When I was a cub reporter we had two or three days of torrential rain and my editor told me to do a weather story. You may find this hard to believe, but as a young man, I was a bit of a wise ass. I asked him if he didn’t think our readers knew that it had rained. He replied, “Son, sometimes we just need to let them know that we know.”
I had another editor who used to walk by my desk and ask “what are the folks doin’?” To which my answer might range from, they’re going to vacation bible school to they are getting ready to lynch the county commission. But I knew I had better have an answer.
What a publication needs is consistency and a personality. It should reflect the community it serves. Readers should feel ownership and not view it as alien. It’s getting harder and harder for newspapers these days. Too many newspapers have suffered staff cuts and appear to be made up of component interchangeable parts. Technology allows your local paper to be assembled most anywhere. Put the paper together in one town, print it in another and distribute it in still another. Ironically, the better the technology the earlier the deadlines and the print edition suffers.
Chain newspapers of the past had their faults. Some of them imposed standardization and all of them squeezed profits to please Wall Street. But they were generally run by newspaper people. They watched the bottom line, but they also made sure they didn’t damage the property long term. But as more and more papers are owned by financiers, who’s looking at the long-term health of a publication? What have you done for me this quarter?
That is not to say there isn’t good journalism being practiced. There are still breaking stories and important stories being reported. It’s a tough job for reporters and editors in this environment. But standardization can deprive a publication of its personality. What’s lost is the day to day compendium of items large and small that create continuity. The answer to “what are the folks doin’?” And do the folks think the people down at the paper have the institutional knowledge to provide context?
The internet has gutted newspaper classifieds. A used car dealer, rather than buy newspaper ads, now pays someone like Car Gurus $1,000 a month. The built-in daily revenue from a full classified section used to undergird the superstructure that supported the whole. Google ads have been devastating. It is understandable that the newspaper industry had to change. I often get an earful from readers about the shortcomings of newspapers. I understand it. But I would also point out that we’ve gotten used to getting things free on the internet.
It is also true that a lot of event calendars, community coverage and the like show up on blogs or on Facebook.
Sandra Clark’s KnoxTnToday certainly has personality and its coverage of what the folks are doing increases each week. It may be the model for the future. As newspapers go more and more online and the print product declines, newspapers are giving up a great advantage. In Memphis right now the Daily Memphian, an on-line publication, has a staff rivaling the size of the Commercial Appeal. And most of the staff used to be the Commercial Appeal. It had a large infusion of capital and has a head start, Sandra is doing it the hard way and it will take a little longer.
But support her. It’s important.
Would you take 8-4? Maybe my memory is fading, but as I recall Phillip Fulmer got fired because the university gave him a contract that set an 8-4 record as the minimum expected. UT went 10-4 the year before Fulmer was fired. They went 9-4 the year before that. It was good enough to earn a fat new contract. There was some grumbling about that. Then the 8-4 clause got out and fans went ape. How could the Vols just accept the situation of being an 8-4 team? Then along came the 5-7 season in 2008, his last, including a loss to Wyoming. Fulmer was fired and UT paid him a small fortune not to coach.
How many Vol fans would cheer an 8-4 season now?
Keep a lane open: The Democrats and their media allies (MSNBC, CNN, etc.) seem determined to re-elect Donald Trump. Joe Biden is leading in the polls, for some unknown and unknowable reason, but what happens if Biden has another meltdown and starts to slip? Next in line are a pair of raving socialists (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) for whom even Never Trumpers would have a hard time voting.
Yet the Democrats, even this early in the process, have shut out Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, ignored the extremely sensible middle of the country, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar as well as popular internet outsider Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraqi war veteran. It would behoove the Democratic National Committee to have a back-up center-left candidate ready for Biden’s meltdown or be saddled with a couple of candidates that Trump will chew up like a Big Mac.
Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman and the former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.