Do metropolitan newspaper deaths silence vital news voices?

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

NASHVILLE — When a metropolitan daily newspaper shuts its doors for good, does the public lose a vital source of information, or is it more akin to the passing of a terminally ill loved one?

Both sentiments emerged today from a Society of Professional Journalists-First Amendment Center panel evaluating the quality of news reporting in middle Tennessee following the demise of the 122-year-old Nashville Banner in late February.

“Life Without The Banner: How Many News Voices Are Enough?” featured a panel comprised of media managers, a former Banner reporter, a Memphis public official who experienced the loss of that city’s second daily paper, and a Nashville public relations executive who describes himself as a “newspaper junkie.”

When the afternoon Banner ceased operation on Feb. 20, it left the city with one daily newspaper, the morning Tennessean. Although a joint operating agreement between the papers would have allowed the Banner to continue publishing into the next century, its owners decided to close early, citing serious circulation declines.

Similar situations have occurred out across the country in recent years. Cities including St. Louis, Houston, New Orleans and Little Rock have lost competing metropolitan newspapers, leaving one metropolitan daily to do the job.

Memphis public defender A.C. Wharton reflected on the demise of that city’s Press-Scimitar in 1983, and the aftermath of print news coverage.

“Witnessing the end of a newspaper is kind of like watching an older loved one die a slow death,” Wharton told the audience.

“When it goes, the eulogies begin; everyone is polite and fondly reminiscent,” Wharton continued. “And after the funeral, a lot of people quietly say it’s probably better off dead.

“Isn’t it better to let nature take its course and to not prolong life?” he asked. “TV news will pick up much of the afternoon news slack.”

But Pat Nolan, a lifelong reader of both Nashville papers, said the loss of a newspaper means an important voice is missing.

“Despite the growth of other media here, they cannot fill all the holes left by this loss,” said Nolan, a former reporter and now a public relations account executive.

To fill any perceived gaps, Tennessean managing editor Dave Green said he needs to put out a better paper. He noted the hiring of more than 20 people from the Banner editorial staff, an increase in daily news space, and the addition of national news services, comics and syndicated editorials.

“What we can’t replicate is the culture of the Banner,” Green said.

But the publisher of the largest weekly paper targeted at Nashville’s African-American community questioned the need to have both daily newspapers because The Tennessean and Banner editorial voices had become almost indistinguishable.

“To say we need all these news voices is like saying we need as many farmers today as in the past to feed this country,” said Sam Latham, publisher of the Times Mirror. “Why should people be expected to put down 50 cents twice to read the same news?”

Latham noted that growth in print media has been primarily in targeted and segmented publications, and not in publications attempting to be everything to everyone.

“How significant was the Banner‘s impact when it ceased publication?” he asked, noting its circulation had dropped from approximately 100,000 in 1980 to 40,000 when it shut down its operation.

“Profits remain the driving force, rather than any sense of mission,” Latham added.

Green countered the pure profit argument, noting the Tennessean had increased its local editorial staff by 30 percent in the past five years, and at the same time added news space.

“We’ve added more space (since February) and it will be a permanent addition,” Green said. “It costs $700 per page to add one to the paper. Multiply that by 365 days a year and you see how much potential profit is being cut into by expanding our coverage.”

To cover those costs, papers need to increase circulation and thereby attract more advertising.

Green said the Tennessean has attracted a larger number of Banner subscribers than national trends would have predicted.

“When the Banner died it had a circulation of 40,000, and 9,000 of that was duplicated readership,” Green said. “Of the remaining 31,000, we have picked up 19,000 new subscriptions.”

Moderator Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, cited the popular alternative press in Nashville as a likely source of filling some of the gaps left by the closing of the Banner.

Green acknowledged a valid role for alternatives such as the Nashville Scene and InReview, but noted the word “alternative” is taking on new meaning in the print market.

“Publications like Nashville Parent and smaller city dailies are filling information needs for many people out there, and we’re all after advertising dollars,” he said.