What We’ve Been Up To

You’ve likely learned by now that two former Metro Pulse editors and I have committed to an unusual plan to start a new independent newspaper in Knoxville. Longtime Metro Pulse editor Coury Turczyn and arts-and-entertainment editor Matthew Everett and I, along with several other stalwarts including old friends and new ones, have been working almost daily since October to see if there’s some way to do this, and we came up with a plan that was kind of surprising, especially to me.

It’ll be an actual paper paper, not something much cheaper like a website, as many had assumed, though of course we’ll have a website and apps and all that too. We hope you’ll see the first copies by the end of February. We made a point to try to get it out before the Big Ears Festival, which is one of the coolest things coming up in the new year.

You knew we had to do this. We had to do it for one thing because we’re unemployed, and having reviewed the options, speaking mainly for myself, I’m not certain we could do anything else. I once failed as a short-order fry cook, and I doubt the last 37 years has improved my skills in that regard. I’m too old for pro football, and am not confident I could ever get the hang of surgery or auto repair.

Also, I wasn’t sure I could keep living in a place where the big corporations call all the shots in media coverage of important news stories. My hometown would seem a lazy, slow, and stupid place if it didn’t show some obvious competition.

Knoxville has been a two- or three-independent-newspaper town since about 1816, when just a few hundred people lived here. Even up to 1991, when Metro Pulse first started, the old daily Knoxville Journal was still very much in business. Not since the Civil War, when martial law shut down contrary paper on one side, and then the other, has Knoxville’s news coverage been so dominated by only one newspaper. The Civil War had a lot of horrors, but for Knoxville, reading the same old biased crap every week was one of them.

Before we coughed up a business plan for public review, Coury, Matthew, and I spent a few hundred hours hashing things out with some very learned people, from a hardcore business coach who’d never even read Metro Pulse, to a former publisher of the Rolling Stone who had followed us for years. In all, we listened to advice from about 40 smart and resourceful people. And you never know how many smart and resourceful people there are in any town until they’re motivated to correct something that’s gone awfully wrong.

We also did a good deal of arguing about the name, so much that I began wondering how we got along all those years. I suspect we were each occasionally convinced that the others hated our names just because we nominated them. I won’t tell you who favored what, but that might be a subject for a newspaper column someday. I’d reckon we contemplated more than 100 names, maybe even 200, and for a while I was getting discouraged with the prospect, beginning to suspect we’d give up out of pure namelessness. The one we chose was the first one we all liked.

So for now, at least, we’re calling it the Knoxville Mercury. It’s not the first paper that ever bore that banner, but no one is alive who remembers when there was a Knoxville Mercury, and I’m pretty sure there’s nobody watching that trademark.

The god is swift, the planet’s hot, the car is classic, the element is dangerous but useful. There was the theater on Market Square that we’re old enough to remember fondly.

We’re going with paper, that 18th-century technology, because our advertisers demand it. It’s the 21st century, sure enough, we all know that, but as of late 2014 nobody’s figured out how to get tech consumers to pay attention to Internet ads. Plus, some of our other supporters and advisors want a paper newspaper, too, partly for the mental decor. It would be discouraging, I agree, to be a stranger in town and walk down the Gay Street sidewalk and find that all the papers you encounter are owned by the same big corporation, and that there’s not one that’s raising a little bit of a ruckus, to give newcomers the notion that there are some cross currents in this town.

Also, it’s easier to do the crossword on paper.

We have the talent, including most of our last Metro Pulse freelancers, which is I think the best stable of freelancers we ever had. And we have generous supporters, some of them newsmakers we were very surprised to learn were supporters, considering we hadn’t always been kind to them in print. And we already have lots of advertisers supporting us. They are unhappy with their current options.

What we didn’t have, right away, was the business plan. And what we came up with turned out to be an exceptionally unusual business plan, designed to keep this paper local and durable. It was first presented to us by a business guru named Eric Dunn, and even we were skeptical of it until some hard-eyed financiers and a solid tax lawyer gave it a good look and said, “of course.”

In this still-unsettled new century, print may seem both dead and necessary.

There’s no question we’re losing some chunks of the old profit models that have sustained newspaper journalism for 300 years.

But nobody’s saying we don’t need journalism anymore, and nobody smart is saying that journalism can be replaced by unassigned, unedited blogs, like this one. People like me, sitting in his daughter’s old bedroom, writing down whatever comes to mind at 4 in the morning because I ate something I shouldn’t have and can’t sleep. That’s the new American pastime, for better or worse, but it’s not journalism. Important journalism is unlikely unless it demands that reporters occasionally do something they don’t really want to do. Make a phone call to someone you know to be a jerk, sit through a boring meeting, demand records the holder doesn’t want to show you. Since I’ve been unemployed, I haven’t done any of that. That’s why we need to find a way to pay people to do it.

So we need to figure out some new sources of revenue, and nationally, for the last several years, supporters of journalism have been looking at the nonprofit option from several sides.

We’ve had nonprofit, contribution-based radio in Knoxville for 65 years now, public television for close to half a century. They’re great assets to the community. We’ve never had a nonprofit weekly newspaper. I’m not sure why it can’t be the same sort of thing. There are a few examples of newspapers run wholly by nonprofits in America, but not enough of them to make us confident that model would work here. We’re not going with that model, and one very big reason we’re not is that a lot of our old advertisers demand that we sell them ad space, because they say ad space in an editorially independent weekly is the only way they have to reach their customers. Some are particularly unhappy with their current options.

That 300-year-old print model is trimmer than it used to be, but, as it turns out, it’s not dying.

And we need some certainty that this is going to be local, and stay local, and last.

So, considering all those factors, this is what we came up with. We’ll create a new nonprofit organization, of which I will become the first director, for the purpose of education and the promotion of Knoxville’s own history and culture. Not regional history, like the East Tennessee Historical Society, whose membership and leadership and funding and perspective reflects its 35-county area. The ETHS runs a fascinating museum and hosts a vigorous series of relevant events, and are essential to what I do. We’re lucky Knoxville is its headquarters.

But what we’re starting is something different, an organization strictly concerned with the city of Knoxville and its continuing narrative. It’s the first comprehensive Knoxville-history association I’ve ever heard of.

A lot of other cities have something comparable. Chattanooga, for example, is well covered under the ETHS umbrella, and in the ETHS museum, but has at least two city-focused nonprofit historical associations of its own. Is Knoxville America’s largest city more than 200 years old not to have its own historical association?

I don’t know, but for me it’s a natural fit. I’ve authored nine books on various aspects of Knoxville history, and for over 20 years, I’ve been giving talks to high-school classes, college classes, veterans’ groups, church groups, philanthropic fraternities, garden clubs, bus tours, dozens of them every year. And more often than not, there’s someone in the room who’s not one of my regular readers, and they come up to me afterwards and say, “So, do you work for the Chamber? The tourist bureau? The city? The university?”

Well, no, I’ve always said. I’m a reporter.

For more than 20 years folks have assumed I’m associated with some nonprofit organization. Now I am. It’s never been my job to talk to groups before. Now it will be. I’ll be doing other things too, researching projects for other historical nonprofits, connecting scholars with resources, consulting with architects on projects with a historical angle, filling in when the subject is Knoxville and somebody needs some help figuring it out.

We’re going to call it the Knoxville History Project. History is a broader subject than people like to think. It includes not just the past but the present, and promotes some learned speculation about the future. History is, more or less, journalism. I’ve never been able to pry them apart, and have now officially given up trying.

The new newspaper will serve some of the educational purposes of the nonprofit. Hence this new nonprofit will be a minority owner of the new for-profit newspaper. It will invest in that paper, a substantial amount, about one-third of its annual operating budget, with expectation of a return on that investment.

Most of the newspaper’s owners will be private investors, and it sounds as if there will be quite a number of them, enough to call for a board of directors. The plan, when it’s up and running, is to offer shares.

The nonprofit will also be run by a board with rotating membership, and I and my successors will serve the organization at the pleasure of that board. It’ll be an anchor for the paper to insulate it from the vagaries of private or corporate ownership, and it will keep that ownership permanently local. We’ll also be obliged to be transparent. You’ll be able to check on us.

Meanwhile, the Knoxville Mercury will be our new weekly newspaper, and I will write for it, a weekly column, probably more.

I’m looking forward to that day. But we have a lot of work to do before then. We’re committed to making this work. The three former Metro Pulse staffers involved in this project left severance offers on the table, forfeited enough collectively to buy a luxury automobile, or just be more confident about paying mortgage next month, but we wanted this a good deal more.

We hope you want it, too, and that you’ll give us a hand, if you can. Have a look at our launch-effort website, knoxforward.com, or check the Knoxville History Project on Facebook.

If anything obliges me to learn to use Facebook, you know it must be extraordinary.

For now, I’m still writing stories, of which Knoxville has no end. I will keep posting them here.

3 thoughts on “What We’ve Been Up To

  1. edgarmiller

    Congratulations, Jack! If anybody can make a go of such a venture in Knoxville, you’re the man. I was sorely distressed when I learned of Metropulse’s closing and, like many, many others, wondered where you would surface next. I’ll be watching and wish you all the bests. If I can help (other than financially), let me know.

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