Weekly Obsession: On the dim future of newspapers in Nashville

Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 10:53pm

The past three weeks have not been the brightest in Nashville’s newspaper history.

With this issue The City Paper will cease — a victim of a difficult media environment, its destruction fomented by a changing culture that perceives news as a good that should be freely available and aided by a business model that never quite figured out a revenue-generation system that created profitability in said environment.

Across the street, The Tennessean axed good reporters — eliminating its courts reporting when it was set to have no competition for the beat and halving its Titans coverage just days before the first preseason game. Meanwhile, front-office types who have meaningless titles with unintelligible duties remain in their cushy jobs, “engaging readers” and “partnering” with local businesses. No doubt these people are thought leaders who synergize with corporate goals.

Or whatever.

The question bubbles up — and it’s a valid one — if this is the beginning of the end of newspapering in Nashville. People wonder how long The Tennessean’s parent company, Gannett, will remain committed not just to Nashville but to good old dead-tree newspapers in general.

There are plenty of villains in this story and not enough heroes.

As hard as it may be for Nashvillians to do in this age of navel-gazing, solipsistic It-ness, let’s take a broader view and see how other newspapers are surviving.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos paid $250 million for The Washington Post. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is adding newsprint alongside Dairy Queen and Orange Julius in its prodigious portfolio.

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought The Boston Globe.

Nashville doesn’t need to rid itself of newspapers. Nashville newspapers need fabulously wealthy benevolent benefactors.

Nashville needs a John Henry.

And in the sweaty logic of summer, the trumpet-tooters at the mayor’s office, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and the Socratic wonder that is sports-talk radio will think the same thing: “Yes! The first step is finding someone local to buy the Tampa Bay Rays, move them here and then buy the newspaper.”

But the same reason the Rays won’t be playing at Subway Park is the same reason why The Tennessean’s owner won’t have a 37205 ZIP code: there’s just not enough money here for it.

Martha Ingram is busy bailing out the symphony. The Frists are clutching their cards, awaiting the impact of the Affordable Care Act on their hospital empire.

Eventually Gannett will bail on The Tennessean, and someone will have to step in if Nashville is to have a daily newspaper. Without a savior, 1100 Broadway will become a very valuable piece of empty real estate, the subject of interminable, high-minded and saccharine “imagining sessions.” Somewhere out there, some 20-something downtown resident is shoehorning an IKEA where the newsroom used to be.

“Good riddance,” they say. “Old institutions must give way to progress,” they claim. “Who needs a daily newspaper when affordable Swedish home goods will do?” They’ll make some hackneyed comparison, that no one lamented the loss of Blockbuster when Netflix cornered the home-movie-watching market.

Some institutions are worth saving, some institutions should persist simply because they are persistent.

Newspapers aren’t parking lots that need to be converted to convention centers or convention centers that need to be converted to hip music venues. Newspapers, at their best, are the tangible ties that bind citizens of a city together and that tie a city to its own history.

What they need is to be excised from the greedy clutches of faraway chilly corporate owners who see only numbers on an accounting page, but not the words on a front page. Corporations — like the nextifiers — don’t see history, they seek to serve their own purpose.

That’s not what newspapers need.

They need heroes, and Nashville needs one fast.

Filed under: City News

16 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 8/9/13 at 5:27

John Henry bought the Boston Globe for 1/10th the price the New York Times
paid for it in 1993. Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder) paid a premium of maybe 2 1/2
times the value, by many analyst, for the Washington Post. Only time will tell
if either of these men can produce a better model and modest profit from their
investments. The change in the revenue streams from paper sales to advertising
has caused the greatest change to the business. From once depending on
delivering news that interested the buying public in large numbers, to the switch
to just enough news with newsprint to place as many ads as possible has
seriously turned a large part of the buying public away.

Yes, Nashville needs more newspapers, that one can handle, flip the pages
and read a complete or mostly complete story. We also need at least one
independent paper with gritty editors and writers that want to investigate a
good story and report it completely, not fudge the story to fit a template or
slant it toward making up the news to fit a personal or corporate agenda .
Impossible? Maybe, but we can hope, suggest, and truly support an attempt.

By: Loner on 8/9/13 at 7:02

Excellent commentary, JR Lind....thought-provoking and well-written.

The demise of "dead tree" newspapers is not altogether a bad thing, IMO; it's got to be good for the environment.

Some newspapers will fail to evolve to the rapidly changing media and cultural environments; others will adapt to the new paradigm and prosper.....apparently, the Nashville City Paper falls into the former, not the latter category.

Any newspaper that relies upon advertising revenues to survive has already compromised its editorial integrity to some degree....nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them. Conflicts of interest are naturally going to occur.

As for the idea of a benevolent hero riding in on a white horse, to save Nashville's newspapers from extinction, be careful of what you wish for....sometimes these "benevolent" saviors turn out to be self-serving scoundrels and /or closed-minded ideologues.

Maybe, something will rise from the smoke and ash, Phoenix-like, to replace the defunct newspapers....in a free society, where there is a demand, someone will supply the service and/or the product.

Although I live in Spencerport, NY, I have posted on the NCP for several years; so, I will greatly miss this online site and its posting community....this was my link to Music City and the Volunteer state....I am truly saddened by the loss of the Nashville City Paper.

By: Loner on 8/9/13 at 7:07

Govskeptic, I agree with your commentary....finally, on the NCP's last day, we find some common ground....at least our online relationship seems to be ending on a bright note....civility has been eroded here lately.

By: pipecarver on 8/9/13 at 7:26

Newspapers and online newspapers will sell when:

1- The media in this town stops reporting one side of a story; the side benefitting the few, rather than the many "potential" subscribers. THERE IS a market out there; you simply refuse to meet it's needs.

2- Investigative reporting takes it job seriously. There is no investigative reporting done in this town in print, online, and especially not on any of the local news stations. All content is directed towards an audience that can be best described as lifetime subscribers to The National Enquirer.

Crap reporting only serves a crap market; and a crap market turns it back on non-necessities during times of economic depression.

So stop asking someone to come bail you out of the mess you created.

By: Bellecat on 8/9/13 at 9:26

City paper is my favorite paper in town. Sorry to see it go.

"What they need is to be excised from the greedy clutches of faraway chilly corporate owners who see only numbers on an accounting page." This is the problem.
It is what has happened to everything these days, form newspapers to employees. All that matters is the bottom line and how much the CEO's and shareholders can rake in from the peasants who slave for them. And often these business people live far away and have no stake in the community or the people living there. Bad state of affairs for the country when it comes to this.

By: noitall on 8/9/13 at 10:59

J.R. is right. Nashville needs a savior and there will be one. Why? Because daily newspapers can still be profitable businesses. Despite layoffs at the Tennessean forced by Gannett's having to meet shareholder expectations, The Tennessean is still profitable. In the good old days, profit margins there were in the 30-40% range. While they're less than half that now, a 10% margin on a $75 million business isn't chump change.

Much like FedEx and UPS, daily newspapers have a distribution network that passes every house every day throughout an entire community. And large advertisers, despite what you might think, are still investing heavily in the advertising circulars that feed those networks. My theory on why Jeff Bezos bought the Post is that he sees the potential in leveraging the Post's distribution business to deliver not just advertising inserts but magazines, mail and (you guessed it) packages from Amazon. He will disrupt the model by investing heavily in building that distribution network and, as he has shown with Amazon, operate the company with the long view in mind and not for short-term profits like Gannett.

Is this business model a threat to newspapers as journalistic endeavors? Not hardly because for the past two or three generations the "business" of newspapers has been "delivering" advertising with ad revenue consistently running 4-5 times circulation revenue. Good newspaper publishers know they can't let advertisers control content and Jeff Bezos is too smart to let that happen.

So over the next ten years or so, we'll see more of the likes of John Henry and others who will follow the Bezos model. Wealthy people will invest in newspapers in their home towns because they will be able to buy them cheaply, operate them profitably and have the added benefit of feeding their large egos with a community mouthpiece.

By: pswindle on 8/9/13 at 12:36

I am so sad over the fate of newspapers. As long as I can remember, the paper has arrived at my parent's home and at mine. Nothing is better than to sit down with the paper in hand at the breakfast table or just over a good cup of coffee. I know that online is possible, but it is not the same than in hand holding and folding a newspaper. Although, I really enjoy the NCP online as my second source of info.

By: shinestx on 8/9/13 at 2:18

Or newspapers around the country could stop publishing leftist nonsense. But that's too much to expect.

By: amyinsparta on 8/9/13 at 9:18

"Or newspapers around the country could stop publishing leftist nonsense. But that's too much to expect"

I assume you would be happy, though, if it published rightwing nonsense? Nonsense is nonsense, and it is rampant at both extremes.

By: Jazzpa on 8/10/13 at 7:04

As long as the collection of acronyms at the top exist, sucking the life out of any possible profit with their bloated pay package every business (print media has no lock on it) will continue to fade away. Print media much like all the others have resisted the changes technology has brought and continue to try and exist as a "print" to deliver business. Too much overhead to make what they produce affordable to those who WOULD buy it (even if to only line the birds cage). The business of getting the "news" in the face of the populace has become more about profit than what its original purpose is. Write the stories, make it available to the masses in the least expensive way possible and people will most likely buy it. Produce a collection of advertisements most people totally ignore and people will slowly but surely drift away. The ability to skip over commercials on TV alone should prove nobody wants less of the product while being barraged with junk.

By: CrimesDown on 8/10/13 at 9:52

Most of the better papers that I've read tend to report honestly. That may sound simple but there aren't many good papers. A couple of examples are the Tennessean and the Nashville City Paper. The Tennessean is a liberal paper and there is no doubt that it is. All you have to do is read it for a week or two and anyone would have to agree that it ignores one side and it doesn't lean to the left, it has fallen over ledge to the left. In my opinion the NCP leaned a little left but it never lost it's ability to report on many issues fairly.

All journalists have personal views, but the good ones never lose the ability to look at both sides and report a story with an open mind. That's what the NCP had going over the Tennessean. It had some good reporters. I truly think that the NCP was the last true newspaper in Nashville. The Tennessean is just a big op/ed magazine. It is just a vehicle for a bunch of liberal writers to give their opinion.

I don't know if a newspaper can make it at all. For one to have enough readers, it would have to stop the left leaning. When people read a paper, they don't want a bunch of opinions, they want the NEWS. The Tennessean is like NBC. They say they are a news organization even when everybody knows better. The NCP is more like CNN. They lean to the left but have some good journalists that get some real news and investigative reports in there fairly regularly.

Anyway, this is my opinion not news.

By: judyboodo@yahoo.com on 8/10/13 at 2:12

When the Nashville Banner closed the Tennessean was presented with a unimaginable gift, and that was to become the newspaper of Nashville. They ignored the gift and instead of coming to the center squandered the gift and moved even more to the left. With ideologues like John Seigenthaler in charge and being successful at hiring people who would come behind him and continue to perpetuate the mistake the Tennessean dug its own hole in the years to come. A perfect example is the year long joke of continuing to beat the civil rights drum of fifty years ago that they are currently on and that practically no-one wants to read. If it had thrown off the mantel of the being the "victor" as the last daily paper standing and embraced all of the people of Nashville it would not have had to sell out to the advertising gods. Not being able to summon up enough common sense or sense of good for the community it is now just rearranging deck chairs and stalling for the inevitable. A centrist newspaper with really good investigative reporting of business and government along with the abundance of entertainment and sports news that Nashville has to offer would be successful with a subscription base. But you have to put out a product that ALL THE PEOPLE really want to read. This is a sad day. Atlas shrugged, but Nashville will weep.

By: Loner on 8/11/13 at 10:09

The NCP is now a zombie paper?

By: joe41 on 8/12/13 at 7:46

It doesn't matter whether the editorial page is right or left, the important thing is to report both sides of an issue and let the reader deicde The newspaper is the lifeblood of the community sparking interest and debate. When you have a large corporation like Gannet running the show, the only interest is profitability. They don't care about your town. To hell with them and give us a local owner who does care about Nashville.

Joe

By: airvols on 8/12/13 at 10:09

Sad to see the Nashville City Paper go. I would like to say we are left with the Tennessean , a sad excuse for a local newspaper. You must disassemble the paper in order to begin your reading. Endless advertising fold overs, sticklers and supplements. The next statement will be perceived as racist I'm sure, but there is no intent of that, Why is every story on the front page on Sunday of an African American . Is there no other news worth of the headline regardless of race. Where are the business and growth stories? This city is in the middle of the greatest expansion in decades and there are no stories. Where are the missing pages on Monday and Tuesday. Where is NASHVILLE AND MIDDLE TENNESSEE LOCAL NEWS? Newspapers wonder why they are in decline, your are not listening to the people, you have formed your own agenda, and are force feeding the public. The staff carnage will continue because cookie cutter newspapers look as nothing but bottom line. You should understand if you deliver a product the public actually wants, your bottom line will improve.

By: Loner on 8/13/13 at 2:06

The NCP lives....after a fashion....the online product is still active...apparently lingering on, after the lights in the hard-copy office went out.

This has to be a new twist on the defunct newspaper story....the zombie effect.