flashing lights and dancing girls, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. In the big scheme of things, size really doesn’t matter in this case and the 350-700 word investigative pieces we did, and the articles to follow, were, in fact, as investigative as they come.

As a matter of a fact, one of the pieces I wrote back then is still being talked about today. You actually referenced it in a column you did for The Scene, with the headline: Paper Trail.
You wrote:
“Interestingly, two of the reporters the paper sent packing, Colleen Creamer and Megan Moriarty, wrote original, fresh-picked stories that hadn't already been reported in The Tennessean. Nothing seemed to happen in East Nashville without Creamer tracking it down, and Moriarty reported several unflattering stories on former Fisk President Carolynn Reid-Wallace that set the tone for her short and controversial tenure.”

Thank you, by the way for that.

You were right though. My reporting did set the tone for former Fisk President Carolynn Reid-Wallace’s short and controversial tenure and, for a brief time, ensured the safety of the Stieglitz Collection. “Reporting,” is the key word. Like you said,” I reported several unflattering stories.” It was a series of investigative pieces, which, by the way, broke international news and was discussed on the BBC.

As far as being “too nice” and not making, “much of a difference in how the city was run,” I am going to have to disagree with you on that one too. TCP, under Brian Brown, did not cover crime (which was genius in my opinion but more on that later) but that did not mean we were “too nice.” I bet if you call the spokespeople for any one of the departments in Metro government at the time, they would beg to differ too.
And again, because you say we didn’t make much of a difference in how the city was run, doesn’t make it so. Nikki Troutman’s piece on the public relations agency the Metro School’s Communications Department hired to do its communications is a perfect example of that. Troutman discovered – then INVESTIGATED – why the communications department and its employees (she was able to list their salaries as a result of them being public record – IT WAS GREAT!) was spending tax payer’s dollars to hire a company to do the job they were all being paid a lot of money to do. It was a long time ago and I don’t recall all of the details but I’m pretty sure they told the PR company they no longer needed their services once the article ran – and the taxpayer’s of Nashville just went back to paying for one set of people writing press releases about the Metro School’s instead of two. If that’s not changing the way government runs, I don’t know what is.

I too was fortunate to have a shot at, “making a difference in the way the way the city was run,” on a number of occasions. One of the things I am most proud of in my life was getting the city to pave the Historic Jefferson Street, which it all but ignored for decades. We ran a front page story with pictures I took of the old trolley tracks showing through the broken gravel. It was paved in no time at all.

My first encounter with former Councilman Ludye Wallace was when I did a front page story saying he wanted the library in the Watkins Park Community Center expanded. The day the article ran Wallace called and asked me to meet him at the library again the following morning so I could write about his meeting with Mayor Bill Purcell. There I stood with Ludye and our photographer Mike Strassinger watching the mayor and the head of finance pull up in big black luxury car, appearing reluctant to be there. Months later I ran an article on the ribbon cutting of the new library.

Then there was the time I was in Germantown with a man who started out as a source and ended up as a friend. He pointed to a utility pole sticking out of the sidewalk with nothing attached to it – no wires, cables, anything. I took a picture of it, went back to the paper and started making calls. I, foolishly thought this was the only one, but after a few conversations with officials from NES, telephone and cable companies, and people from city, was able to run a front page story the next day letting people know there were more than 6.000 poles like this and a new program was going to be put into place to have them removed.

My point, we made a difference in the way city was run.

As far as not covering crime, it really was a great move on founder and then publisher Brian Brown. My beat was North Nashville and as a native Nashvillian, the only thing I ever knew about that neck of the woods was to stay away. In all my years prior to TCP I only ever heard of the crime plaguing the area. By going a different route and not focusing our efforts on that – and that by no means we ignored it – I was able to write about the good things happening in North Nashville. And there were a lot.

Instead of dedicating articles to the people committing crimes in the city, we wrote about the people in neighborhood groups and non-profits and the ways in which they were working to fix the problems. Instead of writing about the people tearing the city apart, we focused our efforts on the people building it back up.

I also think you’re wrong when you slam Catherine Mayhew by saying she didn’t have the “editorial imagination” of Scene co-founder Bruce Dobie. Catherine didn’t copy the “stale” newspapers she knew; she encouraged every one of us to try new things and do things differently.

When most people are anxiously awaiting their lunch hours so they can briefly abandon their jobs, we used to have “brown bag” meetings with Catherine at the helm, teaching us about different ways of reporting and various types of articles – enterprise and investigative – we could write since we mastered the inverted pyramid.

If we didn’t have a story in the morning Catherine would tell us to, “put our ear to the ground,” or “drive around our beat” until we found one. And we always did. Catherine would always tell us we were as good as our sources and we all had amazing sources! (Can you imagine the praise she would be getting right here had she not fired me?)

Did you know, in TCP’s early days, every News reporter broke a national, some international, new story? Judy Tackett was the first to report on the flu vaccination shortage – an eventual major national issue. Colleen Creamer wrote about the Music Row Democrats and Craig Boerner was mentioned, by name, on the G. Gordon Liddy Show, by G. Gordon himself for the articles he wrote on the controversial speed humps. Our photographer Mike Strassinger got in on the action
and had one of his pictures run in The New York Times.

As for Brian Brown – he is a brilliant, risk-taking, humble, gentleman whose “start-up” has been around for more than 10 years. Congratulations, Brian! He believed Nashville needed to be a two paper town again and he did it. And in doing that, he helped assemble a team of people who believed in him and his vision, as much as he believed in us. While I typically try to avoid all clichés, I must say, we really were like a family. We laughed together – often, cried together – occasionally – like on September 11, and ALWAYS had each other’s back.

One more thing, to say, “…the reporters’ stories resemble nothing more than grocery lists of randomly placed facts and quotes,” is just rude. And I seriously doubt respected Nashville institutions such as Vanderbilt University and Medical Center, Dye, Van Mol and Lawrence and the Pencil Foundation, just to name a few, would’ve brought us on board if that’s all we wrote.

Thank you again for responding to my initial post so I could write the thngs I am always thinking. I’m not trying to convince you of anything or gain your admiration, it’s just that sometimes the pen truly is mightier than the sword and I would hate to think someone reading your piece on the early days of TCP actually believed it.

By: noitall on 11/5/10 at 2:27

While my friend Matt often hit the mark as a reporter for the Scene, he often missed it as a media critic, especially when it came to commentary regarding the business side of the media. As for the editorial side, his view tends to be through rose-colored glasses fit for the near-sighted. I'm baffled as to why Stephen George chose Matt to opine on his paper's first ten years, although the fact that the two often enjoy a "beer or four" together is a pretty good clue.

Matt's message here is essentially that the City Paper today is a better read because it is more like the Scene. What he doesn't say is that Nashville doesn't need another Scene today nor has it needed another one over the past ten years.

The City Paper never tried to appeal to readers like Matt. He criticizes TCP for mimicking the Green Hills News, but at the outset and for most of its ten years, the City Paper's mission was to be just that--a community newspaper like the News, albeit a better version covering a much larger community than is typical for the genre.

It never tried to be a Tennessean, and unlike a long list of now non-existent newspapers (remember In Review), it rightfully never tried to be a Scene. Like most community newspapers, its purpose was to inform average folks with essential news and information and provide bulletin-board and refrigerator copy for schools, parents and business people, all the while focusing entirely on the local community and its citizens. It did that best under Clint Brewer, in spite of the copy-editing mistakes (that Matt mentions) brought on by tight budgets and daily (as opposed to the now weekly) deadlines (not mentioned) during his tenure.

While the Tennessean ran page after page of wire service copy, the City Paper ran local news on every page. While the Tennessean ignored prep sports, the City Paper made them, along with local pro and college teams, the mainstay of its sports section. And while the Scene regularly gave its point-of-view on what went on in Metro Council meetings, the City Paper actually covered and reported on those meetings, as well as other local news and politics that, as Matt points out, the Tennessean and the Scene ignored. This is why readers loved the paper.

Unfortunately, the newspaper's owners never understood that just because a community of readers may love and need a newspaper, that doesn't necessarily mean that advertisers love or need that newspaper. (Nor would they love or need a "fist-pounding" daily, unfortunately.) And just when the time was right to shift resources away from the print product to the development of a first-class, online-only news vehicle that could have truly competed with the Tennessean, they stuck stubbornly to the traditional newspaper model, until finally giving up and selling the paper to Southcomm. While the paper may be a better read today for folks like Matt, I'm afraid it fills no need for hundreds of thousands of former readers or for many advertisers other than those already spending money in the Scene.

Full disclosure--I happened to have been publisher of the City Paper when Clint was the editor. And I also once published the Nashville Scene. Looking back on those two gigs, I'm certainly prouder of what we accomplished at the Scene--not just our financial success but, more importantly, the significantly greater impact the Scene had on making Nashville a better city. But I must admit, somewhat reluctantly, that I received far more kudos from readers and thank-you's from community leaders in three years at the City Paper than I did in my 15 years at the Scene. That should count for something.

By: colleencreamer on 11/5/10 at 11:17

"Unfortunately, the newspaper's owners never understood that just because a community of readers may love and need a newspaper, that doesn't necessarily mean that advertisers love or need that newspaper."

Albie hit the nail on the head albeit the size of a dinner plate and everyone knows it, but when it comes to ad dollars, business owners don't care how bad the "paper of record" is, that's where waning ad dollars are going. The City Paper could unearth a group that prays to a talking Bigfoot from a duplex in Antioch and it wouldn't matter. From the day I walked into Brian Brown's office I sensed this would be the paper's demise. I was glad I was wrong as long as I have been. It WAS a grand time for all of us. The utter fun, lack of office politics and infighting was bracing. People DO, or did, like the paper's "energy" even when they didn't quite know what to make of it, which, again, I will say, I always thought was the problem: the moving-target branding thing.

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By: Gehrig on 8/10/13 at 9:06

Gehrig M. Saldana

I wish Matt Pulle was still back in Dallas writing for the Dallas Observer! Matt is a stand up guy who tells it like it is; that is what readers deserve and respect.