Thursday, December 18, 2003

So Long, White Men in Suits

Pets, parties, and pandas often trump politicians in brave new world of newspapers.

Posted by on Thu, Dec 18, 2003 at 4:00 AM

A reporter at The Commercial Appeal says the joke going around is that if you get an e-mail from editor Chris Peck asking "Got a minute?" the right answer is "No."

Since taking over a year ago, Peck has been redefining "news" and getting rid of some dead wood as well as some pretty good wood in the newsroom. Among the latest to leave is editorial page editor David Kushma, hired in 1997 by Peck's predecessor, Angus McEachran. The lone holdover of the four names that appeared on the CA masthead last year is managing editor Otis Sanford.

Other departures within the last year include Nashville capitol bureau reporter Paula Wade, Jackson, Mississippi, capitol bureau reporter Reed Branson, and local political columnist Susan Adler Thorp. None was replaced. The largest newspaper in the Mid-South has one full-time political writer (Rick Locker in Nashville) covering Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Not long ago, there were five. More veteran reporters are on the way out.

Peck and Kushma declined to talk to us about each other or personnel changes, but Peck and two other editors gave a long and revealing interview to the Flyer's Mary Cashiola a few weeks ago. The full impact of Peck & Company's community journalism will be clearer next year after the new community sections come out.

For perspective, remember that The Commercial Appeal has been owned by the E.W. Scripps Company since 1936, and its forerunners were around for nearly 100 years before that. Whatever happens in a year or two, however drastic it may seem, should be looked at in that context. The trend is what matters.

Old newspapers in Memphis and anywhere else look as dated as old cars and old clothes. They're all black and white and crammed with too many headlines and too much small type. The content of the front page and the other main news pages was defined by what white men in suits did.

Twenty-five or 30 years ago, if a group of white men in suits met in a room in a state office building or a government building in Memphis and a wire service or newspaper reporter covered it, then chances are it was news. No matter how boring. Take it or leave it. White men in suits ran government, Cotton Carnival, Future Memphis, and the Chamber of Commerce. White men in suits met in a news meeting and decided what to put in the papers and in their editorials because, by God, some other white men in suits had held a meeting. Television stations took their cues from newspapers and wire services, and white men in suits on CBS, NBC, and ABC gave you the news.

Blacks and women got their say. White men in suits got their way. A little more than 20 years ago, a story about the Mississippi legislature contemplating a change in truck-weight limits from 72,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds could still make the front page of the two Memphis daily papers. You can look it up. I know because I wrote it.

And for a long time the money flowed from Memphis into the Scripps home office in Cincinnati as profitably and predictably as it now flows from Tunica casinos to Las Vegas. Maybe more. Documents found by the Flyer during a 1992 lawsuit showed that the CA was milking a profit margin of 36 percent in the late Eighties.

Those days are over. Circulation that once topped 200,000 is now below 150,000 some days. Scripps gets 44 percent of its revenues from newspapers, down from 53 percent in 1998. Television and lifestyle programs like HGTV are the company's future.

If the rules of journalism were written in stone, this newspaper and other weekly alternative newspapers wouldn't exist. We should be the last ones to criticize change. It will take a couple more years to tell whether community journalism in the CA and other dailies is a good thing or a bad thing. One key indicator will be whether they can attract and hold good reporters and news editors at the same time they're increasing coverage of pandas, pets, sports, and parties. If not, then it really will be a sad day because a monopoly daily newspaper is still a uniquely influential franchise.

But until the shakedown period is over, ranting against community journalism is as hasty and pointless as ranting against the hundreds of offerings on cable. The audience and advertisers rule. Daily papers and white men in suits lost their grip on the business a long time ago. Their view of the world and how that view should be presented is not now and never was, as one of their number famously used to say, the way it is.

Friday, December 12, 2003

The Case for Letting Go

For political veterans like Pat Vander Schaaf, longevity means ups and downs.

Posted by on Fri, Dec 12, 2003 at 4:00 AM

On the big stage, Al Gore has endorsed Howard Dean for president. The Democratic Party establishment candidate of 2000 likes the antiestablishment candidate for 2004, but Tim Russert and the analysts say he may just be looking ahead to 2008.

Gore can't get let go of this president thing.

On the small stage, City Councilwoman-elect Carol Chumney can't let go of her old job in the Tennessee General Assembly. As my colleague Jackson Baker has reported, she's determined to appoint an interim successor who will serve less than two months.

Meanwhile, two candidates are vying to replace her in a runoff election this week. One says her opponent doesn't live in the district. The other says his opponent hasn't even lived in Memphis much for many years. More accurately, their professional handlers in the state Senate are trading these charges. Along with the Shelby County Commission, which also decided to butt in this week, they can't resist micromanaging an election that, if history is an indicator, will attract about 10 percent of the eligible voters.

Politics becomes more and more like rotisserie baseball, an arcane game played by experts and fanatics but of little or no interest to the majority. A recent school board runoff election in Memphis actually attracted a turnout of 4 percent.

Politicians who can't let go should consider the case of Pat Vander Schaaf.

Vander Schaaf has served on the Memphis City Council longer than anyone in history. On December 16th, she will attend her last meeting as a voting member, having been beaten soundly this fall by Scott McCormick.

She was appointed to the council in 1975, completing the unexpired term of one of the founding members, Gwen Awsumb, in what was quaintly known at the time as the de facto woman's seat. It would be eight more years before she had a female colleague.

Gerald Ford was president. Wyeth Chandler was mayor. Willie Herenton had just been named deputy school superintendent. Elvis was alive.

Eleven council members who later ran for Memphis mayor (none successfully) were elected after her. Vander Schaaf herself ran for mayor in 1982, getting 3 percent of the vote against Dick Hackett, J.O. Patterson Jr., and Mike Cody. She has served with all but seven of the people who have been on the City Council since it was invented.

In other words, Pat Vander Schaaf was in politics a long, long time and possibly too long. Politics obviously has its rewards, but for veterans like Vander Schaaf it's a mixed bag. Thirty years is time enough for plenty of ups and downs, and if you're a public official, the downs sometimes make the news, as was Vander Schaaf's case.

Early in her career, her future seemed as bright as her red hair. Along with her ex-husband, former Shelby County commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf, she created and built Davies Plantation, still one of the best-looking and environmentally sensitive suburban developments in Shelby County.

She was a big-hearted champion of senior citizens, the downtrodden, and stray animals. Last week, she was calling council staffers trying to find a home for a lost dog.

"It's a bittersweet end, but when you look back, although she had some personal ups and downs she never strayed the course one bit," said Hackett, who knows a little about painful election losses himself. "She probably wasn't given credit for all she did for St. Jude and downtown development as a whole. You'll never find Pat on any issue I recall standing up looking for credit for what she's done."

On Tuesday, her colleague John Vergos will also attend his last meeting. He is retiring after serving eight years. Which ending would you choose?

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

Thursday, December 4, 2003

Fees, Fees, and More Fees

Mayor Herenton puts MLGW's request for a rate hike in context of other tax increases.

Posted by on Thu, Dec 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

We're doing great, says MLGW.

You can do better, says Mayor Willie Herenton, and you're not the only one with budget problems.

The city is also in "critical need" of a sewer rate increase next year and faces "a very real probability" of a property-tax increase of 25 to 35 cents in fiscal year 2006. Depending on how the economy does, the city might even need a 10 cent increase next year (about $2 a month for a $100,000 home). In light of that, Herenton asked MLGW and the Memphis City Council to consider delaying part of the utility's requested 7 percent rate hike for another year.

The proposed sewer rate increase, the first in 22 years, would raise the average residential sewer bill by $2.17 a month. Rather than present it separately, Herenton put it in context with property taxes and utility fees in a personal presentation to the City Council Tuesday.

It was Herenton's first specific warning of a property-tax hike during his upcoming fourth mayoral term. He apparently decided to lay out all his cards while the council was examining MLGW's budget and getting the public stirred up about their utility bills.

While it may be a monopoly, MLGW would like to be seen as both more compassionate and efficient than those corporate monoliths in the Internet, cable television, and telephone sectors which raise rates whenever they feel like it.

Your hometown utility wants to be your trusted friend.

MLGW took out a full-page newspaper ad and President Herman Morris wrote an opinion column for The Commercial Appeal's Sunday editorial page. The average residential customer increase, it was helpfully noted, was projected at $10.35 a month, or 35 cents a day, or less than the cost of a postage stamp.

The mayor, noting a number of service complaints, was not entirely sold or, according to aides, appreciative of Morris for pressing ahead.

In addition to his comprehensive look at taxes and fees, Herenton presented plans for a call center for city government and its affiliated agencies. FedEx will lend its expertise.

If the mayor gets his way, MLGW will get a rate increase but not all at once. The utility has proposed the 7 percent general rate increase to compensate for increased costs of anti-terrorism measures and the extraordinary costs of the summer wind storm -- not all of which have been reimbursed by the federal government.

Political decisions have also raised MLGW's costs. One year ago, City Council members, not wanting to play Scrooge, ordered the utility to defer winter cutoffs and reduce home deposits and reconnection fees to assist cash-strapped customers. MLGW says the measures, coupled with other programs to help the poor, cost $9 million a year.

Two years ago, city officials agreed to finance $30 million worth of bonds for the FedExForum with MLGW's annual $2.5 million payment in lieu of taxes from the water division. Otherwise, that money could have been used to lower rates or offset costs.

The last time the utility raised its water rates was in 1995. Gas and electricity have been steady since 1993. There were small rate reductions in 1998-2000.

In a letter to council members last week, Herenton said MLGW appears to spend an unnecessary sum on advertising even though it is a monopoly and has invested $30 million in an automated billing system he says has problems.

The call center is in part a response to growing concerns about customer-service complaints regarding MLGW that got worse after the July wind storm. Herenton is well-attuned to citizen complaints from community and business leaders. Like most Memphians, he lost power himself for days after the storm. The mayor appoints Morris and the five MLGW board members, including the mayor's pastor, the Rev. James Netters of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, and his longtime political supporters CME Bishop William Graves and minority business consultant Franketta Guinn; television executive Olin Morris; and businessman L.R. Jalenak.

They oversee an operation with 2,800 employees, nearly 400,000 customers, a $250 million annual operating budget, and a $112 million capital-improvements budget. Utility financing is a complex entity in itself. MLGW uses 12 percent of TVA's total electrical output. Earlier this year, MLGW struck an agreement to prepurchase $1.5 billion worth of electricity, a move the utility says will save it $15 million a year for 15 years.

All in all, a lot of numbers to digest, but Herenton decided that citizens deserve to see them all at once and prepare for the worst.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

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