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The deals, the launches, and good reporting of 2018.

The big media suspense story of 2018 came to an end Wednesday, August 8th when the board of Tribune Media voted to terminate a controversial and law-bending $3.9 billion merger with Sinclair TV. This deal would have made WREG Channel 3, Memphis' top-rated TV news station, a Sinclair property, and Memphis a new market for a company with unprecedented national reach and defined by a history of delocalization and forced right wing content.

Now, with Sinclair solidly in the rearview mirror, Tribune has entered into a new agreement with another giant, Nexstar. This latest development could alter the Memphis media landscape considerably.

According to a Bloomberg report, Nexstar plans to stay just below the FCC ownership cap by divesting in 13 markets. One of these markets will almost certainly be Memphis, where the company already owns WATN-24 and WLMT-30, which function as a content/staff-sharing duopoly.

click to enlarge The Daily Memphian
  • The Daily Memphian

In print — if that's the right descriptor — the year's biggest news was the birth of a new, ambitiously scaled digital-only news source. The Daily Memphian launched online in September. Executive editor Eric Barnes said the venture became necessary when Memphis' traditional "newspaper of record," the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal, lost considerable editorial autonomy. Many of the new startup's first hires were marquee reporters and columnists siphoned away from the CA — refugees from the increasingly non-local local newspaper. This harvesting of established talent allowed the new enterprise to generate considerable local interest, but it also resulted in an exciting new thing looking a lot like the declining newspaper that made The Daily Memphian a necessity.

The second biggest news in print is The Commercial Appeal's comeback after being displaced by a parent company eager to sell the real estate, and relieved of its institutional memory and talent by a new startup. Losing so much top-of-payscale reporters and columnists allowed the hobbled daily paper to staff up like it hasn't been able to in years. And, while it's still plagued by embarrassing mistakes, the result of a careless and clueless out-of-town editing process, the CA still managed to break the most relevant and change-making investigative report in recent memory.

"For the dozens of children currently separated from their families while awaiting trial inside the Shelby County Juvenile Court and Detention Center, the cost of calling home often presents a barrier to keeping in touch with their parents," Sarah Macaraeg wrote in a detailed report showing how Shelby County's contract with phone service provider GTL brought in a million dollars annually. Within a week, steps were taken by County Mayor Lee Harris and Commissioner Tami Sawyer to make phone calls from juveniles to their parents or guardians cost-free.

Gannett Co's Q3 earnings contained some good news for The Commercial Appeal's parent company. Digital revenue is up by $3.3 million over last year. Unfortunately, digital gains couldn't keep pace with the $5.5 million in revenue lost from declining circulation. Publishing revenue is down $43.9 million with advertising and marketing taking a $26.5 million hit.

The disappointing economic news arrived shortly after Gannett's latest letdown to loyal print subscribers. Deadlines weren't extended to allow for even rudimentary coverage of the midterm elections.

Following the Q3 report, Gannett sent out a company-wide memo offering early retirement to employees 55 or older who've been with the company for at least 15 years. Then, USA Today Network president Maribel Wadsworth, told Gannett employees it was time, "to think about our overall cost structure in alignment with profitability.

"We will be a smaller company," she said, promising there would be no major layoffs before the holidays. What happens in January remains to be seen.

The Daily Memphian isn't the only ambitious launch of 2018. Storyboard Memphis is a new monthly printed paper featuring original urbanist-oriented reporting and a curated selection of news stories taken from Memphis area websites.

More good news: ProPublica, the Pulitzer-winning digital newsroom, selected Wendi Thomas and her MLK50 Justice Through Journalism project to join its Local Reporting Network. Thomas described the announcement as a "vote of confidence in the importance of this work."

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