Friday, December 5, 2008

Who could have saved The Tennessean and all the jobs? Non-newsroom leaders had the solutions but not power in corporate struggle against change

The decline in The Tennessean as a product meaningful in people's lives was already well underway when I arrived at the newspaper in the fall of 1996.

The top editor had a bad case of Attention Deficit Disorder. And he was more interested in building his own legacy to counter that of John Seigenthaler by becoming buddies with then Mayor Phil Bredesen and making Nashville into a major league city with major pro sports expenditures.

His deputy, Dave Green, was a solid journalist, having been part of the leadership that won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering wrongs in the University of Kentucky basketball program. But he had problems in communicating with the staff. And when he was too honest with lower level managers about their shortcomings, they'd go into the top editor and complain. And Green got in trouble for being mean while trying to make editors improve their performance.

And if Dave got too involved in scrutinizing Bredesen's bad deals, he was assigned budget and other duties to keep him out of news meetings and editing.

Ted Power was the night editor in charge. But he then went to Williamson A.M. under the direction of publisher Craig Moon and made it into a raging advertising and journalism success. Moon made a point to keep WAM out from under Tennessean newsroom control. And the resentment was substantial.

That was bad for the newspaper's future and the needs of readers. Moon, even though he was a businessman, knew what readers wanted, along with advertisers. But he always met a brick wall in the newsroom in trying to make critical changes.

He couldn't make the needed changes -- including making the newspaper fair to both political parties and ideologies -- because of Gannett corporate. The top editor had the support of news executives in Virginia. Moon has support on the business side. So the newsroom was able to prevail in stopping change.

The top Tennessean executives in production, circulation and advertising knew that readers were unhappy with the newspaper product. But they were held at bay by corporate's support of newsroom leaders. And so The Tennessean let a host of niche publications come in and eat up its market share to the point that it had one of the worst penetration rates in the company.

Ted Power ultimately left to become a publisher in Louisiana and now Reno, where it has a 34 percent profit margin compared to The Tennessean's 21 percent. He would have preferred to take over The Tennessean newsroom, and he and Moon would have made the needed changes to keep The Tennessean credible and more profitable. But that didn't happen.

Moon left for corporate and then USA Today, where he continues to do a great job. A new newsroom editor, Everett Mitchell, made good changes to The Tennessean to make it more interesting and aggressive. It even took on Bredesen as governor over public records.

But a disagreement between him and Publisher Ellen Leifeld in keeping entertainment writer Brad Schmitt led the new editor to seek reassignment at another newspaper. Mitchell told Schmitt goodbye and not to let the door hit him in the ass. Leifield made a deal to keep him, which was foolish since Schmitt soon left for Channel 2 anyway.

And The Tennessean fell under the cruel incompetence of Mark Silverman.

So the stage was set long ago for what happened this week with the Christmas season massacre of the newsroom staff and The Tennessean's final fall from being a credible information source and government watchdog.

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