Monday, December 22, 2008

The Rise and Fall of The Tennessean: A look inside a once proud place with the help of colleagues

A reader of this blog recently sent in a comment saying that I was not qualified to work for The Tennessean. That was the person's way of responding to my criticism of the once proud institution.

I agree with the comment. According to The Tennessean's woeful standards now, I am not qualified to work there. I could not work to the lower shortcuts demanded by managers and the top editor and publisher. I could not stand working and seeing my colleagues bust their butts and break their hearts in trying to maintain the kind of quality that used to predominate The Tennessean.

They, along with readers, deserve so much better.

Still, I wish The Tennessean well. I hope it succeeds -- not for its bonus-baby executives -- but the hard-working folks there who have families to support and excellence in craft to pursue.

Yet as every media outlet tries to get every bit of information and mostly dirt on any other celebrity, institution or even church, the shoe deserves to be put on the other foot. The Tennessean also is an institution worthy of independent examination for the public good.

A few years ago, Wily Stern of the Nashville Scene did a most thorough examination of the failures at The Tennessean through its leadership. He won an award for his work from the National Press Club.

However, he was wrong in some of his conclusions about where the problem was in leadership at the newspaper. Granted and to his credit, he did try and contact me for an interview to give my opinion. I was, however, denied permission to speak with him. That order was forwarded to me from the top through my immediate editor.

Again, Stern deserves credit, because he even tried to get me to read a copy of his writing before publication for accuracy. We were at the Scene's party for its readers' best competition, in which I was named "favorite columnist". I still treasure that award.

I had to decline Stern's request despite his admirable insistence. He really wanted to get the piece right. And it was no secret that the top editor and I did not see eye to eye on things and had some public and angry exchanges in the newsroom. Meanwhile, the publisher and non-newsroom department heads and I got along really well. We talked often. And we agreed on desperately needed changes at the newspaper.

But that's the past, and I'm most happy to have it behind me. But there is a troubling present that affects not only laid off journalists but readers looking for leadership and relevance from a newspaper in their communities.

That's what this post heralds. Through interviews with colleagues, including a former members of The Tennessean operating committee, and my own personal experiences of more than 10 years from Corporate Gannett to Nashville, I will be providing installments on the whys behind the decline in The Tennessean as a good and informative read, watchdog and a community leader.

I won't be writing out of any anger. God's love cannot abide if you keep anger inside your soul. But I just believe in the people's right to know, even if the media that often cites that right really wants to hide its failures and spin the truth.

At least on this blog, that shameful dodge no longer will be allowed.

Stay tuned for Installment No. 1.

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