Where Do You Get Your News?

Itâ's increasingly difficult to keep track of all the media outlets, their owners and their agendas

Feature Story

by Barry Henderson

The saga of mass communications in Knoxville mirrors the experience of news and information dissemination in America for more than 200 years. It is a Byzantine story of hundreds of newspapers, radio and television outlets that revolves around foundings, acquisitions, consolidations and failures in a dizzying spiral that has accelerated in the last 25 years and continues, more or less as a matter of routine.

The recent acquisition of Metro Pulse by a subsidiary of the E.W. Scripps company, which also publishes the Knoxville News Sentinel , led us to consider the issue of media ownership and how and why it affects the issue of information dissemination, both locally and globally.

Who owns Knoxville media? Lots and lots of people, including a few private individuals, the leaders of privately held, tightly knit companies and the millions of stockholders of publicly held corporations.

What does that mean to news consumers here? Interviews with media owners, their representatives and academicians who study the media reveal that there are many and varied opinions. But the issue boils down to one answer that attains virtual consensus. Competition in presenting news and editorial products to the public is not only good, but essential to the goal of achieving an informed citizenry.

Paul Ashdown, professor of journalism at the UT College of Communications in Knoxville, has been studying media issues for 40 years. An avid readers of newspapers, Ashdown says, â“Those of us who have been in the business for a long time are rightly concerned about consolidation, lack of competition and so on. But I think the greater danger is that newspapers are simply becoming irrelevant because so few people take the time to read.

â“Ignorance is the great threat to democracy, not newspaper ownership per se, although the two things may be related,â” Ashdown says.

It may have always been so. Mass communications in the American democracy go back to the pamphleteers who helped advance the idea of democracy and form the government that carried it out.

The history of Knoxville's public information dissemination goes back to the 1792 founding of the Knoxville Gazette, a newspaper that circulated here only five years after the U.S. Constitution was adopted, before it was fully ratified, and four years before Tennessee became a state with Knoxville its first capital.

Over the next 100 years, more than 30 newspapers were published in Knoxville. Through consolidation and dissolution, only two have survived. The Knoxville News Sentinel , founded in 1886 as the Sentinel , and the Knoxville Journal , which traces its roots to the 1849 establishment of the Knoxville Whig . Now a small weekly, the Journal has been published under that name, almost continuously, since 1885. It ended its daily run in 1991 when its joint operating agreement with the News Sentinel was terminated, and it is now operated by Renee Hamby and her investors. She acquired the name and publication rights in a divorce settlement.

The News Sentinel , which has recently dabbled in the weekly trade through purchases and start-ups, is the dominant paper in Knoxville and its environs. Metro Pulse , which was started on a shoestring by music entrepreneur Ashley Capps in 1991 and was operated independently by publishers Joe Sullivan and then Brian Conley as an â“alternativeâ” to the daily for 16 years, is the latest addition to the Scripps/ News Sentinel fold.

That acquisition leaves the Knoxville Voice , a younger, smaller alternative bi-weekly owned by publisher and downtown property developer Dane Baker, and the Farragut Press , a weekly owned by Knoxville businessman Doug Horne's Republic Newspapers , as the only significant privately held publications with news and editorial voices in Knox County.

Metro Pulse , like the Halls-based Shopper News , which Scripps bought two years ago and has expanded in its business model, has been assured of editorial independence.

Sandra Clark, editor and publisher of the Shopper News , says the arrangement has â“worked out greatâ” for her and her publication. â“It's exceeded my expectations,â” she says.

The Scripps assistance on the business side has â“expanded our resources,â” Clark says. â“We reach more homesâ"more than twice as manyâ"have more reliable distribution, do more sponsorships, do more professional development. It's helped us be a more viable business.â”

Her enthusiasm extends to the idea of editorial independence, which she says she fully retains. In general terms, she reflects on media consolidation and its potential effect on public awareness of all sides of news issues. â“Obviously [consolidation] could be bad,â” she says, â“but I started at 21 with a cardboard box and a pencil, and nothing stops anyone with a cardboard box and a pencil from starting out right now. You can't totally monopolize information. It can't be done.â”

Mark Contreras, senior vice president of newspapers for Scripps at its Cincinnati headquarters, says in a telephone interview that tampering with editorial independence at Scripps acquisitions is not an aim of any Scripps purchase.

â“It would ruin it. It would defeat the purpose,â” Contreras says.

The purpose, according to Bruce Hartmann, the News Sentinel publisher who is responsible for Scripps properties in Knoxville, is to enhance advertising revenue for the company by investing in niche publications, such as its women's interest magazine affiliate, Skirt , which it distributes here in direct competition with Eva Mag , published locally by Donna Rosseland.

â“Yours is an example of newspapers buying to increase their menu of offerings in a given market,â” says Rick Edmonds, adjunct professor of journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida. A media business expert at the independent institute, Edmonds says it's something that has happened to other alternative publications.

The Nashville Scene , for instance, began as an alternative several years before Metro Pulse , but it was bought seven years ago by Village Voice Media, a holding company that owned the once-venerated independent New York Village Voice and several other alternative newspaper properties around the country. Village Voice Media was, in turn, bought out a couple of years ago by the mega-alternative company, New Times.   Scene Editor Liz Garrigan says she's encountered few editorial problems with regard to that last buyout, but New Times acquisitions have generated controversy in other locations, such as Los Angeles, New York itself, Minneapolis and Seattle.

Gannett, owners of The Tennessean , also started its own â“alternativeâ” in Nashville to compete with the Scene. Called â“faux alternatives,â” such start-ups by the corporate biggies have not fared well in many markets, and Gannett's, a spinoff of its weekend entertainment section, is lightly regarded in Nashville.

â“I would point out that the trend for 40 years was all big fishâ"usually public companies like Gannett [which owns WBIR Channel 10 TV and owned the daily version of the Knoxville Journal in the 1980s] swallowing smaller fish,â” Edmonds says.

That trend extends to radio and television stations as well as newspapers.

WNOX radio, one of the oldest stations in the United States, started broadcasting in 1921 as WNAV, an AM station that changed call letters to WNOX a couple of years later. It was at one time owned by the furniture family, the Sterchi Brothers, then by Scripps-Howard (the E.W. Scripps predecessor company), and finally by Johnny Pirkle, who still owns the station but leases it to Citadel Broadcasting, which owns WIVK, the country music staple that is the Knoxville market's most-listened-to station.

Pirkle, who got into radio in Athens, Tenn. back in 1958 when he was 20 years old, is a semi-retired Concord resident and acknowledged radio character. He went to work for Scripps-Howard at WNOX in 1964. In 1973 he started WOKI radio, which is now operated by Citadel as WNOX in a complicated arrangement. Pirkle also owns WNFZ, which he also leases out, in that case to South Central Radio Group, operators of WJXB, Knoxville's second-most-listened-to station with its adult contemporary music format, WIMZ, the classic rock station, and WQJK/WRJK, two stations simulcasting adult hits.

When he started, Pirkle says, â“The Baby Boomers were young teens, so everything in radio was geared to them, to rock'n'roll music at the time. That was how you built ratings.â”

Now, he says, that Boomer group is â“listening to talk radio, country music and oldies, but it's the same group. It's like the bulge in the snake.â”

If Citadel's WIVK has command of the country-music audience, it also has the dominating talk-radio presence in WNOX, with call-in and talk shows around the clock.

Citadel is the nation's fifth-largest broadcasting company, with more than 200 stations in 24 states. It also runs the WNML sports talk station, and WOKI, playing rock music here.

Sports is big in the Knoxville media business, mostly because of UT and its Vol followers. It takes up lots of space in the daily newspaper and is followed closely by the TV stations' news departments, as well as by the specialty radio stations.

WVLT-TV Channel 8 has billed itself in recent years as Volunteer TV and features lots of orange coloration to take advantage of that UT sports viewer appeal. A CBS affiliate owned by Gray Television of Atlanta, it remains third in the market in total viewership, behind Gannett's NBC-affiliated Channel 10 and New York-based Young Broadcasting's ABC-affiliated WATE-TV Channel 6. The Fox affiliate, WTNZ Channel 43, is the fourth-rated station. WTNZ-TV is run by Raycom Media, an employee-owned company with 36 TV stations around the country.

WATE-TV came first into the market under the call letters WROL-TV in 1953 as a VHF station with regional range. It was followed by WTVK-TV, originally WTSK, later that year on the UHF band, and in 1956 by WBIR-TV 10.

Two radio stations, WBIR and WNOX, had bid on the license for Channel 10, but the Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of WBIR in the interest of diversification, since WNOX and the News Sentinel were both owned by Scripps-Howard, which bought the predecessor Knoxville News in 1921 and merged it with the Sentinel five years later. WBIR-TV and the News Sentinel have developed a news-sharing relationship in recent years, and radio stations such as WJXB are affiliated with that television station for news feeds.

Though diversity still rules the TV market, Poynter's Edmonds says there has been pressure on the FCC from corporate interests lobbying for the regulating agency to allow more joint ownership of local newspapers and TV stations in the same community. A hearing, one of six around the nation on that subject, was held last December at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, but the FCC rules are in limbo.

â“It hasn't happened,â” Edmonds says of the proposed relaxation of joint ownership restriction, â“and the thrust of public opinion is suspicion that more concentration could be a bad thing.â”

But ownership of the TV stations has shifted from local hands to outsiders   in the corporate world in a series of complex dealings that have seen WTVK become WVLT and go to VHF. Network affiliations have also been swapped in the past as the stations changed hands

One who has profited from federal regulation and the limit on the number of TV channels available in each area of the country is Lewis Cosby, who was involved in a joint venture with South Central Communications that converted WVLT-TV to VHF with the Channel 8 license in 1988, then sold it to Gray Television, where it is one of that company's 36 TV stations, in 1996.

Cosby and his South Central partners then got the VHF license for WBXX-TV Channel 20, started it up in Oak Ridge and sold it to Acme Communications, a California company. Another such license led to the formation of WMAK-TV Channel 7, an all-digital TV station in Knoxville. Cosby sold his interest in that channel back to South Central Communications, an Evansville, Ind.-based firm that owns the South Central Radio Group as well. It is run by the Englebrecht family, who started the company in Evansville at the end of World War II and have held on, doing business in radio elsewhere and in radio and TV here since 1953.

Cosby, a former accountant, is â“retired again,â” he says. â“It's a great business,â” he says of television. â“The federal government limits your competition for you.â”

That's unlike radio, the most competitive of the communications media, which can have scores of stations competing in one metropolitan area, as it does in Knoxville, for advertising support.

Nick Drewry, the president of Republic Newspapers and chief manager of Horne Radio, both Doug Horne-owned companies in the media business, says radio is rapidly becoming a field dominated by investors who own several stations.

It is also a field in which investment in news and information gathering and broadcasting is ever-more limited. Radio news was much more highly developed and produced in the pre-television and early TV years. It costs more money to report the news than to air music or caller commentary, and whatever emphasis once existed on radio news at commercial stations is waning, even at the small-town level.

â“There are still a few mom-and-pop stations around, but it's hard for them to make a living,â” Drewry says. Horne Radio owns six AM radio stations and two AM-FM stations, including one in Farragut, its suburban Knoxville home.

Horne, who came up through the ranks at the Tennessee Valley Authority and made his mark in real estate acquisitions for major retailers like Wal-Mart, started the Farragut Press , then the Press-Enterprise, in 1988. He has since bought and sold small newspapers in Kentucky, Texas and Florida, and owns two in Tennessee, including Anderson County's Clinton Courier-News , and three in North Carolina.

All of his media properties are small in relation to those owned by the national corporations, and Horne says that is by design.

â“The idea of public service has always interested me, says Horne, and involvement in the media offers a way to do that.â” He concentrates on weeklies and radio stations in smaller markets, he says, because â“it's a way for the people to have a voice in their community, and we're proud to be a part of that.â”

Those small properties taken together also turn enough revenue to support Horne's media divisions, Drewry admits.

Acquiring the smaller media, once they show a profit, and putting them together in a group attracts investment, Drewry says. â“The industry has changed, just like the banking industry has changed,â” he says, describing how local banks start up and are bought by larger banks once the start-ups become profitable.

That industry change is not necessarily a detriment to the individual news companies' information-gathering and dissemination practices, no matter how many properties the company may own.

â“Corporate ownership, both public and private, in theory is a good model,â” says UT's Ashdown, â“but only if you have investors who care about the product as much as the profit margin.â”

What happened to the Knoxville Journal as it neared the end of its life cycle as a daily is instructive as to the potential problems with corporate ownership. First, Gannett bought the Journal in 1981 from the family that had owned it for a number of years, but could not afford the inheritance-tax hit when the progenitor, Chub Smith, died in the crash of his World War II-vintage fighter plane.

Gannett poured money into the Journal , then a morning paper, and built up its circulation to the point where it was gaining readers, and the afternoon News Sentinel , the senior partner in their joint operating agreement, was losing readers.

Gannett then agreed to switch cycles with the Sentinel , taking the afternoon slot, which was a dying proposition in newspaper markets nationwide, in return for concessions from Scripps in joint operating agreements the two companies held in El Paso, Tex., and Cincinnati. At the same time Gannett sold the Journal to its then-editor, Ron McMahan, and a Gannett insider, Bill McKinney.

That independent pair couldn't get along, however, and sold the Journal to the Persis Corp. out of Hawaii, a company that was buying newspapers right and left. In a matter of a few short years, though, the family that held Persis control wanted to cash out their media holdings, and the News Sentinel' s Scripps owners bought out the last years of the joint operating agreement, effectively closing the Journal , which hung on for a few months as the Weekend (dubbed â“Weakenedâ” by former employees) Journal , printed at the Persis-owned plant in Maryville. It did not appear on a masthead again until Phil Hamby bought the name from Persis several years later and applied it to his own Knoxville weekly, where it resides today.

To be fair, the Journal ' s checkered history included the partisanship of editor Guy Lincoln Smith, who from the 1940s to the 1960s ran it as a personal political fiefdom that was hardly a model of objective journalism.

â“Well, history gives us plenty of examples of buccaneer publishers who ran their newspapers to advance their political and business agendas,â” Ashdown says. â“Closely held private ownership is no guarantee of a quality newspaper, or any kind of private business for that matter.

â“But you'd also have to say that many of the greatest newspapers were largely extensions of one person who really gave a damn about the community. They're still out there, mostly at the local level, but the numbers are declining.â” The same is true of radio and TV outlets, where bringing the profitable ones together under one aegis is tempting.

As media consolidation progresses, such analysts as Edmonds assess the situation fairly grimly. â“Public companies have made a dealâ"some would say with the devilâ"to live by Wall Street rules,â” Edmonds says. â“Providing solid earnings and earnings-per-share growth is essential.

â“Same with family ownerships. Many are committed to serving their communities with a first-rate product. Having owners live in the community is a big plus compared to distant corporate ownership. Again, though, there are bad family-run newspapers, so you cannot generalize across the board.â”

Scripps' Contreras would agree that generalizations against big corporate takeovers of little media aren't always valid. â“Having seen this over a number of years over a number of markets,â” says Contreras, â“the move from stand-alone to corporate [ownership] provides exposure to advertisers and resources the stand-alone didn't have before.â” From a business standpoint, that's inarguably a plus.

Then, there's the rise of weblogs and message boards on the Internet, where people exchange information online, sharing accounts of issues that they copy from the mainstream media or generate themselves.

Ashdown sees that as a qualified plusâ"great access to information, butâ â“The danger is that it is easier to manipulate news and opinion, easier to spread information â‘viruses' and disinformation and rumor.â”

A part of the appeal of the web for sharing information is that the public's perception of the media as unresponsive to their real needs has generated â“fear, and a sense of powerlessnessâ” that weblog participation assuages, Ashdown believes.

He says media consolidation may feed that fear, but it doesn't support any generalizations or simple answers to complex questions.

There's also Ashdown's worry that reductions in news staffs nationwide has been a parallel phenomenon as companies strive to cut expenses and improve the bottom line for their investors, and he has doubts about the proficiency of the journalists he's been training.

â“I've been working with college students for almost 40 years, and it's obvious that they don't read newspapers. That trend didn't start last week,â” he says, â“it was underway when I was in journalism school in the 1960s. What I do find now is that students are very clever about finding information they need when they need it. Many are surprisingly well informed about some things, woefully ignorant, or innocent, about other things.  

â“I'm not so much worried about media consolidation as I am about their audience. You remember Hemingway's line on what it takes to make a journalist, â‘a built-in crap detector'?

â“Well, if journalists today don't have it and bloggers don't have it, don't have that crap detector, what's a [news] consumer going to believe?â”

That's an ironic question in the â“information age.â” What people who make a career out of journalism will have to do is come up with an answer that will satisfy the need for accurate information, cutting through the crap, whether their bosses are independent or corporate or of some other persuasion altogether. It's a real challenge, Ashdown believes, but it has to be met to insure that democracy endures.

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