Thursday, May 16, 2019

Gannett Shareholders Reject MNG Nominees, Avoiding Takeover For Now

Posted By on Thu, May 16, 2019 at 3:19 PM

UPDATE: Gannett/Tribune merger talks?

There's some fairly good news for people who care about the information industry.

In an act of relative sanity, Gannett shareholders have — at least temporarily — turned back MNG/Alden Global Capital's attempted hostile takeover. For Memphians, that means The Commercial Appeal avoided falling into the fire of hedge-fund ownership, though it remains a frying pan heated by economic pressure, and hedge-fund created trends. In the short run, it means we won't lose the city's historic paper of record, giving the newly right-sized and relocated newspaper an opportunity to claw its way back to relevance.

Beyond the actual vote, what followed was like a conversation from fantasy land.

Via USA Today:

Gannett Chairman [John Jeffry] Louis said the company is “laser focused on transformation” and is successfully transitioning to a business model that “positions the company to thrive in the digital future.” 

Settle down Flash Gordon! The laser-wielding chairman muddles issues and arguments, in ways a good debate team might challenge, but he's at least partly correct. Only significant digital growth isn't reclaiming segments of lost readership, and nothing is keeping pace with losses in traditional models where the bedrock of local news is going to pieces. Newspapers have been cutting their way to "sustainability" for decades now, and as a result, the products look like chemo patients, taking a cure that's also killing them. Hopes and prayers go out in the form of stories about AI, digital inevitability, and an abiding belief that we'll be saved by the same kinds of disruptions that brought us to this apocalyptic prom date.

Meanwhile, comments from MNG — a company famous for its community-be-damned, slash-and-burn roadmap to double-digit profits — read like broadcasts from Bizarro world.

Via USA Today:
“This is a win for an entrenched Gannett Board that has been unwilling to address the current realities of the newspaper business, and sadly a loss for Gannett and its shareholders," MNG said in a statement. "Gannett’s newspapers are critical local resources, and we hope that Gannett’s incumbent Board and Management shift course to embrace a modern approach to local news that will save newspapers and serve communities. That would be the best outcome. If Gannett’s Board does not shift course from overpaying for non-core, aspirational and dilutive digital deals, we believe the stock will drop further.”

HA! That's rich stuff right there. Though, who's to say in regard to the final prediction.

For the moment, Memphis is a two-daily-newspaper town. Though, one — The Daily Memphian — doesn't exist in paper form. That's weird, right? And it feels like it should be awesome. Though, between intrinsic, probably unavoidable redundancy in beats, it's difficult to measure at the moment just how much more is being covered or how much more audience is reached and influenced as a result.

Branding matters. The force with which any story lands is determined, in part, by reach, and the strength of certain social bonds. There's historic erosion in both these areas and recent redundancies.

SB 30 Episode 9: Chris Davis of the Memphis Flyer

For our show April 28, we sat down with journalist Chris Davis of the Memphis Flyer and took an in-depth look at the current landscape of the print newspaper and how we got here, based in part on Chris' great reporting for his Flyer series Justice in Journalism, and his March 14, 2019 story "Going to Pieces" (link below).

If one cares to indulge in fantasy, (as executives at Gannett and MNG clearly do) it's not that hard to picture a positive result from the almost certain disaster of MNG control. If the CA underperformed, it might be sold off locally, and relatively cheaply. Once upon a time interests behind The Daily Memphian wanted to pull off just that kind of ownership transfer, so it's not completely insane to picture some kind of triumphant restoration, with lost employees returning to old beats in new digs. Like, I said — fantasy. It's not entirely unprecedented but, as is the case with  most genie wishes, there's a price.

Like one friend on social media said, "One-and-a-half cheers for the less bad guys!" That's about right.  But I'm also reminded of Avengers: Infinity War when Drax the Destroyer tells Star-Lord he's a sandwich away from being fat. Newspapers are priced to flip these days, and now that it's been looted, the CA is one disruption away from whatever comes next.


One sentence summary: Gannett, and Memphis dodged a bullet, but the gun's still loaded. 

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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

How Corporate Ownership Changed Memphis Media

Posted By on Wed, May 1, 2019 at 4:42 PM

  • Storyboard/WYPL
I recently visited WYPL FM for a conversation about Memphis media with Storyboard Memphis publisher, Mark Fleischer. Though the interview was inspired by Going to Pieces, a Memphis Flyer cover story about the state of print media in Memphis, we stumbled down some deep rabbit holes in a detailed account of how daily newspapers like The Commercial Appeal lost revenue, relevance, and readers they are unlikely to reclaim. 

I'm honestly not sure that I ever really answered any of Mark's questions, but we cover a lot of history, and context that's not addressed in the original reporting so I wanted to flag the interview for interested readers. 

SB 30 Episode 9: Chris Davis of the Memphis Flyer

For our show April 28, we sat down with journalist Chris Davis of the Memphis Flyer and took an in-depth look at the current landscape of the print newspaper and how we got here, based in part on Chris' great reporting for his Flyer series Justice in Journalism, and his March 14, 2019 story "Going to Pieces" (link below).

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

News Makers 3: Media Talk with Wendi Thomas of MLK50 and Storyboard's Mark Fleischer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2019 at 1:29 PM

This post is supplemental to the Memphis Flyer cover package Going to Pieces about the state of print journalism in Memphis. This, and other posts featuring additional commentary by Wendi Thomas of MLK50, Jacinthia Jones of, Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, and Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard Memphis were created to include voices and ideas that didn’t make it into the main story.
Wendi Thomas
  • Wendi Thomas

Every day I wake up and discover I'm not on the wrong side of Wendi Thomas’  Twitter feed, is a good day.  I kid, but  when I typed that I’m pretty sure I heard a faint chorus of voices from Memphis' political and business communities saying “Amen.” And that’s a good thing. Whether she’s dragging area media because newsroom diversity (and its lack), determines content and perspective, or calling out bosses who won’t pay a living wage, Thomas is one of Memphis’ most critical journalists — castigatory, elucidative, and vital.

In spite of her long history as a columnist and editor for The Commercial Appeal, I didn’t sit down with Thomas to talk about struggling dailies or the print journalism business. We didn’t get too deep into discussing the reporters she’s cultivated and work she’s published online as founder of the digital “Justice Through Journalism” forum, MLK50, either. I asked Thomas to help me develop a working definition of “information justice,” a topic I’ll come back to in future posts. But some of our conversation did overlap with the Memphis Flyer cover story, Going to Pieces, so I’m sharing some lightly edited excerpts that complement both Jacinthia Jones’s vision for mass partnership and Madeline Faber’s thoughts about transparency and engagement.

Like Jones and Faber, Thomas thinks outside the traditional newspaper bundle. She shared some common sense ideas for distributing less commodified, hyper-local news directly with those the news most likely affects.

Memphis Flyer: I want to talk about information justice but I’m not completely sure I know what I mean by that.

Wendi Thomas: I think information justice starts with "just us" — and who the "us" is. The media doesn’t provide everybody with the information they need to live better lives, or make better decisions about things that are critical — housing, shelter, you know… I read a story about FedEx expansion plans. There’s new tech for getting boxes on planes but not a word about how this might affect employment. When you’re writing with an eye toward justice, these are the kinds of questions you’d ask. So that story wasn’t written for people who work in the hub, or even worried that they might have to ever work in the hub.

I try to imagine a media environment where the information people —low income people in particular — need to make better choices is accessible without too much expense or hassle. And I wonder who profits from the current media environment, where you have to make an effort to get information.

WT: I've never found out much about it, but you’ve probably seen a quote I tweet: “If you want to solve any problem in America, don’t study who suffers from it, study who profits.” That’s a huge gap missing in journalism as a whole. There are exceptions, like reporting about expensive calls from the jail. That story was out one week. The next week we weren’t going to make juveniles pay to call their parents anymore. Period, full stop. Public policy can be changed quickly in ways that affect vulnerable people. But somebody has to systematically examine industries, and government organizations, to find where those places are.

I don’t know anything about that quote’s provenance, but I've seen you share that and thought it was absolutely right.

WT: I was at a people-powered publishing conference where they were talking about, instead of trying to put our middle class selves in the shoes of a person in poverty, they should be involved in every step of the process. In my 25 years in journalism, this is something I’ve only done sporadically. We tend to think, you know, you report the story
– you go out and talk to the people, you write the story, you do the follow-up. But what if we completely dismantled that process? What if people are involved at every step, and you report on your reporting, in maybe less formal ways. Maybe it’s not 8 paragraphs or 400 words. Maybe it’s using Facebook Live or posting in a group. We talk about growing audience. Part of growing our audience is involving people in the process, and not always deciding what’s best.

You see that kind of transparency sometimes. I’m thinking of the Washington Post's investigation of the Trump Foundation, which involved posting notebooks, and keeping the process front and center. That changed things a little. But the level of engagement you’re describing is still rare, I think.

WT: It’s not built into our process. Your editor’s going to ask you, “Do you have art?” “Do you have diverse sources?” They’re not going to ask you, “How many times you engaged the people most affected by this?”

Let’s talk for a minute about how people get information, which obviously isn’t always the same as “news.” People weren’t always coming to the newspaper bundle for news. There are entertainment listings, housing and help wanted ads. Now people with public service information partner to multiply resources. Like if you’re doing a voter registration drive, you might piggyback with a health services opportunity, and engage people in barber shops and other third spaces. Can newsrooms learn from that?

WT: The library may be a more economically diverse third space. If we’re rethinking how we distribute information, there’s this system where you can send direct mail. Political candidates do it all the time, but I’ve never seen a journalist use it. So, say you’re writing something about 38126, which I think is the poorest zip code. So what if you used direct mail to distribute stories or solicit information in 38126? Or, you know, use the inserts you get in your MLGW bill? What if there was something in that? Or billboards? I have seen the Commercial Appeal do a little bit of that. Smaller outlets probably think they can’t afford billboards. But what if a non-profit found a way to underwrite [it] and every week maybe they worked with a different [news] outlet?

For justice-forward reports you can follow MLK50 — now part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network here.
Mark Fleischer says he’s heartened by the changes he’s seen at The Commercial Appeal since they hired new staff. But when Fleischer’s monthly newspaper Storyboard Memphis was in the works, Memphis’ daily was, “getting worse by the day.”

Fleischer, a California transplant now living in Midtown, describes himself as an urban studies enthusiast and “news junkie.”

“I started talking to people and realizing how many other stories need to be told,” he says. “And people have no means to tell them.” That’s when Fleischer, who’d already been blogging about Memphis, got an idea to start a digital magazine. That idea evolved into Storyboard Memphis, a monthly  broadsheet-style newspaper with original historical and urban-themed reporting, supplemented with news articles from many of Memphis’s digital-only news organizations like Chalkbeat and High Ground News.

Memphis Flyer: An online magazine sounds great, but how does it work? It’s tough putting even quality content behind a paywall if it’s not unique or if similar content is available somewhere else free.

Mark Fleischer: I didn’t see a digital magazine taking off. A couple of guys we all know in publishing said, “You should think about print.”... It took a year for me to convince myself that was doable... For-profit seemed the most straightforward way to go. I don’t want to be chasing non-profit money all the time.

You’ve solved at least part of the newsroom riddle by aggregating content from several of Memphis’s digital-only content providers, which is great for a lot of reasons. You get content, they get a sampler platter where they’re included in one nicely curated space with all these other information providers you’d have to track down individually online. Also, the digital divide — there are a lot more people who aren’t online than most people think.

Mark Fleischer: I remember thinking, if I can just convince High Ground to partner with me, and I can be their print medium. Then I’ve really got something.

The kind of deep dives into neighborhoods High Ground does seems like it really lends itself to the urbanist-focused work you’re doing.

Mark Fleischer: Yes. And I talked to Tom Jones at Smart City — same thing.

Another good fit.

Mark Fleischer: I realized, the more I talked about this, the more I realized there was an appetite for print. Maybe more like a hunger.

And there’s already all this content out there...

Mark Fleischer: It’s out there. But it’s out there in digital format. When I came up with Storyboard, I originally thought about telling a stories through all media: audio, podcast, video, photography, art. All that. Well, there’s no reason I can’t do that in print. Not audio and video, obviously, but we can certainly use the medium and get as close to that as possible... High Ground isn’t going to print any time soon. It’s just not in their model. Tom Jones can’t go to print, he doesn’t have enough content. But together we do have enough content. It’s like showing all the work being done by High Ground and Smart City and all these other niche publications.

Storyboard also features original reporting by Fleischer, fiction, poetry, puzzles, and children’s pages. Distribution is free but not forced. It’s available in coffee shops and other public places around Memphis.

This is the last supplemental post to the Memphis
Eric Barnes
  • Eric Barnes
 Flyer cover story Going to Pieces. For readers interested in a more in depth conversation with Daily Memphian executive editor, Eric Barnes, he and I spoke at length shortly after the digital daily's 2018 launch.  Our more recent conversation, was brief and to the point, so there wasn't really enough leftover content to make a stand-alone post.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

News Makers 2: Chalkbeat’s Jacinthia Jones Proposes More Media Partnerships

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 1:29 PM

Jacinthia Jones
  • Jacinthia Jones
This post is supplemental to the Memphis Flyer cover package Going to Pieces about the state of print journalism in Memphis. This, and other posts featuring additional commentary by Wendi Thomas of MLK50, Jacinthia Jones of, Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, and Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard: Memphis were created to include voices and ideas that didn’t make it into the main story. They will be published throughout the rest of the week.

“I heard from another reporter today asking if we were having issues with the School Board,” Jacinthia Jones says. As it happens,, the digital education policy newsroom where Jones works as Memphis bureau chief, had been experiencing problems gathering needed information. So she answered, "Yes."

Sometimes Jones sounds more like a old school union organizer than a veteran reporter and editor: “There’s strength in numbers,” she says. “We’re all out there fighting this battle by ourselves instead of collectively fighting it.” She thinks the best bet for survival is some kind of strategic, symbiotic partnership between competing organizations.

“As government agencies and entities become tougher to get information from, there’s strength in us being able to go as a united front,” she says. “For us to be able say, “This is a public record, you shouldn’t be able to charge this ridiculous amount!” We’re all losing. Now we need each other. At the end of the day our goal is to tell the stories that need to be told here in Memphis.”
Jones’s proposal is a variation on the old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” On one hand, there is a lot of redundancy in reporting — many microphones in the same official’s face collecting the same boilerplate comments for various organizations. Meanwhile, there are complicated stories in Memphis that aren't being told as well as they might be, if they are even being told at all — Stories large enough that every media organization could cover some unique aspect, playing into that newsroom’s specific strengths.

Mass partnership on a deep-dive topic might be a consumer-immersive way to take big, hard-to-reach stories apart, “one bite at a time.”

Memphis Flyer: This is maybe more of a prompt than a question. With search engines and social media gobbling up so much of advertising budgets the narrative is always about how competitive organizations have to be to compete over the scraps. There’s less talk sometimes, about the different ways they may lean on one another as newsrooms shrink and partnerships become more important, particularly in the not for profit world.

Jacinthia Jones:There is a competitive nature to what we do. But if you look at it just that way, we’ve got such a small share. And when I say “we” I mean traditional and online media, because of Google and social media, even though those aren’t news organizations. That’s where a lot of people go to get their news. So, from my position — particularly since I moved into the nonprofit world — is that things are better when you partner. We don’t have the money we used to. We don’t have the resources to staff these large newsrooms. So you’re seeing more and more topic-specific organizations and smaller newsrooms in general. In Memphis we’re all doing the same thing— local journalism. We may want the story first, but we also want to leverage the audience of our partners. That’s why at Chalkbeat we make our content free. We want everybody to re-publish. Another benefit of partnering — We're all smaller now.

MF: Education is a community cornerstone. It’s always such an important issue at elections. It’s something that was always part of the daily news bundle — and still is. But the work you do is filling some big gaps.

JJ: One of the beats you see cut in traditional papers are education reporters. That’s why Chalkbeat was able to expand. Look at the cities we’re located in — places where the newspaper cut that part of coverage. Also, and obviously with notable exceptions, you typically see entry level reporters moved into that position. But once a reporter gets experience on the education beat you move on.

MF: It’s such a clear example of public interest reporting losing out to the newspaper economy. Education is allegedly something we prioritize. But the most important stories aren’t always the best read.

JJ: When started at The Commercial Appeal we had three education reporters and a higher-ed reporter. Now they have one education reporter and that’s not her title. She covers K-12 and also covers higher ed.
With other editorial responsibilities.

MF: So you are very clearly filling a gap in coverage resulting from layoffs and a shrinking paper.

JJ: And we don’t just cover education at Chalkbeat. We’re covering equity issues and inequity. You see newspapers you see them moving away from covering the large school districts chasing readers in the suburbs. This isn’t just chasing advertisers, but subscribers. It’s essentially chasing the money.

MF: Where do your readers come from? Or, how do they find you?

JJ: We have readers who come directly to us. We get a lot of support among educators, teachers, administrators, and policy makers because we cover education more deeply than mainstream media. Our mission is, we want to partner with as many people as possible. We want to partner with you! That enables us to reach audiences that may not know us and come to us. So yes, I want The Daily Memphian, the new kid on the block. I also want to partner with smaller, activist organizations like MLK50.

Editor's note: Going to Pieces looks at Memphis' information providers and news environment at a time when the city's daily newspaper has been greatly diminished. We hope these excerpts provide some depth/context, and give readers a better sense about what's unique about various organizations in terms of product and process.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Hail Caesar: Gannett Papers Announce Changes in Opinion Strategy

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2019 at 9:10 AM

There's no good way to illustrate these stories but posts without images generate less clicks and "the need to establish consistent expectations about content pushes news outlets to cover stories in predictable ways and to use personalities as a way to build brand recognition." So here's a picture of me in front of weird paintings of fish. I'm sorry.
Today's terrible journalism news: Gannett newspapers saw fourth-quarter losses in circulation and revenue. According to Marketwatch the company is reporting a 12 percent dip in sales, with circulation revenue dropping 9 percent and print advertising dropping 24 percent. The one area where Gannett has been growing also took a hit as "digital advertising and market services declined about 3 percent."

I've been anticipating this news since all three of Gannett's major Tennessee newspapers individually announced changes framed as big improvements to their editorial pages.  Those changes, like the disappointing quarterly report, fit a pattern and seem to be part of a downward trend with no bottom in sight. 

Gannett newspapers across the state of Tennessee, including The Commercial Appeal, have run similar editorials letting readers know they are "listening.” They've heard you and are, per you, developing new and improved strategies for kinder, more inclusive opinion journalism.

Redesigns can be a good thing and the print real estate traditionally reserved for unsigned editorials and nationally syndicated columnists, absolutely should be reappraised. At the same time, relinquishing the former has to also be seen as the final gasp of an era when local and regional newspapers had (or believed they had) some weight to throw around — when thick bundles of newsprint stacked as high and wide as you could see stood in evidence. But as the marketplace of ideas flattens into the marketplace, the land and physical assets these once powerful newspapers own and occupy, are seen as possessing more immediate value than either the medium or its message.   

Gannett Tennessee's new editorial plan, as variously/similarly described in its Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis papers, includes weird Aristotelian ideals for letters to the editor which, in accordance with natural law, should not exceed 200 words in the west, 250 words in the center, and 300 words in the east of the state. The columns also suggest we'll be seeing less national political commentary and “more about solutions than takedowns of the people and organizations trying to do things,” whatever that tragically vague construction means. Of course people and their sense of place/community matter very much, as they often do in communications seeking to persuade people who live in places and communities. Obviously, there will be more local stuff! And there will be more you!

Via the CA:

"By tradition, opinion has long been the section where readers found the institutional view of The Commercial Appeal. It is also where you read guest commentaries, local and syndicated columnists, letters to the editor, editorial cartoons and, of course, the daily Bible verse.

Starting this week, we are moving away from that approach to one that showcases more community voices, puts an emphasis on analysis and an expanded newsroom engagement with Memphis through community events we sponsor.

Readers have repeatedly told us that they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor. And we want to deliver more of what you want."

What also has to be understood, whether it's spelled out or not, is that all this "more" is the direct result of newsrooms constantly struggling to produce a viable product with less.

The "different but same" nature of Gannett's editorials makes it hard to take their grass roots too seriously. As a rule, newspapers have always cast a wide net but walked a narrow path, as they've attempted to attract and inform readers while also being an exciting, activated, and (most importantly) safe place for advertisers. Not to mention the fact that, newspapers have frequently listened to consumers and then intentionally adapted away from their needs/demands in a misguided effort to attract lost and non-readers. This was always done with full awareness that it made bundled distribution less attractive to the same loyal, long-suffering consumers that sustained newspapers when changing technology screwed all distribution and revenue models. Naturally, we'll observe more content shifts reflecting the relative value of newspaper properties as measured against their tangible assets or lack thereof.
This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
  • This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
Unbundling content is easily justified on a spreadsheet. Art columns, for example, may be well read, but they aren't given the importance of public affairs reporting (which isn't prime for advertisers), and when it comes to straight clicks, little can compare to food and beverage columns. Restaurants and national food/drink brands buy ads, so if you're a business major working for a holding company that owns a bunch of newspapers, it makes total sense to calculate the small number of readers you'll lose completely by eliminating arts coverage as long as you can effectively sell the perceived public value of hard news while expanding popular dining and related soft/syndicated news. In another example, as page counts dwindle in print space, and digital content is prioritized, sports sections may run trend stories or business/recruiting analysis instead of next day scores and review. Similarly, election results may go digital-only, etc. But as more diverse, professionally created content is stripped away in favor of paid, nonprofessional, or owned off-market content, it becomes evident that the bundle is/was exponentially more useful and valuable than any particular sets of content. And by "the bundle," I don't just mean box scores, election results, stories about street names, horoscopes, and housing, I'm also counting newsprint's famously pejorative applications as fire-starter, birdcage liner, and hand prop for would be demagogues.

To borrow from the Columbia Journalism Review, "Despite all the flaws of the traditional newspaper — and there are many — the bundling of hard news and civic information with soft news, sports, comics, and more is amazingly effective at supporting broad-based political and civic engagement."

"From 2008 to 2009 civic engagement declined more sharply in Denver and Seattle than in other major cities—a result he attributes to the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer during that period, which left them as one-newspaper towns. His conclusions are consistent with a 2013 study in the Journal of Media Economics, which similarly found that after The Cincinnati Post closed in late 2007, electoral competition and voter turnout declined in areas of Kentucky where the Post was the leading paper. It’s hard to prove a direct causal connection between the papers’ closings and reduced engagement, but other research has found that residents of areas where the newspaper market doesn’t match up well with congressional district boundaries were less informed about their representatives, which in turn caused legislators to be less responsive to their constituents’ needs."

So, you're a Gannett newspaper in Tennessee and your "readers have repeatedly told [you] they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor." Have they? What a wonderful coincidence these super-thoughtful consumers are demanding such cost-effective (mostly free) content! Clearly Gannett, you have raised them right.
Consumer habits are no big mystery, so it's no insult to observe that allowing the public's interests determine public interest is like letting a toddler determine household nutrition standards. It's also bad business for companies who aren't nihilistically calculating managed blood loss against short-term profit. As an aside, and regardless of whether or not pulp has a future, this last bit touches on one of the reasons why fully digital models for local general daily news delivery, are still a sketchy proposition. Using both the digital-forward CA and Daily Memphian as examples, what's on offer is a basic selection of popular content (food/business/sports) and the kind of hard news everybody used to know about due to the social function of widely circulated newspapers, but which relatively few people may actually read/subscribe for.

As a perceived public good, journalism's power/value has always exceeded the technical reach of public affairs reporting and consumer advocacy. In other words, when newspapers were widely circulated, nobody had to actively consume hard news or advocacy to benefit from it. Going forward, this age-old assumption has to be modified to exclude deep familiarity, and with the understanding that presumed universal benefits for non-readers fade when techno/economic scales tip and enough non-readers can also be described as non-subscribers/consumers. This will be especially so in the absence of strong reciprocity and community engagement. Like newspaper properties whose practical worth is now weighted against tangible assets, once credit is lost, you're discredited.

The clip linked above is from the movie Hail Caesar. In it, you'll see George Clooney, dressed as a Roman soldier for his role in a manufactured religious epic. He's been kidnapped by a gaggle of weirdo communist writers who tell him that a man who understands economics and history can accurately predict the future. Now I don't claim any extraordinary insight into either of these fields, or any gift for precognition. But I did, rather flippantly, predict this change in direction, while ranting about newspaper history and economics, and their relationship to a controversial opinion column published in several of Gannett's Tennessee newspapers. I regret that the political-sounding headline, "MAGA Bro Pens Love Letter to MAGA CAP,"  may have kept some from reading media criticism that anticipates how modern economies and user habits will eventually yield more populist, probably non-professional content.

Welcome to eventually; Hail Caesar. 

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Friday, February 8, 2019

Information Control: Why TVA Ratepayers May Pay For Coal Ash Fallout

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2019 at 1:33 PM

Reporters sometimes do reckless things to bring home a story. By the time I got to Kingston, TN, in January, 2009, 24-hour police barricades blocked all apparent access to TVA's catastrophic pond breach — a massive coal ash spill NBC nightly news had  described as an environmental disaster 30-times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. National news organizations and environmentalists had gotten in early before safety concerns and concerns about TVA's reputation turned the area into a forbidden zone, off limits to everybody, especially media. Of course, roadblocks are a mere speed bump for reporters armed with scribbled directions on the back of a bar napkin. Team Flyer would make it back to Memphis with photos of the "ash-bergs," as the enormous toxic sludge formations were being called, even if it meant playing a little Smokey and the Bandit.

I'm reminded of the scene in Kingston by Gannett's sobering report highlighting extraordinary information quietly buried in a TVA earnings report. The utility is finally admitting that ratepayers may soon be on the hook for legal settlements against Jacobs Engineering, a contractor working for TVA that has admitted under oath to misleading 900 employees about the  risks of coal ash exposure. This news follows 40 deaths and more than 400 reported ailments ranging from respiratory problems and rashes to heart disorders, neurological disorders and cancer.

Via Gannett:

A jury in U.S. District Court in November ruled Jacobs violated its contract with TVA for the cleanup work and endangered workers as a result. That trial revealed TVA ratepayers had paid Jacobs $60 million for that contract work.

I'm not posting today to revisit past adventures in journalism or to advance Gannett's top notch summation of what's transpired over the past decade. In keeping with a recent theme on this blog, I'd rather look back to the weeks immediately following the disaster. Knowing what we know now, I'd like to look at this in terms of access and transparency and think about what happens when there's a disaster and information is treated like a private concern rather than a public good.  

If you have the time, I recommend taking a look at "Shades of Gray," my vintage coverage of the Kingston disaster, published as a Memphis Flyer cover story shortly after the event. I think it makes a good companion to Gannett's latest revelation and retrospective. Like the sub-head says, confusion reigned in the early days following the spill. It was driven, in part, by a concerted effort on behalf of TVA and coal-related interests to make sure the citizens of Kingston and Roane Co. had the absolute best possible information for TVA and coal-related interests.

Via me, 2009:

A nattily dressed man with snow-white hair waited patiently, then, when he got his turn at the microphone, erupted like a volcano: "Who can I trust? Tell me, who can I trust?" he asked, his voice quivering.

The man ran down a list cataloging the incongruous viewpoints he'd been subjected to for 18 days — the time that had passed since the waste-retaining wall at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant gave way, and his hometown — once a water-lover's paradise tucked into the postcard-perfect hills of East Tennessee — became the new synonym for environmental disaster. 

"Tell me who I should trust," he pleaded, obviously doubtful that [famous organizer Erin] Brockovich or the panel of scientists — and legal consultants from New York's Weitz & Luxenberg law firm — assembled in the gymnasium at Roane State Community College were less self-interested than the environmentalists, media, or coal-industry spokesmen, all of whom seemed to offer conflicting answers.

"'Who can I trust?' was the most prescient question anybody asked,"  Owen Hoffman, the president of SENES Risk Management in Oak Ridge, told The Flyer in an interview following his appearance on Brockovich's panel. In a conversation ranging from hard science to the social dynamics at play in Kingston, he described environmentalists as being so accustomed to thankless uphill struggles, they can always be counted on to accentuate negatives while acknowledging that industry spokespeople and real-estate developers "trivialize" realistic consequences to protect financial interests.

"The ties between government and industry have been too close for many years, so it's not unreasonable to wonder if the information we get from our government agencies is reliable," Hoffman said.

Private industry was a notable player in the Kingston response. And while some residents were thankful for Brockovich's contravening presence, others expressed worry about "out of town interlopers" and "sharks." There was a lot of good reporting around the Kingston disaster, but when distinctive sides present themselves, media narratives tend to favor the controversy over the concern. That was not always the case here, but was generally as the big question became, "is this sludge REALLY ALL THAT toxic?" instead of "what's the best way to get people the relief and recompense they deserve while managing this toxic sludge?" 

"I think the public has been very poorly informed,"
 one toxicologist said to the crowd at a food-and-drink-heavy event sponsored by the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA). "It's wrong to characterize the ash as toxic sludge. That's a pejorative term," he said. "It's like my wife complaining that she had to drink toxic sludge because she recently had a gastrointestinal exam and the doctor made her swallow barium."

Via me, 2009:

On the night before Brockovich's town hall-style meeting, another group of scientists held a different kind of gathering at Kingston's Midtown Elementary School. Consultants from the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) hosted a meet-and-greet event that included a massive buffet table weighted down with shrimp, meatballs, croissants stuffed with chicken salad, fruit, pastry, cookies, and a selection of exotic cheeses.

There was no official presentation, but Kingston residents could walk around and ask questions of the ACAA's scientists...

There was also a medical doctor on hand to address — and minimize — concerns about long-term health risks and a coal-ash expert who explained how using fly ash in concrete helps mitigate the greenhouse gasses released in the coal-burning process.

"I don't think anybody's going to see Blinky the three-eyed fish in the river," said Dr. Michael Bollenbacher, a radiation expert and the one showman among the ACAA's consultants. He took on tough questions from Harriman resident John Hoage, a retired attorney who has sued tobacco companies.

Bollenbacher's reference to Blinky was likely a response to the opening paragraphs of a 2007 article in Scientific American called "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste" that had been making its way into e-mails all over Kingston.

Bollenbacher worked the crowd like a blackjack dealer, running a pair of Geiger counters over bags of local dirt and coal ash, as well as over typical household objects. The dirt and coal ash triggered little response from the machines, while the household objects made them screech...

"Did you hear what happened when I held it over the plate?" he asked, as if the red Fiestaware on the table was typical of contemporary kitchenware. But red Fiestaware, which hasn't been produced for decades, is somewhat infamous for containing uranium and lead that can be leeched out by acidic foods such as tomato sauce.

"But what do I know about any of this?" Bollenbacher asked rhetorically. "I'm just a dumb scientist, an independent consultant who doesn't have a dog in this fight."
It's only as radioactive as this plate.
  • It's only as radioactive as this plate.
Let's generously presume that the ACAA's indie consultant didn't know the plate he used to represent an ordinary household object was infamous for tickling Geiger counters. And maybe nobody assembled at the coal-friendly event had a "dog in the fight." But 10 years, and many deaths and illnesses later, it looks like coal ash loose in the environment might be at least a little more hazardous than dinner service. 

John Hoage, a retired attorney who attended the coal-friendly eat-and-greet, wasn't having it. Hoage, who had sued tobacco companies in the past, pulled out a folder of information he'd collected about the ACAA. He said the organization's membership page reads like a "Who's Who" of coal industry heavyweights. He said he didn't think anybody was telling him the whole truth.

"All of this reminds me of the 1950s," Hoag said. "The tobacco industry had scientists, too, and they used similar arguments to minimize the risks of cigarette smoke."

Hoag was particularly interested in cases related to prolonged exposure to smoke — like flight attendants trapped in smoke-filled cabins. He thought this was a more apt comparison to the situation in Kingston, than odd shots of barium related to occasional medical procedures. 
Now here's the real question: Why was there a controversy for media to report and residents/consumers to contend with in the first place? While it might be entirely true that coal ash, an ingredient in various modern building materials, can be essentially harmless when it's stabilized by containment, that information, no matter how accurate, isn't useful to anybody when vast quantities are dumped into the environment. To get to the bottom of things The Flyer found a scientist named Bryce Payne with a 15-year history of working on unrelated coal ash piles. He essentially affirmed the ACAA's most optimistic claims, but that wasn't anywhere near the end of Payne's informed assessment.

If the ash is released from the pond and exposed to substantially different environmental conditions, as happened in Kingston, however, Payne thinks there is then a substantial chance that the previously stable elements will become unstable. If that occurs there could be a net release of the toxins "that will accumulate to potentially threatening levels."

"Among humans, the tolerance for exposure to toxic elements can vary widely," he explained. "Some can tolerate high exposures, some only very limited exposures. The same is true among plants and animals. Carp are a rough fish species, tolerant of pretty poor water quality. Other fish species cannot tolerate conditions that carp thrive in."

Payne was extremely reluctant to be interviewed at the time because, in his opinion, the  news media does a terrible job reporting on science. He worried about sensational treatment and that his comments would be decontextualized to support pro-environmentalist positions he wasn't endorsing. As Memphis fans of Dr. Heckle's science news podcast already know, bad science reporting is a legitimate concern. I think I did okay by him though, and four months later he's quoted in The Nation expressing even grimmer concerns about the state and federally backed cleanup project:

Despite warnings that the dredging may trigger a major toxic event, the TVA, backed by federal and state officials, is following through with its plans. “There apparently has been horrendous pressure to dredge at any costs,” said Bryce Payne, an independent environmental consultant who has been working on fly ash for more than fifteen years. “But the fish and similarly vulnerable biota in the Emory and Clinch River system simply will not be able to tolerate additional selenium.”

More from The Nation May, 2009:

Payne, who has offered his consulting services to the TVA and state regulators, wants officials to understand why so many of the best-laid plans could be heading toward disaster. In the March 20 e-mail to Sloan, he questioned the TDEC’s assumptions, pressed the agency to make its selenium data public and criticized Tennessee’s water-quality standards as too permissive regarding selenium. He zeroed in on the state agency’s pledge to follow up on fish tissue studies. The problem with fish tissue tests, he explained, is that selenium “bioaccumulates,” inching its way into fish and animals over months and years, not days and weeks. If you find selenium in high concentrations in fish tissue, the theory goes, you’re already in trouble. “[Fish tissue data] will not tell you how much more selenium may still come after you have finally detected that a threatening amount was there in the first place,” he told Sloan. In a telephone interview, Payne said that the threat was hard to detect: “Selenium, by its nature and chemistry, will sneak up on us,” Payne says. “It’s like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water.”

Among scientific experts, Payne is far from alone. “The folks in charge feel they don’t have the luxury to consider other ways to clean the river out,” said Joseph Skorupa, a biologist and selenium expert with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “But they should understand that letting loose selenium is a momentous decision.”
So why did it take 10 years, possibly 40 deaths, and more than 400 illnesses to get a quiet admission in an earnings report that ratepayers might be on the hook for liabilities resulting from TVA's bad stewardship at the edge of real darkness? There are lots of reasons, obviously, but I'm going to let TVA and politicians off the hook momentarily and answer in words I've typed too often lately — words readers will probably grow tired of seeing as I write more media and information-related posts over the next several months: Markets determine news content.

Let's face it, producers can only squeeze so much reality appeal from the chemistry of  Selenium, an element that, according to studies cited by the EPA,  may result in things like "discoloration of the skin, loss of nails and hair, excessive tooth decay, listlessness, lack of mental alertness etc." According to The Nation the agency "also labels selenium sulfide, a selenium compound, a 'probable human carcinogen'”  But that's not my point. Responsible science reporting doesn't make for gripping, accessible prose or TV news content attractive to the most broadly attractive consumers (to advertisers) who, according to the best sources I know on the topic, don't give a flip about public affairs reporting. Still, many commercial newsrooms thought this story worth investing in. The Flyer, a small, typically hyperlocal newsweekly from the other side of the state, thought the incident was valuable enough to send a reporter when it happened. Regional news teams followed the story year after year and the incident only received sporadic statewide or national notice. But if the Kingston spill was 30-times larger than the Exxon Valdes disaster, it wasn't half as hyped.

Gannett's latest summation, as reported in its various Tennessee papers including The Commercial Appeal, accomplishes everything good newspaper reporting is supposed to do, covering and contextualizing a lot of complicated ground. But from the onset, Kingston's narrative turned on controversy rather than urgent common cause. As is often the case with shocking events, when it stopped being breaking national news, it was never again amplified or sustained by social or legacy media long enough to force scrutiny, build mass-trust or foment opinion in the face of considerable public relations efforts by coal-related interests including, by TVA's own self-congratulatory account,100-million in dollar diplomacy investments "that improved or enhanced Roane Co." Not to mention that generous seafood-laden buffet I once covered. I can't deny, those fat shrimp assured and delighted my disaster-deprived tummy all those years ago.

WBIR's Dec., 2018 retrospective noted that TVA had given $32-million to area schools after the disaster — more dollar diplomacy. The report stated that the $1.2-billion cost of cleanup was spread out over 15 years, at no additional cost to ratepayers. 

There's a lot of blame to go around, but the worst of everything that happened in Kingston was amplified by people not knowing who to trust or to turn to for help finding good information. The death, discomfort, displacement, and personal loss is an indictment of private, state, and federal priorities. But it also represents the failures of an information industry that may never find an economic platform for sustained and meaningful public affairs reporting in the modern age. Absent that, there will always be too many deterrents, distractions and roadblocks preventing consumers from accessing the information they need and never enough barricade-evading directions scribbled on the back of bar napkins. 
Yes, we dumped a bunch of coal ash in your backyard, but aren't you hungry?
  • Yes, we dumped a bunch of coal ash in your backyard, but aren't you hungry?

Erin Brockovich in Kingston
  • Erin Brockovich in Kingston


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Monday, February 4, 2019

Sick Burn — Gannett: MNG "Not Credible"; MNG: "Gannett's not Believable."

Posted By on Mon, Feb 4, 2019 at 3:24 PM

Is it just me or is reality bending to look more like reality TV all the time?

In case you missed the news, Gannett has rejected a "vulture capital" firm's proposal to acquire the USA Today newspaper network and parent company to The Commercial Appeal.

Not only did Gannett reject MNG/Digital First Media's proposal, they also characterized the deal as being "not credible." That's not a complete surprise since the deal's prospects have ranged from "who knows?" to "it's all a sham" since it was announced and the market voiced its soulless approval.

“Buying Gannett is a tall task…I’m not sure Alden can get the financing to buy Gannett,” a media banker told The New York Post last week. The Post's story went on to note, "In fact, sources say that MNG’s ambition for years has been to be acquired by Gannett — and some speculate that friendly talks have already begun."


But Gannett's rejection was unsubtle: “Indeed, given MNG’s refusal to provide even the most basic answers to Gannett’s questions, it appears that MNG does not have a realistic plan to acquire Gannett." Shortly after the announcement MNG took its beef live.


MNG said in a statement that Gannett was the one to set up roadblocks to the discussion, which demonstrated that it was “not interested in seriously evaluating our premium cash proposal.”

MNG went on to say that Gannett’s plan for its digital businesses was “pie in the sky” and “not believable.”

This is in keeping with previous disses from Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund behind MNG/Digital First, which had previously released statements dogging “the team leading Gannett" for having, "not demonstrated that it’s capable of effectively running this enterprise.”

"The Death Star of Newspaper Chains," as  MNG had been called, still publicly insists that Gannett overpaid for digital assets and is currently "presiding over a declining core business," and cash flow. "Gannett’s deep structural problems are better fixed by experienced operators such as MNG,” MNG concluded.

Maybe this is all over now. Sniping happens when mergers loom. Still, it would make better television if, as the New York Post and Nieman Lab have considered, all this shit talk was just Alden Global secretly hoping to get with failed Gannett so the so called "pie in the sky" company could manage its newspaper properties too.    

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Friday, February 1, 2019

MAGA Bro Pens Love Letter to MAGA CAP: Dammit Gannett

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2019 at 9:14 AM

"Nonpartisan" and "fair and balanced" journalism sound like great ideas. But they probably aren't what you think they are. They've been made to sound like best practices for ethical news gathering. But historically these ideas are artifacts of technology and capitalism.

I bring this stuff up because getting beyond all the usual ideological mess and straight bullshit like this tone-deaf nonsense from The Tennessean, is crucial to understanding why "writer and social media personality" Ryan Moore's weird love letter to his Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat appeared in Gannett newspapers including The Commercial Appeal.

A screen shot/excerpt from The Commercial Appeal.
  • A screen shot/excerpt from The Commercial Appeal.

America's partisan-funded press came skidding to a halt in the last quarter of the 19th century when new, high-speed printing made it possible for newspapers with enough up-front investment capital to distribute their products farther than ever before. Lots of attention is paid to the idea that "a biased news medium is bad for a self-governing people." But the thing is, at scale, it was also bad for business. Politically neutral papers could reach bigger markets becoming valuable to local interests and emerging national brands wanting less partisan places to advertise.  Economic realities forged the new journalistic ideals regarding what makes appropriate news content, not idealistic struggles for better information and freer reporting. And they still do.

A similar technological disruption bent the modern media mythos away from big-market "objectivity" toward a more useful narrative for an exploded economy: "fair and balanced." This works in a crowded field because you can't know the truth until you've heard every [hardline ideological] side, right?  When cable news blew up and America went from having only three major news networks to having so many choices you could no longer get by without a remote control, the basic idea of what constitutes respectable market shares reduced considerably. Niche marketing and partisan reporting made sense again. This is where Fox News comes from and with it the logical fallacy that all tits require right-wing tats. 

So what does any of this have to do with Gannett's MAGA-Man-crush?

Like I've said before, markets determine content and Tennessee remains a solid red patch on the political map. Gannett's earnings are in the shitter and its products, deformed as they are by a loss of local autonomy and investment, waste like plague victims. So much reporting and media opinion following the infamous MAGA-Teen's 15-minutes in the barrel, cast MAGA caps in a bad light, and judging by the color of those electoral maps I've linked above, that's the favored headgear of many if not most Tennesseans. In other words, the news smacked lots of Gannett's subscribers and potential subscribers right across the brim. 

Market served. "Tat" accomplished.

Moore's editorial is mostly familiar rhetoric about folks needing to be respectful of other folks and judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their stupid, racist hats. I could do a whole post on irony and the character of Moore's content, but that's not my purpose.

This stuff's candy — bulked up by outrage-shares and sweetened with hate-clicks. click to tweet
If serving readers/viewers/listeners is important it's probably not a good idea for news-oriented media to be in the business of promoting standard, white-male victimization narratives. If media serves a public good it's also probably a bad idea to participate in softening symbols that, regardless of what secret, special things they may mean to social media personalities, are also, inarguably, touchstones for white supremacists.

But c'mon! From a commercial POV this stuff's candy — bulked up by outrage-shares and sweetened with hate-clicks. Win-win for everybody! Unless the consumer was looking for information instead of a daily rise, in which case, not so much there.

Nevertheless, the story went big opening Moore's complaint up to a wider dialogue.

Top comment, Newsweek
  • Top comment, Newsweek

I'll conclude my rant by answering some rage-posts I've seen in my social media feed from folks justifiably wondering why MAGA-bro Moore is fronting all over their social media feeds. The real question is, why are you sharing it? And are you ready for more?

It's just business; thanks for yours.   


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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Memphis TV News Has a Dateline Issue

Posted By on Tue, Jan 29, 2019 at 3:24 PM

TV 5
  • TV 5
I almost didn't post this because I worry about sounding like a broken record on this topic. But a recent WMC Facebook post stands out as a special example of how our broadcast media has abandoned any responsibility to the idea of "first do no harm."

For years Fly on the Wall has observed local news teams over-reporting crime and padding their broadcasts and social media feeds with crime reporting from other markets. Most out of town stories aren't introduced with a dateline, giving the initial impression that these scandals and abominations might be local. This dislocation is amplified by headline driven "scroll and share" consumer habits. I'm hardly the first critic of this cheap, media economy approach to news delivery, nor am I the only journalist to suggest that an over-saturation of fear-based reporting coupled to endless stream of brown faces builds stereotypes and cements misleading cultural narratives while triggering racist anxiety and public policy crafted in response to racist anxiety.

The post in question:


On one hand, the link attached to WMC's post does eventually identify Houston a the location of the event. Many, similar posts don't even do that and one has to be clicked in order to see a dateline pegging the story to Florida, California, or somewhere else in the heartland. Only, people don't read news in blocks, taking in all the content at once. We read top to bottom, left to right. So the first information consumers get from WMC's post is the station's logo followed by news that five officers have been shot and are being transported to the hospital. At this point in reading, anybody with a husband, wife, son, daughter, or friend on the local force experiences a little heart failure. It may be allayed if they read on, but the messenger has already failed by not providing key information up front while appealing to raw emotion and cravenly picking at the scabs of discontent.

As if on cue one of the first commenters emerges from the disinformed fever swamp to pin this mass shooting of police officers on an imagined "race war" ginned up by President Barack Obama.

So why would the commenter think this drug raid-related shooting was somehow related to younger generations and Obama's secret race war? Although the linked story doesn't include the usual mug shot and one has to Google a bit to get the details, these perps were 50-ish and white. 
Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle
  • Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle

But an endless news stream showing crime after crime — brown face after brown face — creates a misleading narrative that lends itself to irrational conclusion. Per the old programmer's maxim: Garbage in, garbage out.

None of this is accidental. It almost feels trite to remind consumers that content is a market run by enormous financial interests who use trusted, appropriately coiffed personalities to anchor their brands and make you think they care about anything besides where the next dollar's coming from. That's glib, but it's neither incorrect or an understatement to say that news content is determined by market, not the public good. 

For newsrooms, police blotter crime reporting with no context and no followup stories requires very little investment and no investment at all if you're sharing from an affiliate market. This stuff is as close to free as news content gets. Meanwhile, to borrow from media critic James T. Hamilton, useful and informative but more costly and potentially less clickable stories are left undone due to the "difficulties of translating the public benefits from excellent news coverage into private incentives for [media] owners."

If TV news is our window on the world, the view is constantly grim and brown is the color of mayhem. The market has spoken and the second comment to the post is the kind of dividend it pays. 

All WMC's social media person had to do to make this post not abhorrent was include the word "Texas" somewhere in the first sentence. That's it. So, at this point it may be fair to assume that showing a jot of responsibility really would kill our TV news folks, and someone would no doubt interpret their tragic death as yet another victim of Obama's fantasy race war.

In other words, we're doomed: Scene at 11. Thanks WMC. 

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Gannett Layoffs Hit Commercial Appeal Newsroom

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 10:14 AM

In December of last year, Fly on the Wall predicted layoffs would be forthcoming at Gannett sometime after the new year. It had seemed like an inevitability since November's dismal quarterly report and the call for early buyouts that always presages another round of cuts. 

Yesterday, it finally happened. On Wednesday, January 23rd, Gannett laid off newsroom employees at newspapers across the country.

Via Poynter:

Another brutal day for journalism.

Gannett began slashing jobs all across the country Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that was anticipated even before the recent news that a hedge-fund company was planning to buy the chain.

The cuts were not minor.

The CA, which lost many top-of-pay scale employees to the Daily Memphian startup and has been under a hiring freeze, appears to have fared better than many Gannett publications.

As of now only one newsroom layoff has been confirmed. Four open positions have been eliminated. This story will be updated as more is known.


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Thursday, January 17, 2019

On Gannett, The Commercial Appeal, and Digital First

Dead Pools & Death Stars

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2019 at 1:59 PM

"I am most afraid of our important, consequential work getting upended because our business model is further disrupted."

- Commercial Appeal managing editor Mark Russell in an interview published by, 1-13-2019.

"In April, The Post published the editorial headlined 'As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,' calling on Alden Global Capital to sell the newspaper after it cut 30 more positions in the newsroom, leaving it at a fraction of its size just a few years ago. Then in May, three top figures at the Denver Post, including its former owner, resigned amid budget and staff cuts."

- From an AP report about Alden-backed Digital First Media's move to acquire The Commercial Appeal's parent company, Gannett Co. Published 1-14-2019.

If MNG/Digital First Media successfully acquires The Commercial Appeal's parent company, Gannett Co., it's time to start a dead pool. Only, instead of celebrity deaths, we'll bet on daily newspapers. Also, I'm calling first dibs: The Commercial Appeal, 2021 — RIP. 

After news broke that Digital First media was making moves to acquire Gannett, many local media watchers wondered if there was any juice left to squeeze from Memphis' already greatly diminished daily newspaper. It's a fair question, but only a tiny piece of the bigger picture. Whether or not the CA can withstand another round of screw-tightening, the market's certainly interested in finding out. Gannett stock rose 21 percent following the announcement and, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, this makes it harder for Gannett to, "justify turning its back on the offer," or go forward with plans to expand its own digital footprint by purchasing Gizmodo Media (Previously Gawker Media).

Frankly, if not for Digital First's reputation as "The Death Star of newspaper chains," the company's reasons for making an offer and encouraging Gannett to pursue other offers, might sound downright noble.
From the WSJ:

In the letter, Digital First accused [Gannett's] management of poor stewardship and of damaging the company’s financial position by making several “aspirational digital deals” that haven't paid off. It demanded that Gannett put all digital acquisitions on hold and hire bankers to review strategic alternatives. 

That sounds like the Gannett we all know. But to extend the Star Wars metaphor, this isn't Han Solo swooping in with his blaster to save the day. To borrow from Will Bunch at

"The dirty little secret is that DFM learned — at least for now — that it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent of reach each year will cancel. Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s, after Smith and his fellow hedge-funders have sucked out every last drop."

Is Bunch being alarmist? He's certainly not the only media watcher to sense a disturbance in the force. I caught a similar chill and the market's positive response to the Digital First news instantly called to mind a line in James T. Hamilton's 2003 book All The News That's Fit to Sell. When applied to the information business, economics really earns its reputation as "the dismal science."

Hamilton's book is aging well. It delves into how markets shape media bias with attention paid to how little the value of well-informed communities has to do with the value of commodified media product. It more or less describes and defines the kinds of changes we've all observed in local media markets. It's what happens when the public's interest shapes public interest and profit drives all.


What happened to Alderaan can happen here.

The Digital First news took me back to that happy moment in 2018 when The Daily Memphian, a new startup, siphoned away much of the CA's top talent, effectively cloning the ailing Gannett property in a locally owned but digital-only environment. Most media consumers cheered, but I went full Cassandra on social media and any excitement generated by the prospect of a new information startup was dampened by the sense that we'd now crossed some kind of risk threshold. Every media  startup's a dicey proposition; now the Gannett-damaged CA had been cut in half — its talent gutted by a digital twin with good intentions. The idea of having no daily non-broadcast news source in Memphis within the next decade had to be seriously entertained.

In spite of recent and well-justified optimism, I once again submit my modest observation: The sky is falling. Maybe not for everybody and maybe not right now. But someday and soon and as reported elsewhere, there are no good guys in this deal.  But if Digital First takes Gannett there won't be a Commercial Appeal in 2022.

Write it down. 

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Local 24 Quietly Deletes Controversial Tweet

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 10:00 AM

WATN, Local 24, had an interesting way of framing news about Cyntoia Brown's commuted life sentence.

Brown, the teenage sex trafficking victim who killed a john when she was 16, was granted executive clemency Monday, January 7th.

Here's WATN's original tweet on the story:

Local 24 quietly deleted the tweet Tuesday, after it started receiving negative attention. The account has made no official mention of the deletion, nor has anybody accounted for the unfortunate framing of a tragic and complicated story.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer cuts to the heart of things:

Over the past week, MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas has been taking local broadcast stations to task for the huge role they play in linking African-Americans and criminality. She's been particularly vocal about the number of black faces linked to crime that show up in local social media feeds whether the news is local or not.

If you want to know just how disproportionately crime is reported in the Memphis market, the Memphis Flyer does an occasional survey.

This isn't a condition unique to Memphis and since, at a national scale, local TV news stations reach more viewers than all the top cable stations combined, it's fair to say that regional broadcasters across America play a huge role in shaping urban narratives related to race and crime. Local 24's tweet is just the latest example, and an especially egregious one. 

By deleting the tweet, someone has acknowledged its inappropriateness or, at least, the potential for controversy. But deletions like this require some accompanying public statement. For example, when WMC distanced itself from a deleted tweet reading: "Nashville is still trash,"  a subsequent tweet explained the deleted post didn't represent the station's "values or views."

Whether there's an accounting or not, here's something to think about. Negligent and incendiary headlines and the over-association of black and brown faces with violent crime isn't new, and neither is criticism pointing it out. The people responsible for organizing and distributing the news in 2019 know exactly what they are doing. They do it anyway. 

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Friday, December 21, 2018

Commercial Appeal Shares Holiday Story of Messiah-Like Christmas Stocking

Posted By on Fri, Dec 21, 2018 at 11:20 AM

When the holidays get hectic and stressful it's good for the soul to pause and remember the true reason for the season: Selling shit. Anxious for this yearly opportunity to serve a special convergence of reader interest and advertiser need, many news organizations, including the one that publishes this blog, create special gift guides. That's why it's so nice that The Commercial Appeal went a completely different way and told the story of a magical Christmas stocking that suffers for your favorite cook.

Wait, never mind. It's just another gift guide. That "suffers" bit was just a typo. Our bad. Fly on the Wall has been hoping for miracles lately, and we thought this might be one.


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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

MLK50 Tapped to Join ProPublica's Local Reporting Network

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2018 at 10:15 AM

Wendi Thomas
  • Wendi Thomas
A rare bit of good news for Memphis-area media consumers, especially those with a taste for investigative work.

, the Pulitzer-winning digital newsroom focused on investigative journalism in the public interest, has selected Wendi Thomas and her MLK50 Justice Through Journalism project, to participate in year two of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. Thomas describes the announcement as a, “vote of confidence in the importance of this work.”

ProPublica’s Local News Network supports regional and local investigative journalism and MLK50 is one of 14 selected organizations.

From the ProPublica announcement:

"Through the program, participating reporters collaborate with ProPublica senior editors Charles Ornstein and Marilyn W. Thompson as they embark on investigative journalism within their communities. Two of the projects, based in Illinois, also will work with the staff of ProPublica Illinois. ProPublica reimburses one year’s salary and benefits for each of the participating reporters and also supports projects with its expertise in data, research and engagement elements of the work… Topics will include racial segregation, correctional facilities, emergency response, environmental regulation, profiteering and higher education." 

MLK50 is taking part in the general, local reporting category.

“While the past year has seen yet more cutbacks at local news organizations, the ProPublica Local Reporting Network has been a bright spot nationally,”  Ornstein said, in a written statement. “We couldn’t be happier with the accountability journalism produced by our inaugural class and are excited to pursue another year of investigative projects with moral force.”

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom and nearly 11 years old. It has been honored with four Pulitzer Prizes, three Peabody Awards, two Emmy Awards, and five George Polk Awards.

For more details about the partnership you can read MLK50's announcement here

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Will The Commercial Appeal Face More Newsroom Layoffs?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 6, 2018 at 1:49 PM

Gannett: Newspapers lack resources to spellcheck their own names. Will likely cut more of these resources.
  • Gannett: Newspapers lack resources to spellcheck their own names. Will likely cut more of these resources.
Will The Commercial Appeal face more newsroom layoffs? Probably. Can the diminished daily newspaper withstand more cuts? It's hard to say. But before getting into any of that, I'd like to share a few of the things Maribel Wadsworth, president of USA Today Network, allegedly told Gannett employees during a company-wide conference call according to a report by The Nashville Scene. I'd then like to provide an easy to understand translation for folks who don't work in the print media and therefore won't be hip to the industry's famously colorful jargon.

• “As we continue this transition ... it's important to understand … that it will require us to think about our overall cost structure in alignment with profitability."

Translated: layoffs are coming.

• “Going forward, we will be a smaller company."

Translated: Layoffs are coming.

• “It’s gonna feel rocky at times. It just is. We just have to be very clear-eyed about that.”

Translated: Layoffs are coming.

Tennessean staffers were also told:

• “There is no plan for a mass layoff before Christmas.”


None of this is surprising. Gannett's Q3 numbers weren't good. Digital growth isn't making up for losses in print and the company is looking to cut operating costs. In previous years, when the CA was a Scripps property, layoffs inevitably followed any efforts to recruit early retirees. It seems as though the trend will continue under Gannett. In November, a company-wide buyout offer targeted employees over 55 with more than 15-years experience. The deadline to take Gannett's offer of 30-35-weeks pay, and a possible bonus of up to $5,520 is December 10th. 

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