This would not be the best of times.
So imagine what it was like for Silverman last week to watch one of his paper’s best reporters get up and quit, thinning out an already anorexic herd of political journalists. On Wednesday, Sheila Wissner walked out of 1100 Broadway in the middle of writing a story about the state legislature, then tendered her resignation later via email.
“It’s gotten really hard working over there,” she says by phone while making banana bread at her East Nashville home. “It’s terribly understaffed, and as a reporter you don’t know what’s expected of you from one minute to the next.”
For nearly half of Wissner’s 20-year tenure at the paper, she worked as an investigative or enterprise reporter—the kind of endangered journalist who instead of being tied to a beat digs for interesting, potentially controversial stories that expose wrongdoing. Last year, though, the paper more or less disbanded its investigative desk and Wissner found herself covering state politics. She thought it was a temporary gig, but when the state legislature convened this year, the affable reporter again found herself in a job she didn’t like. On Wednesday, after the paper hired a new staffer who’d been freelancing for The New York Times, Wissner asked an editor if she could return to her old job as an enterprise reporter.
“I didn’t get a definitive answer and sat down at my computer to write this story and said, ‘Fooey, I’m out of here,’ and got my coat and walked out the door,” says Wissner, who applied but wasn’t chosen for the paper’s buyout package last summer. “I just snapped. I didn’t yell at anyone; it was a completely internal thing; I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Wissner is just the latest staffer to leave Silverman’s Tennessean. Sheila Burke, who covered courts and cops for 10 years, also departed last week.
“I just wanted to do something different,” Burke says. “I feel like the business is real tumultuous right now, and it seems like a good time to branch out.”
State political reporter Jessica Fender, city editor Ricky Young and lifestyles writer Hollie Deese also have left The Tennessean in recent weeks. Not all of them fled because they disliked their jobs, but what seems to be happening at the paper is the same kind of personnel chaos Silverman was recruited to stop: the record ship-jumping of staffers under predecessor E.J. Mitchell.
Newsrooms, often located in bleak, non-descript office buildings, aren’t supposed to be existential playgrounds, but when you add unpredictability and instability to the mix, they become factories of gloom and doom. And The Tennessean isn’t helping matters by abandoning common sense principles that have served newspapers well for decades.
To take one example, Wissner says that her editors told the paper’s political reporters last year to spend more time in the newsroom and less time at the Capitol. The goal was for reporters do more enterprise stories and less reporting on process and minutiae, which would be a decent plan were it not for the fact that in state politics, the best story is in the details.
“They didn’t want us sitting in on meetings when there was incremental stuff going on that was not major news,” Wissner says. “We felt that you couldn’t really know when the major news was going to break if you weren’t down there.”
This year, the paper wised up and decided to have its reporters actually spend time with the people they cover, but the message to the staff was clear: The Tennessean would adapt any half-baked idea to save money or draw readers. The paper’s current fad involves an Oedipal obsession with suburban moms. Mark Silverman boasted about the paper’s MusicCityMoms.com blog in his weekly editor column. It was a moment that should have made John Seigenthaler cringe. Then, at the top of the paper’s redesigned website, “moms” is listed as its own category right alongside “news, entertainment” and “sports.”
Desperately has absolutely no idea how to save the modern newspaper, but surely writing about how moms can find friends (an actual Tennessean story) isn’t the way to meet the challenges of the free media age.
Two for the road...
Now that she’s left The Tennesseean, Sheila Wissner will have more time to make jewelry, which has been a hobby of hers for years. Check out Wissner’s impressive handiwork at jewelryarte.com .... In a sidebar to its story on condo living, The Tennessean listed the pros and cons of choosing one versus a single-family home. One of the cons to living in a condo was “emerging neighborhoods.” How is that bad? Or is “emerging neighborhood” a Tennessean euphemism for some place that’s not in a subdivision?