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American Journalism Review
Challenging the Tennessean  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 2001

Challenging the Tennessean   

By David M. Frey
David M. Frey is a freelance journalist and former Nashvillian.     


These days, newspaper staffs are shrinking and two-paper towns are becoming one-paper towns. Someone should explain that to Brian Brown, who last November in Nashville launched the City Paper, a free daily, up against the city's veteran Tennessean. With just six reporters, the City Paper is taking on the 94-year-old daily in the place where some readers say it's most vulnerable--its backyard.

While the Gannett-owned Tennessean strives to be a regional paper for Middle Tennessee, the City Paper is seeking to do just the opposite. "We're trying to be a community newspaper in a metro area," says Executive Editor Catherine Mayhew, 48, a former assistant managing editor for news and seven-year staffer at the Tennessean.

Brown, the paper's publisher and sole financial backer, says since the city's afternoon paper, the Nashville Banner, closed its doors in 1998, Nashville has suffered the same problems of many cities that have lost competing dailies. The Tennessean has priced out smaller advertisers, he says, while national stories and syndicated features outweigh local news.

Targeting ad rates for smaller businesses, he launched the City Paper to appeal to readers who felt the Tennessean gave short shrift to community news and who already heard about the big stories on TV or radio long before the paper showed up on their doorsteps. "Eighty percent of our content is locally oriented and generated from our reporters on the street in the city," he says. "You can't get that anywhere else."

Mayhew says the City Paper's brand of "neighborhood community journalism" requires a motivated staff. "I think that's a tough sell when you've got a roomful of 15- and 20-year veterans," she says.

Nashville is a city of neighborhoods--from the mansions of Belle Meade to gentrifying East Nashville to the burgeoning immigrant communities along Nolensville Road. Music City may be the home of a new football stadium and art center, but in this city of 570,000, the traffic lights still blink after 11 p.m.

The paper, with a news staff of 27, is an urban anomaly: a mainstream tabloid-size paper, five days a week and free. Brown says he usually prints between 18,500 and 25,000 copies--about a 10th of the Tennessean's paid circulation--all distributed in Nashville. Front-loaded with local stories, its 40 to 48 pages are supplemented with national and international news from Reuters and a few syndicated features. The paper's advertising percentage was about 15 percent in early August. Brown would like to attract more but says he wants to cap the ad percentage at 40 percent.

If the formula works in Nashville, Brown says, he's got a list of other cities in which to try it out.

It just might succeed, says Robert Wyatt, a Nashville resident and journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University. The City Paper "has a kind of public-spiritedness about it, which can veer toward boosterism, but in other ways that's kind of nice to see in a paper," Wyatt says.

Brown's own background is in insurance, not publishing, and most of his reporters aren't seasoned. Some came with no daily journalism experience. The business editor is a former stockbroker. When Mayhew took over, she launched weekly Journalism 101 sessions to review the basics.

The paper has its problems. Typos aren't uncommon. Stories don't always shine. Even the paper's staff admits quality has been spotty--especially in the first few months. Papers still show up in racks late in the morning, and subscribers--you can pay $10 a month for home delivery--get them even later, making the morning daily an afternoon read for many.

Brown plays down comparisons to the defunct Nashville Banner. "We're not the Banner. We don't try to be the Banner," he says.

Henry Walker, a media critic for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, says those who expected another Banner have been disappointed, especially after the City Paper's weak start. "It's taken them a long time to overcome that earlier initial bad impression. I think today it's a pretty good newspaper," he says.

It's also pushed the competition, Walker says. "Since the City Paper has come out, the Tennessean has noticeably tried to put a renewed emphasis on local news."

Local coverage has increased, but it's not due to the City Paper, says Frank Sutherland, the Tennessean's editor. The paper brought back a special three-person community news reporting team, he says, but that move was announced before the City Paper rolled out. The team reports on various city neighborhoods. But because the Tennessean covers the region, neighborhood news doesn't just include Nashville, he says.

In May, the Tennessean's marketing department ran an ad on the back of its business section noting the upstart reached less than 1 percent of the eight-county area in the latest Media Audit. The ad ended up as a sort of badge of honor on the walls of the City Paper's subletted offices.

Mayhew says the paper covers different types of news and isn't in direct competition with the Tennessean. Small victories are celebrated "for five seconds," she says, before reporters move on to the next story on a neighborhood meeting, or zoning decision, or bus schedule. "The nice thing about this paper is, it's a work in progress," she says. "Eight months ago, it was a really ugly baby--that we loved, but it was ugly. Eight months later, it's a pretty good-looking adolescent."

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