Nashville Business Journal, once a must-read weekly but lately a publication running on autopilot, finally has a new editor. Months after former editor Roger Shirley moved to “special publications,” NBJ publisher Kevin Lorance picked Bill Lewis, the paper’s highly respected Capitol Hill reporter, to run the paper. Insiders say managing editor Valeri Oliver, who lost out to Lewis, may soon decide to work elsewhere.
Several former NBJ staffers say the paper has been “off the map” for a while, suffering from high turnover and from a “likeable at all costs” approach to journalism. Lewis, they say, will bring a sharper edge. He “likes the taste of blood,” one said, “and that’s exactly what the paper needs.” Lewis describes himself as a “very aggressive reporter” and promises “to keep that reputation” as the paper’s editor. “Lewis will alter the paper’s take on some stories just by the nature of his personality,” a former colleague said, “but don’t expect NBJ to start criticizing local businesses.”
Lewis agrees. “We’ve been accused of boosterism, but sometimes that’s part of NBJ’s role,” he said. Asked to name one recent NBJ story critical of a Nashville business, Lewis smiled. “Well, we did a union story that wasn’t very favorable,” he said.
Not everyone thinks Lewis’ appointment is good news. Senior staff in the McWherter administration eventually stopped returning Lewis’ calls because of what one described as a pattern of unfair and inaccurate articles. “He never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” complained a McWherter Democrat.
A few years ago, a group of talented reporters hired and trained by Shirley made NBJ the city’s best source of business news. “Tennessean reporters would buy our paper on Sunday afternoon,” Lewis recalls, “read our stories, and run them on Monday morning.” Even Lewis’ friends, who say he’s better as a reporter than as a manager of people, are convinced he can return NBJ to its former glory, if Lorance lets him hire experienced reporters and offers them salaries that will allow them to stay at the paper.
After last fall’s suicide of Probate Judge Jim Everett, The Tennessean’s Laura Frank sifted through hundreds of court files to document a pattern of suspicious, court-approved payments to a small circle of Everett’s cronies. It was first-rate reporting about what appears to be a serious judicial scandal.
The Banner, on the other hand, barely mentioned the Everett story. An editor explained that Toni Dew, the paper’s courthouse reporter, was busy investigating another judicial embarrassment.
Now, two months later, Dew has published the story that courthouse sources say she’s worked on since August. Metro’s general sessions judges, she wrote, make frequent use of “special judges,” lawyers appointed to hear cases when the regular judge is unavailable.
After Dew’s story appeared, Richard Pride, the Banner’s media critic, praised Dew for revealing that the judges use substitutes “to cover for them three, four or five or more weeks a year.” Dick Wright, the paper’s new cartoonist, lampooned regular judges who “take hundreds of unexplained days off.” Even the editorial writers chimed in to complain about judges “who have appointed attorneys to do their work about 15 percent of the timenearly one day out of six.”
They should know better. As Dew tried to explain in her story, Metro’s judges have not taken hundreds of vacation days. Sloppy language, misleading numbers in a graph, and sub-heads interspersed in Dew’s story all made it appear that a judge takes the entire day off each time he appoints a substitute. That’s not true. In fact, judges often use substitutes for short periods of time in order, for example, to allow the regular judge to attend a meeting, make a speech, or hold court at another location. Sometimes a special judge is asked to handle overflow cases in a conference room while the regular judge presides in the courtroom.
Dew’s long article pointed out these facts, but then she misled readers, including the paper’s own media critic and editorial staff, with the startling accusation that the judges don’t work “15 percent” of the time or “one day out of six”bogus calculations that assumed a full day off each time a judge used a substitute.
Some Metro judges may, in fact, be abusing the use of substitutes, but Dew’s story doesn’t prove it. Her time would have been better spent looking at Judge Everett’s files.
Practice makes perfect
“Two or three times a year,” observed a long-time Tennessean staffer, “Alan Bostick turns out a terrific piece of work.” That’s small praise for a reporter at a daily paper, but Bostick, who covers the arts, made up for lost time recently with a sensitive, well-crafted, 2,500-word piece on Karen Lynne Deal, assistant conductor of the Nashville Symphony.
Deal, 38, collapsed after a concert last spring and has been diagnosed with a potentially career-ending circulatory disorder. After spending much of last year going in and out of hospitals, Deal cannot stand for more than a few minutes and now directs the orchestra while seated in a specially designed chair. Bostick, a classical pianist himself, managed to convey in layman’s terms the enormous challenge Deal faces in trying to conduct the symphony using only her upper body. When Deal, who once had to be carried to and from the pit, returned to the stage last weekend for her first full-blown, classical concert, the audience response was tumultuousdue in no small part to Bostick’s good work.
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