A Short-ish History of Metro Pulse

Here are the people and events that conspired to create Metro Pulse

Metro Pulse as it is today wasn't planned, exactly. It evolved in ways none of its founders expected.

In 1991, Knoxville was a city with two daily newspapers and several cocky "alternative" papers, most of them published irregularly, most without much chance of longevity.

Ashley Capps, a rising music promoter who was at the time a public-radio DJ with an evening jazz program who was frustrated that Knoxville didn't have effective ways to promote live music. Capps approached Ian Blackburn, a young print-shop technician who had published his own magazine, The Lame Monkey Manifesto, and discussed the idea over pizza at Tomato Head.

That summer of 1991, Blackburn brought Rand Pearson, a kid fresh out of the University of Georgia with a little experience with Athens Magazine, and Pearson's friend Margaret Weston.

After considering the name Hot Stuff, the aspiring publishers settled on the somewhat more conservative monicker Metro Pulse. The biweekly paper was, during its first five months, assembled in Blackburn's Fort Sanders apartment and published in a sort of booklet format, letter-sized and glued together at the spine.

The covers of the first issues of Metro Pulse hailed the biweekly as an "Arts and Entertainment Guide in Knoxville." Distributed mainly downtown and in the UT area for an audience of young adults, it offered neither feature stories nor news reporting. Most of each issue was taken up with calendar listings and short columns about current music and movies.

However, it did include a syndicated feature previously unknown in Knoxville, called "News of the Weird."

The early Metro Pulse wasn't always the thickest or liveliest of the "alternative" papers that littered the streets in the early '90s, but to some it came to seem the most earnest, the only one to publish a comprehensive and dependable entertainment calendar. It was also the first to enjoy the services of a real art director, Jared Coffin, who arrived in 1992 to redesign the paper into a full tabloid. He immediately made the paper seem more engaging and professional than it actually was through pure force of inspired design.

At the same time, the paper gained some status with a Gay Street address, moving from its original Fort Sanders-apartment digs into offices above the lobby of the historic Bijou Theatre, adjoining Capps' relatively new promotional venture, AC Entertainment.

In early 1992, Weston quit the venture, and Metro Pulse hired its first managing editor, Coury Turczyn. A young Detroit native with real magazine experience—he'd been an associate editor for Whittle Communications—Turczyn had returned to Knoxville after a disappointing sojourn in Southern California. Under Turczyn's leadership, MP expanded its coverage, introducing more reporting, and real in-depth cover stories. He hired young UT student writer Shelly Ridenour, who did much to establish the paper's reputation for music coverage. Also introduced during Turczyn's early years was a short column called "Secret History," penned by one of Turczyn's old Whittle colleagues, Jack Neely; launched in May, 1992, it was at first just an occasional feature dealing with Knoxville's complicated past. (For Neely, the column would spin off an unexpected second career of lectures, radio appearances, and work with other media from the BBC to A Prairie Home Companion.)

Turczyn would remain the managing editor through many changes over the next nine years.

Metro Pulse might have shared the short-lived fates of other free weekly papers if not for three unplanned and unexpected events that happened to occur in its first 16 months of publication. When MP was four months old, the longtime daily Knoxville Journal folded; following the pattern set by many other cities in that era, Knoxville had become a one-daily-newspaper town. In most American cities, free weeklies arose to fill the demand for news left by the closing of the second daily paper. In Knoxville, Metro Pulse was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and off to a running start.

It became clear over the next several months that Knoxville missed having a second voice, showing a demand for more local reporting. Betty Bean, a well-known investigative reporter for the Journal, began writing occasional reported pieces for MP in June, 1992.

Meanwhile, Whittle Communications, the 23-year-old magazine-publishing and TV-producing company based in Knoxville, began to shrivel in 1992, shedding employees in the first round of layoffs that would empty the company by 1994, spilling publishing professionals from around the country into the streets looking for any kind of work. More than a dozen of them would find it, whether freelance or full-time, at Metro Pulse.

The third unexpected event in the evolution of Metro Pulse wsa the arrival in town of one Joe Sullivan. An investment expert and onetime reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Sullivan had spent most of his adult life in New York and Chicago; but he had grown up in Knoxville, scion of some of the city's oldest families. Nearing what is retirement age for many, Sullivan's longtime dream was to return to his hometown and start his own newspaper. After looking around and noticing a paper that already had some momentum, he became convinced that it might be easier to buy one.

Metro Pulse was cultivating a readership, but not much of a profit margin. After more than a year of losing money, Capps, Pearson, and other investors were happy to sell. In November, 1992, Sullivan became the owner of the paper. He would eventually bear the title of publisher.

Changes came immediately, as MP moved from the Bijou to the larger mezzanine of the Burwell Building, the Gay Street skyscraper that towers over the Tennessee Theatre; once again, Metro Pulse was located just above a historic theater's lobby. A 60-ish Republican with conservative tastes, Sullivan tolerated MP's music emphasis, but added a heavy measure of political reporting. Veteran newspaperman Barry Henderson, one of the Journal's castaways, returned from a year in China to join the staff in August, 1993 to become MP's editor.

Meanwhile, after a previous rejection, the prestigious Association of Alternative Newspapers approved Metro Pulse for permanent membership. The following spring, the paper also won several awards for journalistic excellence from organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists, surprising some in the journalistic establishment who were hardly aware of the paper. They would be the first of many awards, both on a regional and a national level.

In March, 1994, Metro Pulse published its first Best of Knoxville survey, a reader poll which would become an annual tradition, typically drawing more than 2,000 ballots from around the metro area.

In late 1994, the rapidly growing paper moved once again, occupying the entire third floor of the historic Arnstein Building, with windows overlooking Market Square and Krutch Park. There it would stay for a decade. Six months later, after four years as a fortnightly, Metro Pulse became a weekly, and at the same time shifted its publication date from Friday to Thursday.

In August, 1996, Ian Blackburn launched Metro Pulse's website, metropulse.com. Thanks to the website, Metro Pulse writers began receiving e-mail responses from France, Hong Kong, even Iraq.

Over the years, MP featured work by several writers who would go on to larger-scale fame. The longtime restaurant reviewer known to MP readers as Bonnie Appetit later became managing editor of Cooking Light magazine, and later editor in chief of Yoga Journal and Natural Health magazines. Allison Glock, one of the most dependable feature writers from MP's early years, became a contributing editor for GQ and an author of books that have received national attention. Lee Gardner left his job as staff writer to become editor of Baltimore's highly successful City Paper—following that paper's Heather Joslyn, another early MP contributor. Former Metro Pulse art director Lisa Horstman (who took over when Jared Coffin left in 1995) has earned national acclaim as a writer and illustrator of children's books. Shelly Ridenour became an editor for the trendy New York-based magazines Nylon and Jane and later at the New York Post's Page Six magazine.

The paper went through various personnel changes over the years. After publishing successful collections of Jack Neely's "Secret History" columns, publisher Rand Pearson left MP in early 1996, eventually to become a journalist and author in Kenya.

Barry Henderson left the paper to become editor of the Prague Post—before the self-styled Bad Penny returned to take his old job. Former News-Sentinel section editor Bill Dockery and Nashville author Bill Carey both did time as editors of Metro Pulse. Mike Gibson, who started as a freelancer in the mid-'90s, signed on as a staff writer.

In the late '90s, Jesse Mayshark, an award-winning News-Sentinel reporter who had previously freelanced for Metro Pulse, returned to MP, eventually to become editor of the paper. He proved to be a formidable reporter, earning a spot on local television talk shows and winning several national AAN awards. Staffer Joe Tarr, who walked across hot coals, was pursued by a bloodhound, and lived in a notoriously dangerous tenement, all in the interest of Metro Pulse stories, was also a sometime award winner. In 2004, departing entertainment editor Adrienne Martini won an AAN award for best feature for her harrowing personal account of post-partum depression. In 1999, UT Press published The Marble City, a photographic book that had started as a Metro Pulse cover story about Knoxville's graveyards by Jack Neely and photographer Aaron Jay.

Coury Turczyn left the paper in 2000 when his girlfriend accepted a promising job out of state. Mayshark left as MP editor for a position with the New York Times. Henderson, the staffer with the most newspaper experience, returned to the post of editor after holding the titles of managing editor and senior editor.

In 2003, Joe Sullivan retired from his post as publisher, and sold the paper to Knoxville entrepreneur and sometime novelist Brian Conley. However, Sullivan retained his editorial column, which had become closely scrutinized required reading in some powerful circles.

Metro Pulse underwent some changes. Paige Travis, who had interned and later freelanced as a writer for Metro Pulse before starting her own rival entertainment magazine, Spark, joined the staff as arts and entertainment editor. Conley also added an additional editorial opinion column, plus a new regular feature, "Street Talk," and, perhaps most surprisingly, the addition of a regular column by former News Sentinel editor Frank Cagle.

In 2003, Conley also launched Metro Pulse Publishing, which produced a book of musical memoirs, Cumberland Avenue Revisited, and a one-of-a-kind anthology of Knoxville writing called Knoxville Bound.

Though the paper took on some younger editorial staffers, like art director Josh Coldiron, staff writers Molly Kincaid and Ellen Mallernee, and the versatile Clint Casey, who had worked for Metro Pulse in several other capacities, more than half of the editorial staff had worked for Metro Pulse in one capacity or another in the 1990s.

Even the setting's familiar. In late 2004, Metro Pulse left the Arnstein for more spacious quarters over two floors in the Burwell Building, the headquarters from which the paper had raised eyebrows a decade earlier. In 2006, staff writer Leslie Wylie was promoted to editor in chief, where she remained for over a year until deciding to pursue a career as a professional equestrian.

Finally, in mid-2007, Conley sold Metro Pulse to E.W. Scripps, the century-plus old media company that also owns the Knoxville News Sentinel as well as other local publications such as the Shopper and Skirt. This brought immediate fears that Metro Pulse would leave its alt-weekly roots to become a safe, corporate weekly. However, with Wylie leaving to become a competitive horse-rider, Scripps' first act was to hire former Metro Pulse editor Coury Turczyn to resume his position at the paper after seven years away. He in turn hired Travis Gray as art director and former Metro Pulse staff writer Matthew Everett as arts & entertainment editor, with the goal of revamping and redesigning the publication and its website.

Stay tuned for more...