February 7, 2013

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It could not have been foreseen that a sudden snow storm would prevent readers of the Times Free Press from noticing a front-page letter from publisher Walter Hussman Jr. last Saturday, but odds were many missed that carefully worded “story,” otherwise strategically placed on a day of historically low readership. Hussman is more than the paper’s publisher (a title which more aptly belongs to TFP president Jason Taylor), he is chairman and CEO of WEHCO, the paper’s Little Rock, Ark., landlord. In it, he lamented the paper’s declining revenues and placed its future in the hands of longtime subscribers in the most simplistic terms: the gig is up, friends, it’s 2013 and advertising no longer supports us so pay up—or else. The “or else”  is undetermined, but the message is clear.

The letter, published again as a full-page house ad in the Sunday Metro section, is a fait accompli, as far as DizzyTown is concerned. But what is surprising is that Hussman is declaring, at this late date, that his paper is suffering from competition from digital media. Has he simply been ignoring the Internet? We think not, but it is a convenient excuse and not one ordinarily disputed, at least in these parts. We’ve heard similar threats before and the slow march toward a three-day print schedule, first introduced by the Gannett chain in Detroit and quickly followed in New Orleans and Alabama by Advance Publications, is beginning to take hold across the country.

Ironically, Hussman’s sad tale of declining revenues was repeated on a Sunday, when the TFP is fat with inserts equaling its weight in news “content.” But inserts alone do not a newspaper maintain. They are “inserted” with a strategic schedule that has dictated the aforementioned newsprint schedule—Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. So that, dear readers, is what Uncle Walt is trying so softly to let you know. It’s not that they’re hurting; it’s that the ads within its pages that are disappearing—two very different messages. The bottom line: Subscribers should again prepare to take another hit—if, that is, they value the paper his team is producing. And that is the big question.

Of late, the TFP hired Drew Johnson, the entertaining, if often self-obsessed, titanium-lensed conservative to replace Lee Anderson on its odd, nowhere-else-but-Chattanooga dueling editorial pages. Elsewhere, it has repackaged it entertainment tabloid, formerly known as Current, to lackluster effect. This month, the paper launched EDGE, a glossy business magazine, which sits aside its other glossy, expensive (to produce) publications, Chatter and Get Out. Dwindling revenues? No mention of these ventures.

Meanwhile on the news side, the paper has done little to up the ante—besides its Sunday centerpieces, which on the whole are worthy pursuits, supported by down-page stories of interest by its better reporters. The TFP has also reopened it’s Washington bureau (closed since 2008) and is dispatching Chris Carroll to man that outpost. Too bad he might use the gig to jump to bigger and better things.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been countered by an exodus of reporters—some leaving without jobs—and a clear lack of leadership. The paper’s website is often scooped by the likes of thechattanoogan.com (founded by former pre-merger TFP reporter John Wilson) and its social media exploits (read: trolling) are both amusing and yawn-worthy. Nothing, it seems, on 11th Street is going well.

The real bottom line is this: The TFP owns Chattanooga. It is, for better or worse, the newspaper of record and even we—the pithy, juvenile, snarky Pulse—could not live without it and would mourn its daily demise. And Hussman, from his Little Rock perch, is banking that you feel the same way. Let’s face it: Without a daily paper—and by this we mean every day—we’d lose access to the goods, the stuff we all want to ponder and peruse over lunch: the obits, the crazy exploits of our crack- and meth-addicted neighbors, the threats of biblically obsessed letter-writers pronouncing the End is Near and the birthdays of celebrities, to mention just a few items well worth four bits—and the comics. Oh, there is some news, too.

The good “news,” if there is any: For the average Kangaroo consumer, not much will change; but for the subscriber, the stakes are higher. Rates are rising. Can you or will you abide?

There is much to be considered. The paper is lacking in daily reportage and design (if you care about such things, which you should), and an uncomfortable connection with the city. It is edited with no direction or vision and maintains an overtly political slant that deprives readers of clear and objective reporting. Mostly, the TFP pisses people off. But that we count on and enjoy.

But on one point, Hussman is correct: The direction of many papers toward so-called hyper-local coverage, is mistaken. While the better-connected reader has access to it all, a daily newspaper’s objective is to supply the news, from Sarajevo to Soddy-Daisy, without, as they say, fear or favor. Do that and you will win the day.

February 7, 2013

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