Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Carpetbagger speaketh: Tennessean's editor argues that newspapers like his aren't dying; they're already dead; they've lost their souls

I got into the newspaper business to make a difference in people's lives, most particularly the people of Matthew 25.

And with some good people in the community and in Washington, I won battles on authorizing charter public schools in Tennessee and getting Nashville Public Schools placed under a civil rights order by the U.S. Department of Education for improperly educating immigrant children. Thank you, George W. Bush.

I worked with Carlos Lowe to get the Magness-Potter Community Center up and running for the children of Sam Levy Homes in east Nashville. Before I came down with leukemia, I reported on enough deaths from Gov. Bredesen's TennCare cuts to help Gordon Bonnyman and Tony Garr reduce the number of the most vulnerable of Tennesseans the governor wanted to throw to the wolves. And I helped Sen. Diane Black oust then incumbent JoAnn Graves of Gallatin from her seat that was used to support the public education bureaucracy at the expense of the children.

No, it wasn't near enough for a career. But I always saw the purpose of a column to be so much more than for simple celebrity.

A lot of Catholics are in the newspaper profession for that reason of making a difference. There are a lot other denominations, too. We knew it would not pay well. We knew the hours would be lousy. We knew the deadline pressure would be tough, particularly under a bad editor -- of which there are too many in the profession.

But I stuck to it, until an insurance company said I couldn't write from my Vanderbilt hospital bed. And after God saved my life over 12 days, and I got better, the newspaper eliminated my job and my salary that had gotten too high after working 14 years for Gannett.

Earlier this month, I officially ended my newspaper writing career with little fanfare, telling the Williamson Herald in Franklin that I was assigning a dollar value to my columns and would rather just quit than write anymore.

The newspaper's publisher quickly said goodbye. I hope he honors my request to donate compensation for the columns to send four African-American children from Nashville to a science camp at Wake Forest this summer. I made the same request of the Gallatin newspaper that is run by the same company.

But money is what rules newspapers, so they don't part with it easily or at all nowadays. And that was proven by Mark Silverman, editor of The Tennessean, in today's publication.

He wrote and argued that newspapers aren't dying. And he based that contention on the fact that The Tennessean is making a profit.

And there you have it.

Making a profit is what proves The Tennessean as a newspaper is alive and well. Not prominently noted was anything The Tennessean has really done to make a real and lasting difference for its readers and the communities they live in. And there's ample reason why.

The Tennessean has done nothing. It doesn't even win internal, annual Gannett contests. It has cut its staff so much just to keep making a profit. The last reported profit margin was 21 percent. Obscene. AIG execs must be jealous.

I recently met one of The Tennessean's workers who was taking a week of unpaid leave to make sure the newspaper makes it profit. Expect workers to have to do the same each quarter. And that means you get less in the newspaper while they get one month less of pay.

Ultimately, a publication dedicated to Silverman's standard of making a profit to prove its viability is already dead.

It has no soul.

It is damned, and so are the readers still subscribing to it.

When greed becomes the major motivation for any institution, be it Wall Sreet or The Tennessean and Gannett, the people come last -- be they employees or consumers.

Silverman has no intention of living here in Tennessee after his corporate masters release him from his sentence.

Do you see him out in your communities? Have you ever met him?

He is a carpetbagger from the North, only here to suck out the profit until there is nothing left. History indeed does repeat itself.

One of the saddest things in Silverman's piece was his claim that his staff is the best in Tennessee. Not even close. It has lost too many good and talented journalists for that to be true, and that number does NOT include me. Columnists are a dime a dozen. How many names do you still recognize in the newspaper?

The best newspaper staff is the News-Sentinel in Knoxville. The best group of journalists in Tennessee are at NewsChannel 5 here in Nashville.

The bottom line to all of Silverman's silliness to distract from the obvious is this: he did not quote any newspaper subscriber numbers. They are disastrous. GM execs are making the same contention about their company, while sales were down 53% in February. The American people are not stupid. Neither are Tennesseans. They buy with common sense. They can smell a phony a mile away.

A good newspaper with enough fight and staff to make a difference in people's lives used to be something every community needed and every journalist wanted to work for.

Now, as Silverman writes, The Tennessean is viable because it makes a profit.

But, folks, it has no soul.

I am so blessed that I am no longer part of the walking dead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wish you'd been around when John Seigenthaler was running things. There was newspaper excitement back then. Dru