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.
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.