We have decided to undertake an analysis of Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean. I’d like to explain to our readers why we think the topic is worth exploring. And I’d like to detail the many steps we have taken to ensure that this paper remains as unbiased as possible while writing about a competitor.
Last spring, Scene writer Willy Stern walked into my office. He said he wanted to take a look at The Tennessean. He explained that since he had moved to Nashville in 1996, he had often been led into conversations about the quality of The Tennessean. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about the paper. Stern said he wanted to elevate the debate.
Although Stern is the Scene’s investigative reporter, this series was never intended to be investigative in nature. There is no smoking gun. Instead, just as Stern originally suggested, the intent has been to answer some basic questions about the paper. What is The Tennessean’s editorial mission? What role is it playing in the life of the city today? Is the paper trying to lead the city, or is it only trying to mirror the community? How, if at all, does this role differ from its historical role?
Other questions came into focus. Who is running The Tennessean today? What vision do these newspaper executives have for their paper and for their city? Has the paper changed under the ownership of Gannett? And how does it stack up against daily papers in comparable cities?
How profitable is The Tennessean? Should a newspaper owned by a publicly traded company be judged for its economic success or its editorial content? Are there other measures by which we should judge daily newspapers in the 21st century?
As time went on, the subjects to research only increased. Importantly, we wanted to know the downstream effects of The Tennessean’s chosen role. How doesand willThe Tennessean’s mission affect the landscape of the cityfrom politics to sports, from culture to business, from standing up for the underdogs to helping the city’s business leadership?
Many of the questions, we discovered, were not ones we alone wanted to ask. We came to discover that readers across the country are asking similar questions of their dailies. While The Tennessean was our specimen for examination, the truth is that daily newspapers have undergone significant changes in recent years, causing abrupt shifts in the ways they relate to their readers. In this sense, we felt we were diving into an intensely local story, but one taking place newsroom by newsroom, and city by city, across the country.
With these and other questions in mind, Stern set out to find some answers. The project took nearly a year to complete. As a competitor, we had to be careful.
How has the Scene ensured objectivity?
Taking a hard look at a competitor is a tricky matter. Nonetheless, we instituted numerous safeguards to ensure fairness. The first was to enlist the aid of an advisor to guide us through the murky waters of weighing in on a competitor. We turned to Keith Woods, an in-house media ethicist at the respected media school, The Poynter Institute. Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Poynter promotes integrity in journalism.
We were pleased when Woods heartily endorsed our project. He noted that we in the media all too often drop the ball in our willingnessor lack of itto scrutinize other media outlets: “I believe strongly that if the media are to be true to the mandate to ‘hold the powerful accountable,’ then part of that mandate includes holding powerful media organizations accountable. Scrutiny is not just good but essential.”
Woods, who was not paid, guided the Scene in launching the project.
With his input and help, we did the following:
♦ The Scene asked newspaper veteran Gene Foreman to be the final editor on the project. Foreman managed the day-to-day newsroom operations of The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 25 years under various titlesmanaging editor, executive editor, and deputy editor. He was also a vice president of the company and retired in 1998. During Foreman’s years at The Inquirer, the paper won 18 Pulitzer Prizes. Today, he is the Foster Professor in the College of Communications at Penn State University, where he teaches courses in news editing, news media ethics, and newspaper management. Foreman’s role in this project was not only that of a referee or ombudsman, raising questions of fairness, but he also line-edited the entire series. Foreman had final say on any passage in which he had fairness questions, and Scene editors also incorporated every other change he suggested.
♦ On the front end of the project, we informed Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland and publisher Craig Moon of our intention to do this series. We sought, and graciously received, their cooperation for most of the time Stern worked on the project. Sutherland, in particular, offered helpful suggestions that have improved the stories.
♦ We sought the help of outside, unpaid experts to see how The Tennessean compared in quality to papers in similar cities. We compared the paper with the The Hartford Courant, Austin American-Statesman, Louisville’s Courier-Journal, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Robert Healy, former executive editor of the The Boston Globe, and John Mashek, former national political correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, analyzed the print editions. Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, analyzed the online versions of the five papers. All three panelists said they had no conflicts of interest and promised objectivity.
♦ Sutherland suggested the Scene could undertake an historical analysis of The Tennessean to discern how the paper had changed over time. We did. We obtained copies of The Tennessean for the last Tuesday in August for 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000. To perform the analysis, we enlisted the help of Professor Leonard Assante, chair of the Department of Communication at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin. We consider him one of the most incisive minds around on the local journalism scene.
♦ While we were reporting the project, many readers complained of errors in The Tennessean. In an effort to quantify the mistakes, we commissioned a formal analysis of the number of copy-editing mistakes in The Tennessean. A class of journalism students at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications conducted the study.
♦ Since I have been publicly critical of Gannett’s business practices, and Scene news editor Liz Garrigan is a former Tennessean reporter, Garrigan and I thought about recusing ourselves from this project to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Poynter’s Woods said this was hogwash. His rationale: Newspaper editors inevitably have previous knowledge of subject matter. They are paid to use their judgment and to be fair. So Garrigan and Iin addition to managing editor Jonathan Marxedited the piece, although Foreman had the final say on it.
♦ Stern talked to 374 sources for the series. His goal in every one of these interviews was to try to get a fair and balanced reading of The Tennessean.
A final note regarding Tennessean managing editor David Green:
Green sent a memo to his staff last year outlining his thoughts on this series. In the memo, Green called into question both my personal ethics and the ethics of this paper. Among other things, Green wrote, “...it is reasonable to assume that Stern and Dobie have a negative hypothesis about us, and they will set out to prove that.”
I can assure you that, Dave Green’s theories notwithstanding, this paper had no malevolent agenda going into this project. Our top reporter simply asked to look into something, I cut him loose, and we published his findings.
Throughout Stern’s reporting, Green expressed other doubts about this newspaper’s ability to report fairly about his operation. Many of his concerns may seem tedious to readers, but for ethical reasons, I feel I must discuss them.
Green maintainsand has been given space in the Scene to writethat “when it comes to printing articles about The Tennessean,” I “embrace an approach that values being entertaining over being accurate and responsible.” In the guest column Green wrote in the Scene last year, he questioned the ethics of my rehiring Henry Walker as a Scene media critic and quoted two of my own staffers questioning Walker’s accuracy. (To read this story online, go to http://archives.nashvillescene.com. Click on “Looking for Back Issues.” Then use the search engine to browse to the Dec. 21, 2000, issue.) Green has repeatedly charged that I have displayed a lack of journalistic ethics in the reporting this paper has done about The Tennessean.
Also, in on-the-record conversations with Stern and two others at the Scene, Green theorized that Stern may have an ax to grind against The Tennessean and that Stern’s personal feelings may be the driving force behind this series. In a written response to the Scene, Green argued that Stern said he was “offended” by a job offer he received from The Tennessean about seven years agoneither Green nor Stern remembers precisely when the offer cameand may be out to exact revenge today.
As Green told Stern: “I think it is reasonable to wonder whether a personal agenda may be playing a part in your motivation for doing this story.”
Here’s what happened with Stern, based on what I know, and what Stern has told me.
At the time, Stern was a staff writer at Forbes Magazine. Stern began a job hunt, and contacted the Scene and The Tennessean. The Tennessean, according to Stern, offered him a position as a beat reporter on the newspaper’s business desk. Stern, who had been looking for an investigative position, declined the offer. Stern eventually landed at Business Week, doing mostly investigative work. In 1996, I offered Stern a job at the Scene, and he accepted.
For his part, Stern was amused that Green would think his dealings with The Tennessean nearly a decade ago might have any bearing on this project.
Tennessean editor Sutherland, meanwhile, told the Scene that, unlike Green, he was “not concerned” about Stern’s previous talks with his newspaper. Sutherland, however, says he’s concerned about problems of accuracy in the Scenespecifically citing media critic Henry Walker.
Media ethicist Woods, by the way, says Green’s reaction to this series has news value. Explains Woods, “Think again about how the newspaper would handle the reaction of a major corporationor the mayorwere they to tell their staffers the sorts of things you say David Green has communicated to the newsroom. How the powerful respond to scrutiny is news in my book.”
And so we offer Stern’s reporting about the city’s daily newspaper. The bottom line is that this series is intended to serve readers by taking a look at a key power player in the community.
Next week, meet Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland
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