Sunday, December 28, 2008

Part II: The rise and fall of The Tennessean

The following name and number explain why The Tennessean will never rise to the status it once held in credibility and community leadership.

Kate Marymount. She is the new head of the news side at corporate Gannett. She replaced Phil Currie this past month.

Twenty-one percent. That is the profit margin for The Tennessean, reported at the end of September last year and revealed this fall by the powerful web site, That figure is kind of low for Metros, considering that Ted Power's Reno Gazette makes a more respectable 35 percent profit.

Ted used to be general manager of Williamson A.M. in Franklin, TN, and along with then Tennessean publisher Craig Moon, turned it into a journalism and advertising powerhouse. The bureau now is only a shadow of what it once was.

Ted was long hoped to be the successor to the editor who shall go nameless at 1100 Broadway. Instead he was shipped out to Lousiana as a publisher before taking the big step to Reno and greener pastures. He is a very good man and journalist, just like Moon.

Marymount -- now in charge of "information center content" -- comes from the Phil Currie School of News, which means people such as Mark Silverman, Ellen Leifeld and the former Tennessean who shall go nameless get promoted and feted and never are turned out of their jobs without golden parachutes, no matter how big of a mess they make or how poorly they treat their employees.

I have to give Currie some credit, though. He helped get me out of Utica, N.Y., at my request. And he got me into The Tennessean as a columnist. I just was too stupid to know about the mess I was getting into, even though a friend tried to warn me.

Currie loved Silverman -- who used to be at Corporate where I met him twice -- and Leifeld and the editor who shall go nameless. He propped them up. He got them annual President's rings, until they performed so badly that such a feat was no longer possible. And he kept the business side at Corporate and people such as Moon at bay from making any real and needed change in the news product. The business side sure knew what needed to be changed, beginning with personnel.

Silverman at Corporate was known as the "Evil Twin". That meant that there could be a gracious Silverman on ocassion. More often, the evil one reigned, and he had his boot on the neck of his subordinate editors and some employees and did some editors at other newspapers dirty in grading their Generation X, News 2000 or other reader-oriented projects.

I met Silverman at Corporate once when I was one of 12 supervisors of the year in Gannett as an editorial page editor at the Observer-Dispatch. I was my boss' right hand man, his eye in the newsroom and his compiler of contest entries for Corporate. I also was his crusader in the community. Rick Jensen is the best journalist I ever worked for. But he could never get promoted as an editor beyond an 81,000 circulation publication. What an injustice!

We the supervisors of the year in 1995 were feted at the big house of Neuharth, and then schooled on busting unions and employee morale. My first time there was as part of middle management training. It meant we were being groomed to rise further up the ladder in Gannett and further away from addressing reader needs. I attended as an editorial page editor.

I've won most of Gannett's big awards. My project on race relations at the Observer-Dispatch snatched the coveted $4,000 public service award. The project was featured on the back cover of E&P magazine. I was hot.

Then I came to The Tennessean, where I decided not to play ball with the newsroom establishment when it came to conservative readers, kissing Phil Bredesen's ass and not kissing the ass of the editor who shall go nameless. But I also learned that The Tennessean was not representing the interests of liberal readers well, either. Actually, readers of all persuasions were of little interest at all.

That was all right, at least for me personally, although I protested the above wrongs in the newsroom -- to Moon, to Power and in my column.

My writing still won top awards from non-Gannett competitions -- three consecutive national education reporting citations from the Education Writers Association(large newspaper competition). Pitiful me beat out writers for The New York Times and Washington Post in covering the fates of minority and poor children.

I won two consecutive awards for commentary at large newspapers from the Casey Journalism Center at the University of Maryland. Again, I beat out the big time writers.

I won two awards for columns from the Religion Communicators Council in New York City. Faith has always been a big topic in my commentary.

The biggest one for me was being selected for the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Publisher Craig Moon nominated me, which made the award that much sweeter. It was his way of thumbing his nose at the newsroom and my way of showing that a column was not supposed to be used for celebrity but for public service and getting off your ass and into the community to the people.

So I did well for myself, even getting into the White House twice to interview George W. Bush. I was considered a turncoat for doing that. But Bush helped me get a civil rights order against Metro Nashville public schools for the unfair and inadequate education of immigrant children. Al Gore's staff wouldn't lift a finger, even though his campaign office was located right in Nashville.

So I didn't cheer like too many staffers did in the newsroom on election night 2000 when it was prematurely announced that Gore had won Florida.

And I did myself well until I contracted leukemia. Even though I wrote from my hospital bed, my job would ultimately be eliminated by Silverman and Leifeld in August 2007.

Que sera sera.

It can be said that readers really lost little with my fall. There was no flurry of protests or submission of petitions demanding me back. The Women in Black did not take to the bridge over the railroad tracks next to Union Station. In fact, the paper hired a good entertainment columnist to replace Brad Schmitt. Journalists always magnify their importance beyond reality. I am no different.

Still, the newspaper has continued to decline. It's not because of my absence. It's because of the failures of the editor who shall go nameless, Silverman and Leifeld. Despite protest to the contrary from some readers of this blog, I still believe E.J. Mitchell put out a compelling front page and distinguished himself by taking on Bredesen.

One problem was the newspaper's incredibly poor penetration rate in a growing market. Another was how its politics got into news coverage and in the decisions on the play of stories. Readers are not stupid. And ad rates stayed too damn high. Alernatives through the Internet besides print competition locally ate into Tennessean profits and circulation.

But the profit still is large enough that Gannett will never sell this paper to local investors who actually might care about Middle Tennessee. And that's the only way the newspaper can improve.

Marymount's succession to higher office protects Silverman and Leifeld. Moon does what he can as a member of the Gannett operating committee. But corporate politics still rule, until things get so bad for the company that it has change on the fly. That won't happen soon. It has too much cash on hand and too many smaller newspapers it can sell to stave off a day of reckoning any time soon.

So I wish The Tennessean well for the sake of my friends and colleagues still there, who labor on bravely and dilligently despite the management that leads them. The Photo Department is a notable, positive exception in peformance and management. I want my colleagues to keep their jobs. A lot of other employees at a lot of non-media companies face the same challenge and fates, too. May God help them all.

It's just that newspapers have always told the public that they're better than your usual capitalistic enterprise. They defend the First Amendment, although it is actually our men and women in uniform who lay down their lives for that amendment and the others in the Constitution. They take an oath to do so. I've never met a journalist who did the same.

There are more specific things I could write about Leifeld's and Silverman's wrongs as managers. But what's the point. Their jobs are safe. They're not going anywhere. Liz Murray Garrigan when she was with the Nashville Scene did a great job of chronicling the wrongs. I can do no better than she.

So, Nashville, middle Tennessee and the journalism world, what you've got at The Tennessean is not going to change. That's too bad for the employees whose jobs will continue to be at risk, readers wanting a good and interesting product and communities needing leadership from the kind of institution Jefferson promised would keep us free -- by keeping us fully informed.

No comments: