An enthused Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland is rousing his staff, presiding over committees and holding mandatory meetings as he prepares, in a surprisingly hands-on way, to lead the paper into a new era of local journalism.
Desperately has learned that Sutherland and managing editor Dave Green are planning to unveil a gradual series of changes to The Tennessean over the next year broadly aimed at making the paper more “accessible” to readers.
Details about the initiative remain sketchy, and Sutherland says it’s a long-term project he’d rather not comment about just yet, but here’s what’s on the table: Characterized internally as a “remodeling,” the effort could be seen as a strategy to stem the paper’s sinking circulation. Last week, Green and Sutherland held a mandatory staff meeting to discuss the project. They seemed excited about the effort and heralded it as the biggest change at the paper in years.
Green has proclaimed that the whole idea is to “get back to basics.” The remodeling includes design changes, such as more graphics, and an emphasis on “revelatory journalism,” which seems a redundant term but is nonetheless the buzz phrase of the moment at 1100 Broadway.
Green is said to be leading a meeting with reporters this week, during which he’ll be coaching them on storytelling. And this week reporters will also be asked to attend a class on “Edge and Layering.”
It’s not clear whether the paper’s remodeling effort is a part of Gannett’s “Real Life, Real News” project in which Gannett papers are charged to make local news their highest priority. We can only hope that The Tennessean’s effort is more ambitious than the parent chain’s campaign. In a widely circulated memo last month, Cincinnati Enquirer editor Tom Callinan issued a rambling explanation of the program that encourages newspapers to make local news more relevant to the reader and take more of a populist approach to journalism. “Real Life, Real News is about recognizing, valuing and publishing small moments of life, yes, that we may have held up our noses at for too long.” Translation: more Davidson A.M. and even fewer complex and investigative stories on public policy, government and other subjects unlikely to be posted on a refrigerator.
Bruce Oppenheimer appears to have two jobs: One is as a political science professor for Vanderbilt. The other is as an expert source for lazy reporters, who apparently have him on their speed dials. On Sunday, the paper quoted him several times in two separate stories. In the first story, about Tennessee’s Feb. 10 presidential primary, he characterized the outcome as unpredictable. “It’s like playing with Silly Putty,” he said. “You don’t know what shape it will take right away.” In the second story, about U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, the professor delivered this nugget about the Senate majority leader’s 2004 agenda: “For Frist, the two things are what does the president want to get off the table, and what does he want to keep on the table.”
A Google search of “Vanderbilt’s Bruce Oppenheimer” and “The Tennessean” found 61 results. Over the years, the morning daily has found the Vanderbilt professor to be fluent on a variety of subjects and people, including the relationship between church attendance and voter turnout, Bush’s Tennessee approval rating, Howard Dean, Lamar Alexander, Ed Bryant, the governor, the state legislature and Marsha Blackburn. The professor’s quotes have also landed him in the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, MSNBC.com and PBS’ Web site.
Oppenheimer’s gift is encapsulating the current conventional wisdom in a quotable fashion. But that doesn’t mean he’s profound. When Al Gore shunned Joe Lieberman, his former running mate, Oppenheimer had this to say: “You don’t back horses that are stuck in the mud, even if you’re loyal to them.”
Detached sources who can comment on a campaign or politician are valuable for any political reporter. But reporters would be advised to mix the detached academic perspective with the real-world viewpoint of consultants who’ve actually run campaigns. It wouldn’t hurt to call former politicians, either.
Dana was right
Last month, after WTVF-Channel 5’s Dana Kaye reported that members of the 101st Airborne Division would be coming home from Iraq before New Year’s, rival reporters grumbled that she was being irresponsible by boosting the hopes of the troop’s families. They whispered that she was merely reporting rumors and snickered when her station claimed that she had “sources in Iraq.” Ft. Campbell even issued a press release cautioning local media outlets from making assumptions about the early return of division members. “Such speculation simply leads to disappointment by all,” the statement read. It was a clear shot at the Channel 5 reporter.
But, in the end, Kaye was basically right. Members of the 101st began returning right after New Year’s, shortly after she predicted. And the entire division is expected to return no later than the end of March. Laurels to Kaye and Channel 5 for not only breaking the story, but sticking with it.