Fountains of Lame 

Tennessean takes a friendly, nurturing approach to the news

Tennessean takes a friendly, nurturing approach to the news

The Tennessean is there for you.

Last Sunday, Nashville's most comforting daily paper introduced a new series in its weekly Life section. Called "Moments of Life," the series marks "special events that make lifelong memories." Kicking off this new feature was a collection of sentimental anecdotes about what it means to be a father. "How fortunate is the child upon whom fatherly love—in its fierceness and its gentleness—is bestowed," read the introduction, which will be appearing on a Hallmark card near you very soon.

This year, Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland has been meeting with reporters and editors to talk about how to make the paper more accessible to readers. For five years now, the paper's circulation has been receding faster than Gov. Bredesen's hairline, prompting Sutherland, managing editor Dave Green and their Gannett overlords to make some fundamental changes in the way the paper sees itself. No longer intent on simply uncovering and reflecting life in Nashville and beyond, The Tennessean wants to be a friendly, nurturing presence in our lives. Green, meanwhile, seemingly invigorated by this dubious mission, has instructed reporters and editors to include more head shots, especially of minorities and young people, in their stories. He says it's to improve "reader connection." In a recent spring memo that was immediately leaked to Desperately, Green explains that head shots "increase the chance that a reader will think that the story is of interest 'to someone like me'—such as their age or race or other characteristic."

Since the remodeling campaign, The Tennessean has included numerous front-page stories on pets, pet owners, a hemorrhoid ad and the rising cost of ice cream. Then, in a story that epitomized the paper's new journalism-lite enterprise, a front-page business section story Monday featured a fountain being installed in Westhaven, a Franklin subdivision. "The fountain acts as a magnet for people to come together in the community—have a picnic lunch, throw the Frisbee to the dog," reporter/stenographer Kathy Carlson quoted the flack for the developer, Southern Land Co., as saying.

Carlson's story reflected no skepticism toward the flack and his development, because, well, that's not what a friendly paper does. Instead, she allowed a sales pitch to Tennessean readers. Pontificating again about the fountain, the flack told a receptive Carlson that it "keeps in tradition with what Southern Land likes to do in its communities, (adding) an aesthetic, a sense of time, place and arrival that's going to make Westhaven that much more distinctive."

It's difficult to judge what's worse—that new business editor Deborah Fisher would think that a fountain in a Williamson County subdivision is newsworthy, or that she'd allow her hapless reporter to write an ad for a developer without drawing a commission. Actually, under Fisher's milquetoast leadership, the section is too often a wasteland for press-release-generated stories on area businesses. Smart business coverage has fallen out of favor at the remodeled Tennessean. Bill Choyke, you are missed.

Not a good thing

Desperately spoke with two Nashvillians who participated in a Tennessean focus group last week about the paper's planned redesign, which will be a centerpiece of its remodeling effort. They both report that the paper's revamped front page will include shorter stories down the side, lots of white space and very little real content. One mock-up included a sprawling ad on the front page, once a journalistic taboo. Focus group members compared the new mock-up to USA Today and People magazine. The two sources recall that the Tennessean representative who led the meeting didn't seem to take offense at the parallels.

He needs a smoke break anyway

Tennessean political editor Frank Gibson, who has presided over the paper's strongest beat, is now working part-time, editing only the Metro stories. Taking his place on the state level will be Jennifer Peebles, who, in her years as a reporter, led a relatively quiet existence.

Gibson, meanwhile, has become the part-time executive director of the recently formed Tennessee Alliance for Open Government, a nonprofit dedicated to researching the status of open government laws in Tennessee. County and municipal governments are notorious for denying reporters and other citizens access to basic public documents, often blatantly disregarding the state's straightforward open records laws. Gibson says the new organization will look at the status of the laws and what, if anything, needs to be done to improve them.

Actually, the laws are fine; they just need to be followed.

Sleeping with the anchovies

Desperately couldn't help but notice MafiaOza's full-page, color ad in Monday's City Paper two weeks after restaurant critic Danny Solomon warned serious diners to stay away from the place. Was that a concession to the 12th Avenue South restaurant's thin-skinned owners? Or did the restaurant's owners simply make the decision that, after being ridiculed in print, they want to pay for a full-page ad? This is one of the great mysteries of our day.

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