Sunday, December 28, 2008

Part I: The Rise and the Fall of The Tennessean

When I was hired from the Observer-Dispatch newspaper in upstate New York to be a columnist for The Tennessean, it was seen by my colleagues as a step up to a major daily, Metro newspaper.

Except one.

Bobbi Bowman, now with an executive with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and formerly Corporate Gannett (owner of The Tennessean), took me aside. She was managing editor of the Observer-Dispatch after former gigs at The Washington Post and other big newspapers.

And she shocked me by telling me I might want to rethink my decisions about going from a 52,000 Sunday circulation newspaper to one with five times the readership.

She told me that things were not as rosy on the outside as they appeared at The Tennessean, most specifically with the man who was the top editor of the place in 1996.

I listened politely. I told her I had thought out the decision and liked from an outsider's view what I saw at The Tennessean during my interview. And so we parted as friends.

And over the next 10 years at The Tennessean, I learned how sound of advice my friend and colleague gave me, particularly with the person in charge.

I won't name the editor. He doesn't deserve his name used in my blog. I'll just say he was the person who followed John Seigenthaler and preceded E.J. Mitchell, both editors of distinction and real leaders who produced a solid, interesting product.

For this series, I'll call the editor TEASBBEJM, pronounced (TEA-A-SHA-BEE-GEM).

From talking with friends and colleagues on the Tennessean operating committee and the newsroom, it is agreed TEASBBEJM is the person who ruined The Tennessean, which once had 214 employees in its newsroom after the folding of the Nashville Banner. Now those numbers have fallen below 100 and will continue to decline in 2009. (One reader has written in to say the newsroom has more than 100 employees. But since it was an anonymous contribution, I did not post it. I can't post comments that state purported facts without identity and thus credibility. Gotta abide by journalism rules.)

But TEASBBEJM frittered away that advantage with a leadership of serving his faults firsts. His strengths disappeared. And so did The Tennessean's distinction as a leader and a quality product for both conservative and liberal readers.

TEASBBEJM and I constantly clashed, even publicly in the newsroom. He was a bully. But worse, he did not care about readers, nor was he interested in meeting and talking with them. He governed from an Ivory Tower and an office that had an automatic closing mechanism he could engage by simply hitting a button on his desk.

One of the funniest stories about that kind of mental deficiency was when famed exercise-iologist Richard Simmons came the newsroom. In vain, he knocked on TEASSBEJM's door to try and get him to come out and get a hug and encouragement to lose some of his substantial girth.

But the editor would not open his door. And neither would he open that door to readers or even some staff members who desperately wanted the newspaper to change for the better. To anyone who disagreed with him, he'd pull marketing survey results out of his mental holster like Matt Dillon did with a gun on Gunsmoke. Marketing surveys are the weakness of Gannett, done for every newspaper to tell editors what readers should want, not what they really need.

Gannett could have saved many millions of dollars by simply having its editors go out into their community and simply asking real people. They're not stupid. But editors believe they are. And now they are rightly harvesting a bitter fruit of declining circulation and ad sales. But the people being hurt at the newspapers are the rank and file, not the editors and publishers who continue to make the wrong decisions.

There certainly are exceptions to this generalization. Craig Moon was an outstanding publisher of The Tennessean. He allowed me to be a political writer when TEASSABEJM refused. Sadly for us, Moon left for greener and less frustrating pastures of Corporate and now USA Today, which still flourishes despite the downturn nationally for all newspapers.

Moon was treated with incredible disrespect by TEASBBEJM. I witnessed it first hand. And TEASBBEJM was able to get away with it and stymie change because of his buddies on the newsside at Corporate. Moon in turn was supported by the business side.

One would have thought such a setup would protect the journalistic side from abuse from the business side. But it was the exact opposite at The Tennessean. It was the executives on the business side on the operating committee who had spoken to readers and knew that change was needed in the product, desperately so. They were better journalists on the whole than those in the newsroom.

A former operating committee member told me the story of a golf tournament hosted for advertisers and other dignitaries by the newspaper. He was part of the group that included TEASBBEJM. The advertisers took him aside and asked him a question: "Why do they let the guy who writes the newspaper's wine column be the Editor?" The operating committee member had no answer.

In his series on The Tennessean, Scene writer Wily Stern tried to pin The Tennessean's problems on then managing editor Dave Green. He had Sonny Rawls, a former Tennessean writer and Pulitzer Prize winner in Philadelphia, call me and set up a get together lunch and interview. I agreed, even though Rawls had never contacted me once in years of my writing a column.

At O'Charley's in Brentwood, the guy tried to get me to answer that Green was the problem. Green had turned down Rawls' request to be sports editor at the newspaper. I refused. I put the blame on TEASBBJEM, which was the truth that Stern still missed in his series.

Finally, Rawls acknowledged that TEASBBJEM had been the newsroom tattle tell for Seigenthaler. And they all laughed at him.

But the bigger joke was that Seigenthaler choice him to be editor. No one is laughing now.

Now journalists I've spoke with acknowledge that TEASBBEJM was a good editor in the beginning. But he lost interest and tried to be a Seigenthaler by supporting anything and anyone who would make Nashville into a major league sports city while he lived out of the county in affluent Brentwood. That's why his lips were always puckered for then mayor and now Gov. Phil Bredesen's ass.

And so the newspaper suffered in quality and in serving the readers. You've seen the rest. TEASBBEJM's buddy is editor of the newspaper and another is the publisher. And they are driving the newspaper into the ground just as he did.

I feel really bad for my friends and colleagues who still remain at the newspaper. They are suffering greatly in trying to pursue their profession with excellence while paying bills at home. Yet they constantly work under the fear of losing their jobs.

My friend and colleague in New York tried to warn me. But I had to learn the hard way, as have the good readers of what now is a most unworthy publication that allowed TEASBBEJM to literally destroy its future.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I never see any comments on your posts. Does anyone read any of this? Do you have a site counter that show you are at least getting some traffic? I enjoy reading your posts, but if you are not drawing an audience and some decent traffic why do you continue?

Just curious in Nashville. I'm looking forward to the Tennessean's rise and fall posts by the way.

Tim Chavez said...

From Tim Chavez: As of this morning according to FeedBurner, I have 37 subscribers with 12 Reach. I get most of my comments from direct e-mails to me. I don't post those. I don't know how all this translates into hits. Usually, I get 25 hits every two and a half hours from the United States, Canada and Sweden.
No writer writes for how many people will read it, just for the joy of the craft and the desire to inform, even in obscurity. So you continue mostly for yourself, and the about 50 people who have made a commitment to the blog and however as many hits come.
But I may have an announcement in the coming week to change all this for the very positive. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.
And if you can summon the courage, please identify yourself to stand behind your words. That will provide credibility to what you write. No excuses, please. I don't make any.
Tim Chavez

Anonymous said...

I understand that this is only part one. But EJ had far more to do with the downfall of the newspaper than Frank did. I totally agree that he was more proud of himself than most, and that the aggrandizing behavior was annoying, but refusing to name him seems a tad bit childish. He's a big boy, and I am sure that he can handle it.

The bloated newsroom was just another symptom that plagued large dailies across the country in the late 1990s and subsequent 10 years. When it came time to compete with new technologies, newspapers had no idea what to do. They had enjoyed margins that made jewelry stores envious for years; raising rates on advertising as circulation fell.

Newspapers were cocky. And quite frankly, Frank was perfect for the job.

Tim Chavez said...

Thanks for the comment.
E.J. produced a very compelling product on the front page than the person I won't name ever did. He also took on Bredesen over secrecy in government, something whathisname never would have.
As for not naming him, it is on purpose. Everything about him at the newspaper was for his own prosperity and recognition. Readers be damned. That's a cardinal sin for someone in a position of influence.
Here is one more thing E.J. did right: He let Brad Schmitt go. If you talked to people on the copy desk, the guy was never interested as the entertainment columnist in putting in a full day. He'd do a couple of items, then they'd fill in the five or six remaining items.
That has to get old particularly when he is making three times what you are for half the work.
Brad had two lunches each day with expense accounts to get to know celebrities. The Tennessean spent $15,000 for each of his annual parties at Hard Rock Cafe.
Leifeld overruled E.J., thinking Brad was so invaluable. His stint as Channel 2 shows he is not. He has practically disappeared there. In addition, E.J. showed me much kindness after I got leukemia. For me as a leader and a journalist, he was a good guy.
Whithisname is not even in his league.

Anonymous said...

Tim--E.J. Mitchell an editor "of distinction" and a "real leader?"

Two questions:

1) What are you smoking?
2) Can I have some...it must be potent stuff!

Having worked under E.J. for almost two years (out of 34 in the newspaper biz) I can safely say he is the most incompetent and clueless EE I've ever had the misfortune of working for (and with a quarter-century of being a Gannettoid under my belt, that is really saying something!).

Thanks for the laugh, Tim. It made my day!

tim chavez said...

I had no problem with him whatsoever. Maybe you need to look in the mirror and consider where you came up short. I've had that good fortune since I lost my job more than a year ago after 14 years with Gannett.
And to be anonymous ... shame on you. If you feel that strongly about him, put your name behind it. Why are journalists such cowards, and shamelessly so.
Sad, very sad. Our industry deserves what is happening to it.

Anonymous said...

After 17 years with Gannett, and another six before that at Times Mirror, EJ was the worst EE that I have ever worked with or next to or on the same products. He was clearly and completely over his head, and I hope that part 2 in your series will properly reflect what happened in Nashville on his watch. It wasn't good.

Anonymous said...

"Gannett could have saved many millions of dollars by simply having its editors go out into their community and simply asking real people."

Amen.

"It was the executives on the business side on the operating committee who had spoken to readers and knew that change was needed in the product, desperately so. They were better journalists on the whole than those in the newsroom."

Interesting, can you go deeper?

Anonymous said...

Tim, your perspective is not clear here. Mitchell was not a good editor. Frank was the pits in many ways but not nearly as bad as Mitchell. But I agree with you that Stern missed the boat regarding Dave Green (in some respects).

I feel sorry for Silverman, but he stubbornly refuses to get a clue, so who cares. I don't anymore.