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.

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