In hindsight, he had been hinting at it all along.
Since the beginning of the year, Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland has been leading a thorough campaign inside the newsroom to change the look and feel of the paper, an effort he calls "remodeling." In a number of meetings about how to render a front page more appealing to readers, Sutherland talked about what he would like to read if he were just Joe Q. Citizen.
"I'd want to read about golf and sex after 50 and a cure for balding," he said, variations of which he has repeated several times.
Looking back on Sutherland's comment, one reporter tells Desperately his editor was betraying his state of mind. "Now it all makes sense. He was in retirement mode."
There's that. But there's also the fact that Sutherland is rather ordinary, which may be a good quality in a neighbor. It isn't so much of one, though, in an editor.
In the aftermath of Sutherland's somewhat abrupt resignation last Wednesday, which took nearly the entire newsroom by surprise, the talk was that the 59-year-old editor of the paper was kindly pushed out the door. After all, the paper's circulation has been dropping steadily for five years now, a decline the paper has tried to thwart by gobbling up dailies in ring counties to draw readers. In Davidson County, newsroom sources say, circulation is down to 70,000.
Meanwhile, the remodeling effort had hit a snag. The Tennessean had planned to unveil a new redesign this fall. But the redesign was delayed until next year, and sources say that various higher-ups were simply not happy with the look of the prototype.
None of that reflects well on Sutherlandbut then again, just about every daily in the country is struggling with how to stem declining circ numbers. Besides, one former Gannett executive tells Desperately that when media giants fire you, you turn in your keys, leave the office and don't come back. But Sutherland will remain with the paper as a consultant and will move just a few feet down the hall to a new office. One source says that Sutherland's new gig could last as long as three years. That wouldn't be happening if Gannett pink-slipped him.
Sutherland himself says that while he's the oldest editor in the Gannett chain, the decision to leave was all his. "There are no hidden agendas or anything else," says Sutherland, who was probably more popular than your average newspaper editor. "I wanted to retire while I was still young and had time and energy to do things that included writing, maybe some teaching and some traveling."
Sutherland's legacy isn't nearly as heroic as the paper's front-page career obituary last Thursday would have people believe. Under Sutherland, The Tennessean was usually competent, respectable, honest and virtually indistinguishable from any other chain paper in any other mid-sized city. It downplayed investigative reporting and inside political coverage in place of front-page stories about the cost of ice cream and so-called issue pieces designed to appeal to suburban readers. Reporters who chased after crooked cops and shady pols fell out of favor. Instead, columnists like Brad Schmitt and Tim Chavez became the new role models, whose very raison d'être is to lure new readers by catering to their inane desires and paranoia.
In The Tennessean's glory years under John Seigenthaler, reporters uncovered voter fraud, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and barged into closed meetings among state legislators. The point is that these stories took on a life of their own and are now apart of the paper's identity and history. Now, even though The Tennessean is by many accounts a more reliable paper than it was under Seigenthaler, can anyone name a story in the last 10 years that has become iconic? The Tennessean doesn't even try for greatness anymore. Readers don't ask for it in focus groups.
John Seigenthaler told The Tennessean that the paper improved under his successor. But asked by Desperately whether he really means that, considering The Tennessean's diminished investigative reporting and hard-edged coverage of politics, he gave a more complicated answerand, interestingly, didn't dispute the premise of the question.
"When I say it's a better paper, I obviously mean it's a different paper. Each editor, dating back to Edward Ward Carmack (the paper's first editor), had his own different style and sought to put his own imprimatur on the paper. My style was not Frank's, but I always thought that as the editor of the paper for 30 years, I should expect my successor to put his own imprimatur on the paper and accept that. The industry has changed, and I hope my view of it is not generational. I do still think it's a better paper."
Then Desperately and Seigenthaler talked about another one of The Tennessean's iconic pieces: When a young reporter posed as a patient at a mental health hospital for 31 days, wrote about what he saw and paved the way for mental health reform. That reporter was Frank Sutherlandwho has since said that as editor he would not allow a similar journalistic venture to proceed under his watch. This is where Seigenthaler differs from his successor. "If I were the editor in 2004 and that challenge still existed, I would still ask Frank to do it. But I fully understand in the 21st century that support for that kind of journalism is not strong and might damage credibility."
@davidlongfellow: What are you implying? The killers explanation for the beheading makes perfect sense to…
Anything that eliminates predators of any stripe or spot is good.
Jakes is right in what he said. If Metro caught any citizen doing this sort…
What's good for the Metro power elite is poisonous for the citizens? I'm shocked, shocked,…
The birds were flying low. Too low for Mr. Xray, the man whose name we…