Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Part III: The rise and fall of The Tennessean

The greatest loss for The Tennessean has not been in circulation numbers, lower than required profits or even credibility in various communities.

The one factor that has hurt the quality of the product the most has been the loss of experience and institutional knowledge among its staff -- sliced and diced to the bottom line first by layoffs, buyouts and just plain frustration by good journalists who chose to leave for greener and much less stressful pastures.

The list is quite long and sadly impressive, and I sure don't include myself on it. Columnists are always replaceable like the sanitizer in the toilet bowl:

* Shelia Wissner, investigative reporter, who quit out of frustration with management. She crunched the numbers on then Mayor Bredesen's foolheaded Dell deal and still The Tennessean editorially endorsed this real loser for taxpayers. Then Dell took all the manufacturing jobs in Nashville and moved them. Now workers here just pack boxes and there has been little high-tech ripple effect as promised.

* Neal Scarborough, sports editor, who left for greener pastures after not being allowed to hire his own NFL writer. The African-American journalist has risen meteorically professionally since then. So there is justice in the world.

* Mike Sherman, my immediate editor and friend, who left to become sports editor at The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, family owned. He manages a staff of more than 40 people with a budget of $1 million. He has taken his department to new heights with convergence with the local CBS affiliate and the creation of a video element to all the sports coverage. I am most proud of him, as are his bosses. The Tennessean still refuses to embrace convergence with NewsChannel 5 in Nashville. It's The Tennessean's loss.

* Jeff Legwold and Laura Frank: She was named one of the top Gannett employees of the quarter century for her investigative reporting work. She is a fine person, too. She and Legwold, the paper's NFL reporter, married and had children. They decided to go to the Rocky Mountain News, where he got a job covering the Broncos. She works there, too. Now the fate the newspaper there rests with local efforts to rescue it. Say a prayer for these two good people and the the other good journalists at The News.

* Shelia Burke: She rose up the reporting ranks from being a clerk to become an excellent and compassionate journalist in covering social issues and those touching law enforcement. She also left out of frustration with management.

* Ray Waddle, religion writer extraordinaire, who left with his wife, a former Tennessean reporter, to concentrate on book writing. The couple since moved to Ivy League country, where Waddle has gotten a job with an institution there. His desk area was legendary in the newsroom. It had more paper and books strewn about it as if a hurricane had just hit. Tour guides always avoided our pod of reporters. Ray always ate one can of tuna for lunch and adored his late, great father, mailing him a postcard every day. He was a Sooner fan and graduate of OU but got his divinity degree from Vandy. His column still appears each week in The Tennessean.

* Wendi Thomas: Another African-American manager with promise and talent left for Memphis Commercial-Appeal where she continues as a very popular columnist. She turned down the Baltimore Sun for a columnist job there.

* Corwin Thomas: Another African-American journalist with talent and promise, left for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I tried to get him into column writing at his request but was blocked by a managing editor at the newspaper after she reviewed our prototypes. He was a great guy besides a good journalist in his 20s.

* Brian Lewis: Another African-American journalist with talent, promise and brains. He was a graduate of the Notre Dame University. His parents are college professors. He wanted to make the jump to editorial and column writing, goals I encouraged him to pursue. He was that good and in his late 20s. He was told by the editor whoshallgonameless that he first had to serve a stint on the copy desk. So Lewis left to become assistant editorial page editor in Springfield, Mo.

* Denise Williams: Another African-American journalist with talent, brains and experience. She was a copy editor, but her way to advancement was blocked because she was most honest in the wrong she saw in the newsroom. She left for the Virginian-Pilot, which grabbed up Bill Choyke, who was the best line editor I've ever had to make my copy better. I miss you Bill and Denise.

* A host of former Nashville Banner reporters : They regularly beat The Tennessean in scoops and writing quality. That's what underdogs do. Passion drives them. About a dozen came to The Tennessean after the Banner closed. Boy, these folks knew hot to hustle and give a damn. The only prominent ones remaining are Leon Alligood, Ms. Cheap and Larry McCormack. The three are all good people and journalists.

* Lynette Pillow: Another African-American journalist of talent, brains and devotion who could never seem to get advanced from clerk duties to reporting, for which she had the college degree. Even the availability of a diversity reporter training program at the Freedom Forum in Nashville was not used by management. I actively tried to help her advance, which did not help her cause due to my unpopularity. She was one of the 23 laid-off recently by The Tennessean.

* Two journalists of Hispanic descent: Bill Bradley was a talented sports editor who left for Sacramento. He is a bigwig in the organization representing sports editors around the country. He is an innovator and a joy to work with and for. Fernando Pizzaro, city editor, married Diane Notthingham, the night editor, and they left to have a family and live happily ever after at the Gannett newspaper in Hawaii. It's great when good people find each other.

* Terry Quillen: Op-Ed page editor and passionate advocate for her beliefs, she remains a giant fan of the great John Seigenthaler. She took a buyout. And with her went at least 25 years of professional experience and institutional knowledge. I always like Terry even though my arrogance had to be tough for her and others to take.

* Sandra Roberts: Long-time editorial page editor, who I did not appreciate enough working for, when I was a political columnist. But a lot of others did. A good person and boss and a fighter for TennCare and choice. She had to hold her nose in being forced to endorse some Bredesen deals she knew were wrong. But she left with head unbowed and a readership and TennCare recipients who now miss her skills and passion for justice. Sure, we disagreed on some things, and I proceeded wrongly around her at times. But she supported me with great passion when I came down with leukemia. Place her up there with Ida B. Wells when it comes to Tennessee's great journalists. And like Ashley Judd,, she is a Kentucky Wildcat fan. Only the best when it came to Sandra.

* Ellen Dahnke: Cancer claimed her life while I was sick with leukemia. We reconciled around our illnesses, and I came to appreciate her passion -- for education and choice. She was with The Tennessean for three decades. Even though she did not leave on her own, her loss still is felt the same. I pray for her soul every day. God must have a hell of an editorial page staff in heaven.

* Frank Ritter: Former Tennessean city editor in the Seigenthaler heyday was a columnist and keeper of institutional knowledge during my time at the newspaper. He gave conservative readers some outlet, but his column was not as regular as others. He still believed in social progress but told me that liberals had abandoned too many of the principles that brought a better day. He said some of them then degraded him for speaking that truth and other facts. This great man of faith also overcame personal challenges. I miss him and his wisdom.

* Jon Yates and Trine Tsouderos: Jon was the Rick Bragg of the newspaper. He now is with The Chicago Tribune. He once offered to go to the Iowa Caucuses for free for The Tennessean, because he went to school there and Al Gore was running for president in 2000. The same managing editor who blocked Corwin Thomas' advancement laughed at Jon's request. Then she came out of a news meeting in which everyone thought Jon's suggestion was great. So she asked him to go to Iowa. He rightly refused. Trine was a most beautiful person inside and out. And a helluva writer and dogged questioner. She married Jon and they now have one child with another on the way.

She wrote for People magazine out of Chicago. Her low point was when the editorwhoseshallbenameless mispronounced her last name before the whole newsroom in a meeting. He did the same with a very talented page designer and artist with the surname of Phonetip. If you don't even know how to pronounce the last names of your staff, how are you supposed to have the credibility to lead them?

* Emily Hefner: One of many talented interns turned reporter who left The Tennessean. She grew frustrated and went to a larger newspaper to pursue her career. She would have stayed here, but she could see that too many good people and editors were leaving, and the bad ones remained in control.

* Larry Woody/Chris Low: This racing columnist and NASCAR expert for The Tennessean is sorely missed. Chris Low, who covered UT, has gone on to a bigger audience in covering the Southeast Conference, the best collection of football teams in the nation.

* Cathy Straight: Another African-American journalist of brains and skills who had a strong sense of integrity about her as a managing editor. She was being groomed by Gannett for advancement but then jumped to Knight-Ridder and its editor program. Last I heard, she was with one of the two big newspapers in Minnesota, still leading with integrity and honesty.

* Anita Wadwhani/Bill Synder: They were the last of the very dedicated writers covering TennCare. Bill Snyder was the best and very detail oriented. And the suffering people of this state sure needed him. Anita left for another job to spend more time with her family and also earn more money with more respect. She once was denied a promotion because the editorwhoshallbenameless considered her to be too young, although she was in her 30s with a proven track record of journalistic excellence. She was very serious in how she approached her craft, and it showed in her copy.

* Dave Green: Some people may object fiercely to his inclusion on this list. But the second in command was a great journalist who knew how to write and prosecute a story. He was very skeptical of then Mayor Bredesen's big deals. Once when Mark Ippolito -- the city hall reporter who went on to the AJC -- wrote a critical story about one aspect of the Titans' deal, the editorwhosahallgonameless brought Bredesen into the newsroom and into his office on deadline to spin the story to the staff assembled. It was a disgrace, and Dave had to sit there and take it, as he did many other times with other issues. Still, Dave had his faults.

One time, I wrote a column that teased Bredesen and his family. One bit of the satire dealt with Andrea Conte, who called and complained to the editorwhoshallbenameless about what I wrote. He stormed out of his office to my desk and we had it out quite loudly in front of the newsroom. It all ended with the instigator telling me and my immediate boss that he and Green should always read my column if Conte and Bredesen are mentioned, or their son who had reached adult age. My immediate boss and I did not give Dave up. He had actually read and approved the column before publication. So he still owes us for the crap we took.

* Ted Power/Craig Moon: Ted should be the top editor or publisher of The Tennessean now if there was a concern for readers and the treatment of employees. Ted was one of the originators of the successful Williamson A.M. edition of The Tennessean, which was purposely separated from any control of the downtown newsroom to prevent this new form of reader-friendly journalism from being corrupted. That was the decision of Craig Moon, the great publisher of The Tennessean back in 1996.

That's also when I met Ted, who was the night editor responsible for reconciling the miscommunication between editors during the day. Ted also was a sort of Pygmalion project professionally and personally. Moon groomed him for advancement in Gannett, where now he is publisher in Reno and raking in a 35 percent profit. His wife, Kathy, was a marketing executive at the newspaper. And she saw Ted as a potential catch, if she could teach him to wear socks with shoes and improve his wardrobe. He did, and they are married with three fabulous children. All three of these folks are really good people who bring credit and hope to our profession.

You may not remember all these names, but I sure do as do the colleagues they touched with their excellence, passion and goodness in their hearts and actions. Yes, there are journalists who needed to go. They were dead wood and not carrying their weight. Certainly, columnists such as myself are an extra compared to the need for simple, good reporting. Opinion can come later.

This list is not meant to be conclusive. There are some names I have forgotten. Please send their names in and I'll include them in this post and in a separate post.

Good luck and God's prayers to all of them for their distinguished service to our craft and most of all to readers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cathy Straight is now working at USA Today.