One of my resolutions for the new year is to take a deep breath and count to 10 — or three, at least — when someone asks, “Well, what’s it like working for the News Sentinel?” It’s already happened a couple of times this year.
This much is true: E.W. Scripps bought Metro Pulse. It happened a year and a half ago, on July 1, 2007. Scripps, the 120-year-old national media company, owns this paper. Across the nation, most newspapers known as alternative papers, even those that started out as independently owned papers, now belong to larger communications corporations. New York’s The Village Voice, the original alternative weekly, has been corporate-owned since 1977. Metro Pulse was unusual in that it went 16 years without being bought by a major corporation.
I’ve attended a couple of national alternative-newsweekly conferences, and when I talked to people who worked for other papers, I appreciated that fact. Other editors would say, “You’re locally owned? You’re kidding!” I enjoyed that distinction, and parted with it with some regret.
However, to answer that question: The News Sentinel doesn’t own Metro Pulse.
At these parties I sometimes befuddle folks with the news that I have never met News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy. I have not to my knowledge ever been in the same room with the man. I have never gotten demands, suggestions, leads, warnings, or any variety of advice from anybody on the News Sentinel editorial staff. I have never been inside the News Sentinel building. And, no, I don’t have any access to News Sentinel archives.
We do share some support staff. The technicians who keep our computers running and the people who are in charge of our benefits also work for the News Sentinel and other local Scripps properties. However, no one who works for the News Sentinel ever attends our editorial meetings. Scripps representatives say they like the idea that we’re competing for both stories and advertising with the daily, and want to leave us alone and keep it that way.
I was skeptical about that promise, myself; before Scripps, every previous local owner/publisher did indeed show a great deal of interest in the editorial content of the paper, and on occasion at least would try to push us in this way or that. None were ever as overbearing as some people assumed, but each local publisher has had his own taboos, personal friends, business interests, sacred cows.
As it happened, we had an instant opportunity to find out how sincere Scripps was about that claim. Several weeks before the sale, our incumbent editor had been offered a better job — a rare peach of a job, in fact, riding show horses for a living in Florida — and had announced she was leaving us. We were wondering when the owner would replace her when we heard about the sale.
A publisher’s chief influence on the editorial side of any paper is the ability to hire and fire editors. Scripps conducted a search — it turns out there were more qualified editors in Knoxville than I would have guessed — and invited me and other senior staffers to participate in the interview process.
One candidate was named Coury Turczyn. As it happened, he had been editor of Metro Pulse for most of the paper’s first decade, and is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. He was the editor who got me writing for Metro Pulse in 1992, when I had a good job and didn’t think of Metro Pulse as anything I should take seriously. He left Metro Pulse, and Knoxville, for a few years, and worked on several projects, but carried a flame for Metro Pulse.
In the end, Scripps hired Coury to be editor again.
Before Scripps bought Metro Pulse, the paper had been owned by three different individuals or groups of individuals who could have been, and sometimes were, accused of having some personal bias that showed up in the paper.
Readers often accused us of kowtowing to each of our previous local owners’ personal agendas. Owners’ views did sometimes cause friction on staff. (However, consider that from 1992 until 2007, Metro Pulse was owned by wealthy campaign-contributing Republicans. During that time, accusations of Republican bias in our coverage was, it’s safe to say, rare.)
Ownership is no longer a personal thing. E.W. Scripps’ advantage is that he died in 1926, and never lived in Knoxville. He has, as near as I can tell, no manias, no sacred cows, no politics. Scripps isn’t Republican or Democrat. Scripps is a media company. Scripps owns HGTV and other cable-TV properties. And here’s something: in the ’30s and ’40s, Knoxville’s favorite radio station was WNOX, when Lowell Blanchard was hosting the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, which helped launch the country-music careers of Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Don Gibson, Archie Campbell, and others. Is that local legend diminished by the fact that Scripps — then known as Scripps-Howard — owned the station? WNOX is remembered in histories as a local radio station, run by local people, discovering local talent.
Anyway, the words and pictures you see in these pages, like them or not, come from us local staffers.
There are some things we probably do worry about more acutely than we used to. Some of our early local owners had bought the paper like people buy a yacht. They just liked the idea of owning it. For a while at least it’s fun to own a paper, and to various degrees these publishers appreciated having the forum of Metro Pulse to express their own views. They were therefore willing, not to say content, to run Metro Pulse at a loss. It’s safe to say Scripps isn’t like that.
For the first time we don’t have an owner who’s making story suggestions and occasionally writing a column about a favorite cause. But it’s understood, more than ever before, that we’d better make a living with this.
I don’t mean to suggest that corporate ownership is better. I do miss boasting that we’re locally owned, even when it seemed mainly a theoretical thing. But it’s good, for the first time, to have dental insurance.