In last Sunday's Commercial Appeal, the front page was dominated by a picture of Memphis Tiger football players Jason Johnson and Darron White celebrating a touchdown against Cincinnati. With the picture, the CA literally put on a happy face. If you're a regular CA reader, you may have noticed that happening a lot lately.
There are bigger pictures and more feature stories, a new columnist, a deluge of reader input, a daily story about a local zip code area, and coming soon: new reader-based community sections. And, as was announced earlier this month, eight newsroom employees will be leaving under a voluntary early-retirement offer.
All part of the plan.
"We can't assume that doing the same thing we've been doing is going to build readership," says editor Chris Peck. "We have to say to ourselves, 'What can we do to put out a paper every day that reflects the interests and the hopes and the dreams and the concerns of the people we're trying to reach?' You're going to see changes in the paper regularly that are addressing those concerns."
Peck officially replaced Angus McEachran as the editor of The Commercial Appeal in January. When the gruff McEachran announced his retirement last year, a representative of E.W. Scripps Co., the CA's parent company, told the Flyer the company wanted an editor with a strong sense of community leadership and someone who would make the paper a vehicle to confront the city's challenges. Scripps has apparently found such an editor in Peck.
His national reputation was as a community journalism advocate, someone who confronted racism while editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and who held public forums for citizens to talk about issues, even if that issue was how his newspaper had covered a particular topic.
After a stint in Dallas as the Belo Distinguished Chair of Journalism at Southern Methodist University, Peck came to Memphis as essentially a hot-shot hire, a man brought in to shake things up, starting with the paper's core mission. Peck began by interviewing individual staff members and making a few superficial changes, but in recent months the paper has undergone a major change in attitude and focus: The CA wants to be your friend.
Along with CA managing editor Otis Sanford and assistant managing editor Leanne Kleinmann, Peck has spent the last few months developing what he calls "a blueprint for the 21st-century Commercial Appeal newsroom." The plans include targeting new readers such as African Americans and Gen Y-ers, using separate front pages for suburban and city editions, and actively interacting with readers.
Peck, a tall man with a toothbrush mustache, agreed to an interview with the Flyer earlier this month and, citing the paper's new team-based approach, asked Sanford and Kleinmann to join in.
"In 2000, the most comprehensive survey ever done about the concept related to community journalism was undertaken by the Pew Center ... and they asked the editors what was the number-one most important thing you must do," says Peck. "Without exception --large papers, small papers, urban papers -- the answer was 'become more engaged with the readers of the paper.' Really that sense of engagement is what came out of the whole civic journalism movement."
Civic journalism started more than 10 years ago and has been called many things: community journalism, citizen journalism, public journalism. The basic idea is that newspapers are in a unique position to inform and engage. Instead of simply reporting the news and the questions that may arise from it, a newspaper should help facilitate answers.
Leonard Witt is the president of the Public Journalism Network, an organization founded in January in anticipation of the closing of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, a backer of many public journalism projects and studies.
"We see our audience as citizens and not as consumers," says Witt. "We want to help citizens become better informed about political bodies and important issues. ... The key goal is to have an informed citizenry. The more informed people are, the better the decisions they make."
For Witt, one of the main benefits of public journalism is giving citizens more access to journalists on a continuous basis. "The experts have said, 'Well, we can't have that. We can't have citizens dictating what we write about.' We never said the readers would dictate; we just want the avenues open to provide citizens with information and allow them to help set the agenda," says Witt. "I was a journalist for 25 years and my friends helped me set the agenda when they came up with story ideas. My wife helped me set the agenda. The fact that I was middle-class helped set the agenda. ... Where does a single, poor mom help set the agenda?"
While the paper may have the power to launch a community-wide discussion, not everyone is sure that generates an ideal solution. Allan Wolper, in a column for Editor & Publisher magazine this spring, called the movement "reach-out-and-touch-someone programs that it calls good journalism."
"What this approach often does is establish connections to those who want to retain their power, rather than to those who need to be empowered to improve their lives," wrote Wolper.
And there are other detractors who say its methods and message don't jibe with the core values of journalism. Slate.com's Jack Shafer called it "do-gooder journalism" and said "it's more a New Age exercise in 'empowerment' than it is news-gathering; recasting reporters as mediators or public therapists guiding the citizenry on their happy path to storybook consensus and closure."
The CA's thrust for community involvement has manifested itself in over-the-top enthusiasm for pandas, daily solicitations for readers' input (including cute pet names and cute kid malaprops), and pictures the paper hopes people will hang on their refrigerators.
After Amber Cox-Cody died in a day-care van in late June, the CA started what it called "Amber's Army." The paper solicited public opinion and held a public forum (with its news partner, WREG-TV Channel 3) aimed at finding solutions. The paper then covered and reported on the forum. It may be the very definition of "do-gooder journalism," but for Peck, something like Amber's Army is the most important thing the paper can do.
"It's not that we have an answer for everything; we don't," says Peck. "[The Commercial Appeal] reaches more households than any other media by far. So we have to say, 'Okay, you have a place you can come and talk about and sort through the problems and issues that we have in Memphis. To me, it's a very deeply felt sense of purpose."
The CA now has a database of those people who want to get involved and is in the process of letting them know about volunteer opportunities and what they can do.
Not everybody agreed with the paper's actions, however. Former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis, in a viewpoint published by the CA in August, argued that the public should be the ones leading the charge for change, not the media.
"Something is amiss," she wrote, "when you create the story, participate in it, report your deeds, and then congratulate yourself for being a team player. It is hard to report objectively on a team effort if you are part of the team."
Coleman-Davis also argued that the newspaper's power would make it difficult for anyone to challenge the paper if it took on a crusade that had a hidden agenda. Even for this story, in fact, people were wary of talking about the paper for fear of offending it.
Other issues also arise: After the day-care van monitor, van driver, and the assistant director of the Children's Rainbow Learning Center were charged with first-degree murder in Amber's death, there was speculation in legal circles that the severity of the charge was connected to the case's media coverage.
One of the biggest local news stories of the year was the long-awaited arrival of pandas Ya Ya and Le Le to the Memphis Zoo. The CA created congratulatory bumper stickers and Sunday paper bags with panda pictures and the words "Now this is news" printed on them. In conjunction with the marketing campaign, the CA ran almost 60 stories that mentioned Ya Ya and Le Le in April -- 17,000 words about what the pandas meant for Memphis, what their lair was like, what they ate, how many people saw them the first day, how the zoo was going to study them, how FedEx was going to transport them, and how to get your tickets.
"We did that deliberately," says Kleinmann. "Part of it is when you send reporters to China, you get better stories than if they were on the phone. ... It was pretty clear to us -- around the frenzy that was the pandas -- that people, not just the zoo people, not just the intelligent people, not just the people with kids who dig pandas -- care about the pandas."
It was a legitimate coup for Memphis to get the animals from the Chinese government and certainly a major local story. But was the "frenzy" about the pandas driving the CA's coverage, or was the paper's coverage driving the frenzy? Was the CA "part of the team" it was reporting on?
Every possible angle -- with the exception of panda overkill -- was covered and covered again. The paper did a story about a group of elementary school children that got the first preview of the pandas ("One of 'em ate and slept on a big rock," a child was quoted as saying) and then ran a story the very next day about another group of school children seeing the pandas for the first time ("Wow" was a quote from that story).
Peck counters that the paper had a moderate number of reporters on the panda story and that the CA's coverage of other issues wasn't affected. His reporters were working on stories about school cheating, surveying local teachers about high-stakes testing, and University of Memphis basketball. "I think pandas fell into the category that they're a cool thing for Memphis and let's do some reporting on it as part of a much larger perspective," he says.
In some ways, the CA doesn't seem to want to influence the community as much as it wants the community to influence it. In February, the paper wanted to know if you were concerned about a local terrorist threat and if you agreed with its list of the top five NBA players. In March, it asked for your spam stories: how you've dealt with junk e-mails. Then came questions such as: "What keeps kids happy on the road?" "Tell us, pet owners, added any creature comforts?" And "Is your dream now a reality?" Most recently, the paper wanted to know what you're thankful for and how your second marriage is working (or didn't work) out.
The more personal questions -- such as "Does a family member have you in a huff?" -- are reminiscent of afternoon television talk shows (even that genre's popular makeover episodes found a way into the paper on Mother's and Father's Day). The sports, news, and media-based questions sound like subjects for a radio talk show.
"It's engaging the readers," says managing editor Sanford, "and I can't think of any better mechanism for a newspaper than to engage readers, whether we're talking about sports, television, politics, or education. ... We want readers to say, 'That's my newspaper. I have something to say.' If it's credible, it will be in the newspaper."
The CA brain-trust team says the reader comments simply supplement what the in-house experts write. It's a part of their "how many people do you know in the newspaper?" push, says Kleinmann.
"As long as we're not losing [TV critic] Tom [Walter] and we're not losing the expertise that he brings and his reporting to the paper, this is another dimension," says Kleinmann. "Especially for people who don't read the newspaper very closely or for people who care a whole bunch about these TV shows, it's helpful to know that Joe Germantown has seen them."
The zip code project and the new community sections (scheduled to be launched in January with a bulk of reader-submitted material)have a similar neighborly challenge. Ads for the new community sections tout: "It's all about you."
"For so long our idea was: Get the news and put it into the paper," says Kleinmann. "The fact is, that doesn't give you much of an idea of what you're looking for. Some readers like that approach, but some readers want to know about their place."
"Zip codes are an easy marker," says Dr. Sandra Utt, an associate professor in the journalism department at the University of Memphis. "They're a way for people to get involved. You know that when they do your zip code, you're going to read it."
Utt says she's not sure local readers have noticed the changes but says she and others with journalism backgrounds see a huge difference in how stories are played. She cites a recent instance where a woman's body was found near the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.
"I heard about it from colleagues here who had watched the 10 o'clock news, but it wasn't on the front page. I'd think that would be a big deal if there were body parts on the bridge," she says. "Instead it's all about zip codes and touchy-feely things."
"I think what's happening is they're trying to at least maintain their circulation, and this is one of the things they hear in focus groups: People say the news is always bad," says Utt.
Mary Nesbitt is the managing director of the Readership Institute, which is affiliated with Northwestern University's Media Management Center, begun as an initiative to determine if -- and how -- the 30-year decline in American newspaper readership could be reversed. It's no longer a matter of "if you publish it, they will come," she says, but adds that there are things papers can do to boost circulation.
"Today, just over half of the adult population reports that they read a newspaper yesterday. That number was closer to 80 percent 30 years ago," says Nesbitt. "The challenge for newspapers is to offer their audience something that is unique and relevant to their interests and needs."
In April 2001, the Readership Institute released a report, "The Power to Grow Readership," which listed eight imperatives for gaining and expanding quality readership. These included better customer service, in-paper promotion, and an emphasis on certain content: intensely local, people-oriented news; lifestyle news; and global relations.
"If a reader spends more minutes with the newspaper or picks it up more often or reads more parts of it, he or she is better informed and more connected to the information source. There is a greater likelihood that she or he will be exposed to and act on advertising content," reads the report.
Nesbitt expects the CA's upcoming Thursday and Sunday community sections to be focused on connecting with readers. "I imagine that the newspaper will be looking for a wide representation of 'people I know' and 'people like me,' because their approach in effect invites people to define their news rather than have professional journalists impose their standard of news," she says.
Peck cites the CA's "How We Met" features, a series of stories on local couples, as a good example of getting new readers to the paper. "I think, if you're young and you're at that time in your life when you're thinking about who am I going to meet and how am I going to fall in love, seeing that story would just give you one small reason to say, I saw something in The Commercial Appeal today that interested me," says Peck. "And if I have that, if I have that hook where I can say there's something that a young person might read, then I think there's a much better chance that they're going to turn the page." His idea is to look for a hook -- whether it's a fun story that interests the reader or the name and face of someone they know -- into the rest of the paper.
According to circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, from October 2002 to March 31, 2003, the CA's total average paid circulation for Sunday was 239,709. That was up about 5,000 copies from April through September 2002. During that same period, home delivery of the Sunday paper increased by about 6,000 copies, while single sales dropped by about 2,500.
"Our resources need to be focused very much on our understanding of what's going on in Greater Memphis, and we need to do that in a way where people do see themselves in the paper," says Peck, "because that's where newspapers have gotten off. Where they have gotten into trouble is where people pick up the paper and they say, Gee, well, you know, I don't see people like me in the paper. I don't see anybody here who understands the life that I'm living."
A similar push is on at Gannett papers, where an initiative called "Real Life, Real News" has been developed on the theory that local news should be the newspaper's franchise.
There are those who see the tactic as pandering for circulation numbers, but Nesbitt says, "Newspapers have always had to rely on an audience to exist. I've learned that it's not scary to listen to readers and understand what they want and need. And in fact much of what they want, expect, or need from newspapers isn't that far off what journalists value."
The changes are far from over. Earlier this month, the CA announced a voluntary early-retirement offer for eight newsroom employees to free up the resources needed to staff the new community sections. With those veteran employees gone (as well as former writers such as Susan Adler Thorp, Reed Branson, and Paula Wade, who have left in the last year or so) and new ones hired, the CA will truly be Peck's paper.
Memphis Newspaper Guild president Mark Watson says that last year's layoffs -- done by a ranking system -- were worse. "People are getting some money out of the deal and they have some choice in the matter, so that's a good thing," he says. "It's better than it was last year, but there's a considerable amount of nervousness about what's going to happen in the future, particularly after the first of the year when we launch the community sections."
After the community sections are launched in January, the CA itself will be redesigned. "Playbook," the paper's Friday entertainment supplement, will also be redesigned as the paper tries to make it more relevant for younger readers. "We have a big, long list of things we're going to work on," says Peck, "but there's a purposeful way we're going to try to go about it. We're going to build around the idea of being more connected to our community."
And for those who think this new community-oriented paper will be more scrapbook than required reading, Peck says that's not so.
"The idea that you're trying to connect with a community and explain what you do, that doesn't mean you're not still a journalist," says Peck. "Every community needs a stable fixture to look into things that are unclear, to point out things that aren't right, to find examples where people are confused, and we're still doing that. We're still doing that.
"But don't confuse the fact that we're trying to open up our project and engage our readers with the fact that we're still journalists. Because that's the heart of everything we do." n
Flyer: Who do you see as your current and future readers?
Chris Peck: The core of our market is what we call Greater Memphis. The thing we're doing is making sure we have our core constituency well-served. Beyond that, there are three areas we'll try to develop: the suburban ring around Memphis from Bartlett all the way around I-240 to DeSoto; secondly, African Americans -- especially African-American women, the largest demographic in the county -- and then thirdly what we call Gen-Y readers, who were born after 1977 and who would probably be interested in the newspaper even though they don't know much about it.
Flyer: One of the "building blocks for the 21st-century newsroom" is telling the story of Greater Memphis through the region's "master narratives." What are the master narratives?
Leanne Kleinmann: There's a ton of news every day. It's helpful, I think, for a bunch of reasons -- if you're a reporter, if you're an editor, if you're a manager -- to have some sort of idea where the posts are to tie yourself to.
The master narratives are our ideas about the things that influence life in Memphis. What makes Memphis Memphis and not Dallas or Nashville or wherever. ... It's not like we're making stuff up. What we're trying to do is connect even more closely to the things that make it this place instead of somewhere else.
Flyer: Could you give me an example?
Kleinmann: One of them is "Race, Rhythm, and River." ... There are so many things about race and music and the Mississippi River that influence this place.
Otis Sanford: Another one is Educating Greater Memphis. That's more than just covering schools. It's what can we do as a newspaper. What are the stories that will help Greater Memphis, help our readers, understand the community they live in?
Flyer: One of the concerns with public journalism is the idea that the paper might support something that it says is good for the community but in actuality is not. How do you guard against that?
Sanford: I daresay that you won't find any civic journalism that we're going to be doing that will be promoting any particular organization or one particular cause and certainly not one particular person. ... It's a mechanism that we use to be more engaged with our readers and the community and have the community be more engaged with us. It's for our own common goals and common purposes. Did we take a stand that we don't think little kids should be killed in day-care vans? Why, yes, we did. But I don't think anyone's going to object to that.
Flyer: What's going on with your bureaus?
Peck: Well, we have bureaus. We used to have a lot of bureaus and now we have fewer.
We're opening two new bureaus in January. We're having a Bartlett/Cordova bureau and a Germantown/Collierville bureau that are very much in the heart of Greater Memphis. We have a Nashville bureau; we're going to continue to. We're trying to figure out what to do with the Jackson [Mississippi] bureau. The most important part of our readership is DeSoto County. We have a bureau in DeSoto County ... and I think what we're trying to figure out is what's the best way now to cover the larger political aspects of our region.
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