Gannett and The Tennessean to Journalism: Drop Dead

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Yesterday morning, at a time when The Tennessean desperately needed to assure its readers that hope was not lost, the lead story on its website was about alternatives to vanilla ice cream. In a way, that was perfect. In the wake of massive layoffs at The Tennessean, we’re all looking for something else to read besides our bland, generic and utterly innocuous daily paper.

In fact, there’s no point in even getting mad at it anymore.

The Tennessean, as we know it, is dead. If that sounds a tad melodramatic, let me explain: The days when our daily deserved, at the very least, your intermittent attention over coffee because for all its gaping flaws it was the dominant news source in town, well, I think those days are gone. Who knows what happens next? Maybe 10 years from now the paper will consist of little more than recipes and slide shows of Jason Aldean.

Tuesday’s news that Gannett was giving up on journalism and slashing 20 positions from the Tennessean’s newsroom as a part of a broader company-wide purge signals a new era for the paper, one of flickering relevance and frivolous content, one where you can go a week without picking up the paper and not skip a beat. This has never been the case. During all those years when Henry Walker and I ridiculed the decisions of then-editor Frank Sutherland and then-managing editor David Green — such as Sutherland's Survivor-inspired wine column advising which zinfandels go best with insects — we at least took the paper seriously most of the time. And we felt like you did too.

Even when our daily started trimming its political coverage while promoting the celebrity musings of Brad Schmitt as if he were Tom Wolfe, The Tennessean still featured relevant and engaging journalism. Whether it was the withering (and schizophrenic) attack columns from Tim Chavez avidly pounding Bredesen, Brad Schrade’s investigative series on cronyism at the Tennessee Highway Patrol, or, yes, Schmitt’s bitchy coverage of the latest B-list divorce, the paper still had a way, like most dailies, of getting people to talk and take note.

That doesn’t really happen anymore. The paper still has some hard-working, visible reporters — Michael Cass and Brandon Gee immediately come to mind, among others — but upper management does its best to diminish their work. Earlier this month, the paper featured a front-page, above-the-fold story about how the Titans and Predators manage to avoid problems when they tweet. (“Careless tweets can spell trouble,” read the alarming subhed.) When you make that story the centerpiece of your news coverage, why should your readers take anything else in your paper seriously?

None of this is to suggest I have any answers on how Gannett and The Tennessean can revive its business. If I did, I wouldn’t be a part-time volunteer blogger for Pith in the Wind. And to be fair, my friends at SouthComm aren’t exactly ready to pick up the slack. There are some weeks in which the City Paper and the Scene are about as thick as Mila Kunis, and neither is exactly overburdened with staff.

But any of us can figure out what approach doesn’t work: Headlining stories about Twitter and ice cream, posting slide shows about local celebs, and eschewing all controversial commentary on anyone important — in the hopes of attracting new generations of apathetic readers.

You know what happens when you cater your newspaper to people who don’t read newspapers? The people who do read newspapers won’t want to read your newspaper anymore. And the people who weren’t reading your newspaper in the first place still won’t be reading your newspaper. They’re too busy tweeting.

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