Tom Jones and Virginia McLean are making the Riverfront Development Corporation irrelevant.
Jones is the cofounder and main writer for the Smart City Memphis blog (smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com). McLean is the founder and chief activist of the nonprofit Friends for our Riverfront (friendsforourriverfront.org).
They are often on opposite sides of riverfront issues, including the proposed $29 million Beale Street Landing. Jones has emerged as its most articulate and well-informed defender. McLean, equally hip to the latest ideas and trends in parks and cities, is the RDC's most passionate and dogged critic.
Both of them run on shoestring budgets and receive no money from local government or the RDC. Jones, a former newspaper reporter, was a spokesman and policy-maker for Shelby County government for some 25 years. McLean is an heir to the Overton family that was one of the founders of Memphis.
Their websites are timely and frequently updated, and they have become bulletin boards for unusually thoughtful comments, speaker listings, and even occasional news items. When a state official weighed in on Beale Street Landing this month and delayed the project, Jones and McLean were ahead of most if not all of the news pack spreading the word and collecting different points of view.
The RDC, in contrast, often seems muscle-bound. Created six years ago to focus public and private resources and cut red tape, it has a staff of former city division directors and City Hall cronies making six-figure salaries. It also has a blue-chip board of directors including public officials and downtown bigwigs. And it is consistently outhustled, outsmarted, and outmaneuvered by Jones and McLean and their helpers.
While Jones and McLean embrace the Internet and rough-and-tumble debate in real time, the RDC's website is outdated and trite. "Steal away to a day's vacation in the city's front yard," says the home page. "Nowhere else can you feel the rush of the Mighty Mississippi as its breeze flows through your hair and its sunsets warm your soul." The most recent "news" is a June 12th press release and a year-old item about the Tom Lee Park memorial. The description of the master plan still includes the aborted land bridge to Mud Island and pegs the total public cost at a staggering $292 million, which "will spur $1.3 billion in private investment in real estate alone" and bring "a minimum" of 21,000 new jobs and 3,400 new residential units to downtown.
Meanwhile, Jones and McLean are slugging away about the latest delays to Beale Street Landing and the next meeting of the Shelby County Commission. Within the last year, each of them helped bring national experts to Memphis for well-attended discussions of parks and citizen activism. The RDC, meanwhile, made a by-the-numbers Power Point presentation to the Memphis City Council aimed at justifying its own existence as much as informing public officials.
The RDC is not without is success stories. Its park maintenance is exemplary. Its concert series and improvements at Mud Island have made the park more attractive. Its structure involves business leaders and nonprofits in a way that government cannot, although the group's standard claim that it saves money is difficult to prove.
But the riverfront — Tom Lee Park in particular — often seems antiseptic and sterile, like a set-piece instead of a true park. On Sunday afternoon, for example, hundreds of people came to Overton Park in Midtown to beat on drums, whack golf balls, ride bikes, pick up trash, have picnics, toss balls, exercise dogs, visit art galleries, stroll babies, and do whatever. Midtown has no development authority, but funky Overton Park is surrounded by neighborhoods that feel invested in it.
Beale Street Landing looks more and more like a bet-the-company deal for the RDC. Without a big project — the land bridge (aborted), the promenade (still stalled), the relocation of the University of Memphis law school (coming soon) — why not turn its duties back over to a reenergized park commission and city administration? The Memphis riverfront, from The Pyramid to Mud Island to the trolley to proposed Beale Street Landing, doesn't lack for big investments. It lacks vitality, a decent public boat launch, walkable cobblestones, a skate park or something fun to watch, a working fountain next to the Cossitt Library, and enough shade and sprinklers to give tourists a fighting chance against the heat.
If those things happen, it will be because of citizens like Jones and McLean and their readers as much as the RDC.
Those words appeared in tiny type above a small Boyle Investment Company logo and a collection of short news items about commercial real estate in the Sunday business section of The Commercial Appeal two weeks ago. The column is called "Done Deals." Many readers probably paid little or no attention to the sponsorship. But the issue of sponsored news, or "monetizing content" as the CA calls it, is sending a shock wave through the newsroom at 495 Union.
Sources at the CA say sponsorship of an upcoming series of stories about Memphis and world business was scratched after the writer, editor, and other reporters objected. A staff meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, October 17th.
The reporter, Trevor Aaronson, and the editor, Louis Graham, declined to comment. Flyer sources said as many as 50 newsroom employees signed a petition expressing their concerns about sponsored stories. The story is about business in China and was to be sponsored by FedEx.
CA editor Chris Peck declined to comment about the FedEx sponsorship or the series, which has not yet been published. He did comment about "Done Deals" and the general issue of sponsored news.
"The Commercial Appeal, like most newspapers these days, is looking for ways to monetize content," Peck wrote in an e-mail. "This is part of the new business model that will support journalism in the future. The Web is way ahead of newspapers on this. Online, many ads already are linked directly to particular content."
Peck said there was no expectation by Boyle or the CA that the sponsorship would influence content. "Advertisers clearly understand the value of having their paid messages associated with independently reported, relevant content," Peck wrote. Some newsroom employees apparently do not share that view.
Flyer sources say Peck, Graham, and Aaronson had what is sometimes called a "frank exchange of views" about the proposed sponsorship of Aaronson's series, which involved considerable investment in time and travel expenses by the newspaper. Representatives of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and resource center in Florida, were called in.
"Two of us on the Poynter faculty, myself and Butch Ward, have had telephone conversations with individuals at The Commercial Appeal," said Bob Steele of Poynter. "We play this role as a guide on ethics issues hundreds of times every year."
Poynter's input was confidential, Steele said. Flyer sources say Poynter sided with the employees who objected.
Three weeks ago Peck and Rob Jiranek, vice president of sales and strategic planning, sent employees a three-page letter on "monetizing content guidelines." The main message was that "we are in a new world of newspaper survival" and looking for ways to "attach ads in print and online to specific stories, features, and sections." The memo said "no longer are there thick, impenetrable walls between the newsroom, advertising, and circulation departments."
"Survival" apparently means big profits. The Commercial Appeal is owned by E.W. Scripps, a publicly traded media company based in Cincinnati. In 2006, its newspaper division, with papers in 17 markets, earned $196 million on revenue of $717 million, for a profit margin of 27 percent. The CA's share of that was not disclosed. On Tuesday, Scripps announced that it is splitting into two separate companies, one focused on lifestyle media, such as HGTV, and the other on local newspapers and television stations.
"The proposed separation is not expected to have a material effect on the day-to-day lives of employees," the company said.
Sponsorship is a relatively new wrinkle in a murky area that includes "special sponsored sections and advertorials," or text-heavy advertisements that look like news stories. Such sections have long been a staple of business at the Flyer, Memphis magazine, and national publications. Targeted ad placement, where an ad appears near or next to a particular story or type of story, is also commonplace.
But most newspapers maintain separate advertising and editorial staffs. That is sometimes referred to as a mythical "10-foot wall." Advertisers, of course, are free to complain about sensitive stories, and they sometimes withdraw ads. Sponsorship of specific news reports goes back at least to the 1950s when Gillette and Camel cigarettes were big on sports. The Philadelphia Inquirer has a business feature sponsored by a bank.
Most reporters, however, are comfortable with their employer being sponsored by a collection of advertisers but not their specific reports or stories. Many newspapers, including the CA and the Flyer, are quite strict about what perks their reporters can accept. Bob Levey, a former columnist for The Washington Post who holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at The University of Memphis, said, "News columns should never be for sale or for lease."
There is always a grain if not a rock of truth in everything Mayor Willie Herenton says, no matter how unpopular. He's right about this: If you are going to stay in Memphis for a while — and not everyone is — then you will have to look at things differently.
Last week, I became a big fan of the Memphis NAACP. They lost but they looked good doing it, and they showed class. No organization or individual had more reasons to be partisan in last week's election. The NAACP was co-plaintiff in the 1991 lawsuit that abolished mayoral runoffs. Not one but two favorite sons were in the race for mayor: Herenton, a trailblazer since he was a school principal in the 1970s, and Herman Morris, NAACP chairman from 1992 to 2000. Both are black. Carol Chumney isn't.
But the NAACP's election-day efforts were all about turnout, not any particular candidate. They lost only in the sense that turnout in the 54 precincts they targeted was not as good as they hoped it would be. In fact, it was dismal — 38 percent overall and in the teens in some target precincts.
Spartan simplicity is not always the rule at local nonprofits, but it is at the NAACP. Their little office on Vance is right across from the Cleaborn Homes housing project. On a day of excess, partisanship, and pack journalism, what better place for a reporter to view the election than a place with no cameras, no candidate signs or leaflets allowed, no bar, and no buffet? And no big screen. The only television was a 12-inch model with an antenna. Lean too close to read the numbers, and it stuck you in the eye. Move it, and you messed up the picture.
Beneath portraits of local NAACP heroes Maxine Smith, Vasco Smith, Benjamin Hooks, and Jesse Turner, volunteers worked on three clunky Compaq computers that were probably rejected by E-Cycle Management. Others worked the phones, reading from a printed script ("We're calling on behalf of the Memphis branch NAACP to encourage you to vote today for the candidate of your choice") and offering a ride to the polls. Forget public-service announcements and editorials; in the trenches, turnout means one vote at a time.
By mid-afternoon, the numbers coming in were not good. Wearing a yellow T-shirt that said "Lift Every Voice and Vote," NAACP executive secretary Johnnie Turner looked worried. With five hours to go until the polls closed, nearly every precinct was hundreds of votes short of its turnout goal.
"Last year, we made almost all of our goals, but the way this is looking, people are not turning out," said Turner, who has run the Voter Empowerment Project since 2000.
She was writing down numbers and doing the arithmetic, which was considerable. The goal was a 5 percent increase in each precinct. The 1999 election was chosen as the benchmark because the 2003 election was a Herenton blowout with a 23.7 percent turnout. That bar was too low. Or so Turner thought. Now, Asbury, Alcy, Glenview, Gaston — site after site — wasn't coming close to the 1999 turnout, much less the hoped-for increase.
"We'll have to regroup," Turner said. "This election has been strange. I started to say divisive, but maybe it's kind of polarized. Anytime the community sees discord, they take the attitude 'I don't want to be part of this mess.'"
When I went out to eat, I got to watch my first live shooting in a while. At Cleaborn Homes, a young man in a white T-shirt was running between the buildings. Another man with a pistol was chasing him and firing several shots from about 30 feet away, all of which missed. A minute later, the guy who'd been shot at walked past my car with the nonchalance of someone who had just missed getting sprayed with a water hose.
When I came back, Turner had made an executive decision. The original goal had been "overly ambitious." The new goal would be the 2003 turnout plus 7 percent. In effect, the former teacher was lowering the grading curve.
"Now this is more like it," Turner said as the polls closed and new numbers came in. "We're going to make it." As it turned out, however, the 1999 standard may have been unattainable, but it was not unrealistic. The overall turnout for the election was higher — more than 165,000 voters last week compared to 163,259 in 1999.
At 9 o'clock, when the first returns showed Herenton far ahead and Morris in third place, there was no cheering at the NAACP. And no booing. Soon after that, everyone left, except Turner and a few others.
Nice effort, I said on the way out. "Yes," she said. "Honest." And it was.
"My fellow Memphians:
"In the aftermath of my historic victory, I look forward to the challenges (insurmountable though they are) of being your mayor (even though most of you didn't vote for me and some of you can't stand me).
"As a compassionate and forgiving leader, my first order of business is burying the hatchet (in my opponents' heads, ha-ha!) and extending the hand (knife) of friendship (vengeance) to my worthy (pitiful) opponents. In the heat of a political campaign, we sometimes (repeatedly) say things we don't really mean (but they sure get out the vote). If my words have offended anyone (King Willie, Boy, Carol the Cranky), I sincerely apologize for suggesting my opponents were unfit for this high office (on drugs, corrupt, a traitor to his race, a social misfit).
"In the coming weeks and months, we must put our differences aside (never in a million years) and work together for the common good (once I figure out what that is).
"The city of Memphis is known throughout the country and the world for its unique attributes (bankruptcy capital, foreclosure capital, tops in violent crime). Indeed, these days one can hardly read a newspaper or watch a television report without learning something new and exciting about our fair city (that makes you cringe). There is nothing like a mayoral campaign to stir the fresh breezes (invective) of open debate (minus the incumbent) and healthy discussion (anonymous slander and spin) that will cleanse (pollute) our great city.
"Now the honeymoon is over (it never began). It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work (find a good real estate agent).
"Allow me to outline some of the challenges we face. After I am sworn in as your mayor in January, I plan to hit the ground running (to my suite at FedExForum).
"Our city's economy is strong (perilous) and our municipal bond rating is admirably high (thanks to the highest property taxes in the state). There will always be doomsayers, but if home foreclosures stay within manageable levels (don't become as common as political yard signs), then we can expect (hope for) stable revenues in 2008. Our city is growing (thanks to annexation), and, if the (lame-duck) City Council acts, our population will exceed 700,000 after the residents of southeast Shelby County and students at Southwind High School become proud Memphians (kicking and screaming).
"As I said during the campaign, I will restore integrity and a high standard of service to Memphis Light Gas & Water (as soon as I figure out who to appoint as CEO and the board of directors in the wake of the Joseph Lee debacle). With new leadership (pray for warm weather), our citizens can take pride in getting monthly utility bills that are accurate and cost-efficient (even higher than last winter) despite the uncertainties of the markets for oil ($80 a barrel headed to $100), natural gas (a crapshoot), and power from TVA, which has promised to hold its increase to single digits (9 percent).
"I will work tirelessly with the members of the Memphis City Council, which has had considerable turnover (it's about time) and an infusion of fresh faces eager to improve our city (make a name for themselves) and lay aside racial divisions (until the first tough vote).
"If we have learned anything in the last four years, it is the futility (inevitability) of racially divisive comments and the importance of working together (to screw our enemies and solidify our base).
"Nothing is more important than the education of our children, including the 115,000 students in the Memphis City Schools (poor things). As I said during the campaign, as your mayor I will do everything I can to improve public education (which is almost nothing) and will work closely with the superintendent (as soon as a new one is chosen by the school board). Rest assured that your tax dollars that support public education will be closely monitored (increased in order to pay for $450 million in long-term facilities upgrades).
"What exciting (scary) times these are! I can't wait to get to work (on a stiff drink)."