Under the Lighthouse

We're taking up a spot on the rocks we once loathed


by Barry Henderson

Let's start right off with the disappointment I feel . Metro Pulse was an independent, free-wheeling publication for its first 16 years. In 14 of those years I've been associated with it, on and off, as editor, managing editor and senior editor. We grew to be a big fish in our own little pond.

Now we're becoming the proverbial little fish in the big pond. We're plunging into the realm of the E. W. Scripps Co., the national media power that is taking ownership of our paper July 1. We have every assurance from Bruce Hartmann, the publisher of Scripps' News Sentinel , that we'll continue to enjoy full editorial independence. We'll be able to decide what we cover and how we cover it, what to praise and what to attack, without regard to the Sentinel 's coverage and positions. We'll be encouraged to continue to compete with the daily as we see fit. That's what we are told, and we have no reason to believe otherwise.

But it's an abrupt change nonetheless, especially for me. I've been competing with the News Sentinel for most of the last 25 years, first at the old daily Knoxville Journal and then at Metro Pulse . It will be a physical shock to see the Scripps lighthouse adorn the MP banner, even though I expect it to happen.

Both The Journal , which was part of a joint operating agreement with the Sentinel , and Metro Pulse have maintained an adversarial relationship with Scripps and its organs, fueled by editorial competition and inflamed at the end of 1991 when Scripps bought out The Journal and it closed down. I still feel that sting. Knoxville's loss of competing dailies may never be fully reconciled.

But the relationship between Metro Pulse and the Sentinel , and particularly between me and Hartmann, has warmed quite a bit in the last five years or so, as our paper began to gain more respect from the daily and its publisher for what we've achieved. That's not to say we got clubby. We were still utterly competitive, but when we began to get a compliment here and there, it was harder to hold onto an attitude of open animosity. Besides, we've always had friends on the Sentinel staff. We've made fun of one another while bullying or dodging each other for news breaks. It was distressing, to say the least, to have a scoop set in type Tuesday night, waiting to go on line Wednesday afternoon and to appear in print Wednesday night, only to read an account of the same material in Wednesday morning's Sentinel .

Before this goes any farther I should say that I'm fairly optimistic that the new relationship will work out to our advantage in some ways. We'll see, but the assurances of editorial independence, to include the honoring by Scripps of opposing opinions, seems genuine.

The prior claim to independence enjoyed by Metro Pulse and its staff was built on the ownership of Joe Sullivan, the   philanthropist/news junkie who propped it up financially for more than 10 years, and by Brian Conley, who bought it and gave it a workable business model, saving its independence and local ownership when Joe was ready to sell it. Conley has been a good publisher, in my estimation, and will continue to be a good one under the new ownership. He sold it, I'm told, because he got an offer too good to refuse, although I'm not privy to the details.

It was, in the end, a business decision for both Scripps and Conley,   and it may well have been a good business decision for both them and us, the journalists who've called it our paper without regard to the little matter of ownership and business risks and rewards.

We're hoping that having the resources of Scripps behind us may ultimately improve our staffing and equipment woes, which journalists have been bemoaning for all of my 40 years in the game.

Devotion of   resources to the editorial side in the print media has been in steady decline in my time in newspapering, with an occasional small upward spike here and there for competitive reasons.

Journalism is not dying, no matter what you may think, but in the age of electronic media and the Internet, it is in a state of flux that is not very pretty. It will survive so long as the notion of a free press survives, but it will change continually and inexorably to conform with the medium that's in vogue. And it will have to be, as it has always been, a business.

The announcement, on which the Sentinel beat us into the public eye, damnit, did not appear on the front page. We're not big enough for that. It didn't appear on the local front, either, though that's where I was thinking it belonged. It was published on the Sentinel 's business-section front. It was a business story in the Sentinel editors' eyes, and the very best we can hope for is that it stays one.


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