It’s been a tough couple of weeks in the newspaper business in Nashville. A number of journalists are off the beat for the time being. We at WPLN are sad to see the City Paper go. Its staff penned an eloquent argument on the need for newspapers in its final issue. In its entirety, here it is:
We arrive here at the end.
By the time you read this, the staff of The City Paper will have likely disbanded, our last issue printed and our website updated for the last time.
We don’t say this to be morose. The media landscape is changing, and our particular model — a free print newspaper with a corresponding free Internet home — did not produce enough revenue to survive. And while we’re not happy about this, we understand that these are the risks that come with being a journalist in the 21st century.
But enough about us. Let’s talk about you.
You live in a city that has had competitive newspapers for much of the past two centuries. Those rivalries have been good to you. They’ve given you choice. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve provided competition, which improved the papers. Even in The City Paper’s current capacity — our entire staff could meet comfortably in The Tennessean’s conference room, with a few chairs left over — we have been a motivating force, pushing our rival to break news and tell better stories.
And now that pressure will be gone, along with one of your choices. We believe passionately that newspapers — or their work online, we make no distinction here — improve the lives of people. We believe that Nashville needs more professional journalists, not fewer. And as we depart, we urge you to support — indeed, fight for — the continued survival of newspapers. Here’s why.
1. Newspapers watch over the government
A former lawmaker laughed as he told a member of our staff that local politicians are probably (albeit secretly) happy with this paper’s demise. But that’s not a surprise. Fewer news outlets means fewer people sniffing around. After all, you don’t do more with less. You do less with less.
The most sacred duty of a newspaper is to report on government, its power, and how those vested with that power ultimately use it. Government is a living, breathing thing. It changes its behavior and form depending on who pulls its leash.
Government also shapes lives, paves roads, hires teachers, chases criminals, provides a safety net and picks up the pieces when something like a 100-year flood hits us.
But government, like its people, can make errors.
Newspapers, more than any other source, are uniquely suited to press the government — and the public servants who run it — to maintain its responsibility to the people. That demands experience, diligence, analysis, context — things that are impossible to glean from a reposted press release. The best papers ask tough questions of your leaders, in a necessary adversarial role, so they remain accountable.
Sadly, publications that once drove the government beat are now yellowed and deceased. The ones that are left dedicate fewer reporters to watch huge budgets — $30 billion at the state level, $1.8 billion in Metro — and the policy decisions that shape citizens’ lives.
That isn’t the only crucial beat where the news industry is fielding a weakened team. As of next week, there will be no full-time dedicated courts reporter in Nashville. A quick scan of the legal landscape shows a U.S. district court, a chancery court, a circuit court, a criminal court, and a state supreme court. There’s also a U.S. attorney’s office, a district attorney’s office, a public defender’s office, a metropolitan police department and a sheriff’s office. We couldn’t cover enough of them. Similarly, the Associated Press bureau — the staff that covers news across the entire state — will be down to four people by month’s end.
Broadcast TV news and radio do their part, and they have good people who do fine work. But their medium often lacks the space, depth and focus to provide the thorough coverage newspapers can leverage on a daily basis.
Sometimes it’s a matter of defending the public’s right to know. This newspaper spent thousands of dollars in court, for example, fighting for access to public records in an investigation into recruiting violations at Montgomery Bell Academy. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association fought tooth and nail to keep those records secret — and to be clear, they are still fighting. Other agencies still tightly clutch their records, refusing to give them up for less than astronomical fees or a judge’s order.
The fight for open records and government transparency isn’t about digging through dirty laundry. It’s a means to understanding how institutions work, what their priorities are, and how they make their decisions — whether it’s in a speaker’s back office or in a smoke-filled room. It’s the ability to see whether an institution’s public face and private actions match up.
Quality government reporting goes beyond the stage show of what happened at last night’s council meeting or the hearing up on the Hill. In a capital city whose politics are smaller than they look, newspapers piece together what happened at those meetings behind the scenes, and what motivations are the undercurrents of every decision.
Reporting on government is more than tuning in for a big vote on the House floor or noting when lawmakers make outrageous statements. It’s a public mission and a public trust to keep government, and those in it, honest.
2. Newspapers inform a community
At a fundamental level, the transaction between a newspaper and its readers is — to paraphrase media critic Jay Rosen — “We were there, you weren’t, let us tell you about it.”
We were at the council meeting, and you couldn’t be, what with a full-time job and two kids. So let us tell you what they did, what they said it means — and, if necessary, what it really means. We were at the Titans game, and maybe you were too, but we were also at practice earlier in the week and in the locker room after the game. So let us tell you why that third down went wrong in the fourth quarter.
We know you saw that gang leader who was arrested, but did you know he has a history of intimidating witnesses? We saw a preview screening of the latest summer blockbuster, and you’re waiting to see if you should pay full price, so let us tell you — wait for the video.
It’s the same transaction that takes place across dinner tables every night, but with a working journalist paid to take care of two-thirds of the equation every time. A person whose entire job is to be where you’re not, and then keep you informed of what you missed.
The relationship depends on trust. It would be entirely reasonable for a community to wish to select the correspondents who act as witnesses and watchdogs around town on their behalf. But of course, that’s not how it works. Reporters are hired, and readers must determine whether they can be trusted. More broadly, readers must determine whether the publication that hired those reporters can be trusted. If it can’t, why pick it up?
That’s why a city needs more than one newspaper — and ideally, more than two. Competing newspapers are essentially vying for readers’ trust. They have an existential incentive to do so. And if they all meet the test, then all the better for citizens.
Of course, in the digital age, information is never lacking for those who seek it. The proliferation of self-publishing means anyone can be a correspondent, adding to an ever-growing stream of opinion and observations about anything happening anywhere. That has allowed invaluable contributions in various forms — 140-character dispatches, 1,000-word blog pieces, Instagram photos and YouTube videos. It’s hard to argue that this development has not resulted in a net gain for anyone who wants to know more about the world we live in. But if this new reality has left citizens trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose, newspapers seek to offer a steady pour.
That pour, at its best, filters out the noise. The noise of corporations and public relations firms trying to control a message. The noise of politicians and spokespeople trying very hard to shape the news to fit their own worldview.
Professional news outlets of all kinds have undeniably failed in this regard on occasion. Most recent in our memory is the Boston Marathon bombing, and the chaotic manhunt that followed it. Too often in those first 24 hours, the filter was off, and news organizations magnified confusing noise instead of cutting through it.
But what any community needs — whether it’s the nation or Nashville — is a set of people who show up the next day. Whatever their missteps in the middle of a storm, when any number of sources are trying to describe what seems to be happening, professional journalists have an obligation to show up the day after — to work out what really happened, and to begin explaining how and why.
The sort of people who end up in this business can take the value of being informed for granted. To the kind of information junkie who works at a newspaper, it’s an obsession and compulsion on top of a civic duty. If you’re reading this, you may share that obsession.
But as national and local sources of consistent, reliable information are weakened, if not lost, it’s worth making the case again: That the voting booth is only powerful if it’s occupied by citizens who know what the candidates have said and done, and what they plan to do. That a neighborhood’s residents deserve to have someone asking the police questions on their behalf. That it’s worth knowing who owns the sandwich shop down the street, or how the local hockey team is doing.
The reason isn’t just that knowledge is power, although it is. It’s because shared knowledge binds people together. It makes a community stronger at the ballot box and around the water cooler. For all their warts, newspapers have provided that for well over 100 years. We believe professional journalists still should.
3. The obligation going forward
So where does this leave us?
In the future, Nashvillians are going to have to pay for their news somehow if they want journalism. The model that supported journalism in the 20th century — advertiser-supported — shows few signs of being able to make it stronger in the 21st. The City Paper had a tremendous readership, for which we will always be grateful. But we were unable to monetize that — to find enough ad dollars to pay for the reporters who covered the courts, staked out the council meetings, went to the games, and tried to help you understand this city. If we had an answer for this quandary, we probably wouldn’t be publishing our last edition.
What the weeks since our closing was announced have made clear, though, is that Nashville wants newspapers. Emails and voicemails and people stopping us on the street and in shops have emphatically made the point that Nashvillians want to support sources of news.
So what can you do?
Buy a newspaper or subscribe online. We subscribe to The Tennessean. No, we don’t think Gannett has been particularly good for the city, and the recent layoff news at 1100 Broadway only strengthens the notion that big corporate ownership doesn’t care about Nashville. And yes, some of the things they do — like running press releases from hospitals and calling it health coverage — drive us nuts. But, frankly, they are the daily paper we have. The Tennessean still employs committed journalists who cover the city.
(We should also note that our colleagues at the Nashville Post, professional journalists all, operate a daily, subscription website.)
Support an advertiser. Advertisers are consumers, just like we are. They want to know if they’re spending their money wisely. If you find something in an advertisement useful, let them know where you saw it. It may seem simple, but it’s important. Free publications like like the Nashville Scene, Nashville Ledger or TNReport depend on advertising or other non-subscription means to survive.
Most of all, engage the media you have. Whether it’s traditional media or new, print or broadcast or something in between, the barriers between audience and the media are disappearing all the time. If you are on social media, share the news that matters to you. If you like or dislike a story, the phone numbers and email addresses of virtually every editor and reporter in town are easily available. If you like something you read, demand more. If you don’t like it, demand better.
Whatever changes come to Nashville’s media landscape, the only certainty we have is that The City Paper will no longer be around to see, report or affect those developments. But today we are looking at a city that’s very different from the one The City Paper set out to cover 13 years ago, day in, day out. It is an exciting place, bursting with promise and potential, and in some small way we like to think we had a hand in that. For that is another thing newspapers do. They don’t just hold up mirrors so a city can see itself clearly. At their best, they open windows so a city can see what is possible.
Thank you for reading The City Paper. It’s been our honor to tell Nashville’s stories.
Steve Cavendish, Editor
James Nix, Managing Editor
Michael W. Bunch
Geert De Lombaerde
Dana Kopp Franklin