Kingmaking in Nashville 

A cast of local characters determine the fate of USA Today

A cast of local characters determine the fate of USA Today

Lost in the coverage of USA Today's surprising decision to name Ken Paulson as its next editor are the Nashville connections that made it happen. Plucked from the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, where he had been toiling in the journalistic wilderness since 1997, Paulson was tapped by former Tennessean publisher Craig Moon, who is now publisher at USA Today. Meanwhile, when Moon looked for a recommendation for Paulson, he turned to none other than John Seigenthaler, the former star editor of The Tennessean and a fixture in the city's old guard. If the deal had any more of a local flavor, it would have been cooked at Brown's Diner.

"When Craig called me and asked me about Ken, I recommended him above everybody else," Seigenthaler tells the Scene. "Over the last six years, he and I, twice a month, have done seminars with editors and reporters at newspapers all over the country. I knew he was up to speed on the challenges in journalism and has a good sense of ethics."

Before Seigenthaler bestowed his blessing on Paulson, he flexed his 76-year-old muscles by prompting the dismissal of USA Today editor Karen Jurgensen. Earlier this year, Seigenthaler chaired a panel that investigated former USA Today reporter Jack Kelley, who was found to have fabricated stories about decapitated heads and dead refugees. He also plagiarized and lied in speeches he gave when he was representing the newspaper.

Seigenthaler's panel, which also included veteran editors Bill Hilliard and yet another former Tennessean reporter in Bill Kovach, helped document Kelley's sprawling portfolio of deceit, which was reported, detail by humiliating detail, in USA Today. But even more importantly, Seigenthaler helped author a devastating report that pinned the blame for Kelley's fiction-writing career on the paper's top editors. They should have picked up on the "numerous, well-grounded warnings" that much of Kelley's journalism was the product of a more vivid imagination than Tim Burton's.

"A virus of 'fear'—defined somewhat differently by different staff critics—clearly infected some staffers in the News section and inhibited them from pushing complaints about Kelley," read the dramatic, overwrought report, which was a dead ringer for Seigenthaler's own writing. "We did not find that a 'culture of fear' blankets the entire newspaper or most of its departments. It is alive and sick in the News section."

As the paper prepared to release the panel's report, editor Karen Jurgensen abruptly resigned, ending her 22-year career at the paper.

Ken Paulson wasn't his first choice, Seigenthaler admits. He thought Moon was intent on choosing an editor from one of Gannett's papers and threw out a few other names, although he won't say which ones. Later, when Moon asked him about Paulson, whom Moon knew casually from his time in Nashville, Seigenthaler gave his stamp of approval. Interestingly, when Seigenthaler, Hilliard and Kovach talked to Moon about who the next editor of USA Today should be, one name did not come up: Frank Sutherland, the longtime editor of The Tennessean who has worked with both Moon and Seigenthaler.

"It was not mentioned," Seigenthaler says, after a pause, when asked. "I think Frank is very happy where he is. Knowing that, I did not propose his name."

Perhaps Seigenthaler should not expect a Christmas card from the Sutherland family this year.

As director of the First Amendment Center, Paulson could have played golf all day en route to an early retirement, but by all accounts he took his job seriously. He wrote thoughtful columns on First Amendment issues that delved into unexpected topics like hip-hop, and he hosted a weekly television show whose guests included Robert Redford and David Crosby. A former executive editor of Gannett Suburban Newspapers, Paulson is nobody's superstar. But Paulson brings an unpretentious Middle America sensibility to journalism, cares deeply about his profession and happens to be a pretty affable guy. He wouldn't be on a short list of a thousand to run The New York Times, but he'll make a good fit at USA Today, which, incidentally, is the country's largest daily newspaper.

"I couldn't be more excited," he told the Scene, the day after meeting with his new staff. "The adrenalin is surging, and it feels really good to be back in the newsroom."

It's been seven years since Paulson has looked at a newspaper story as anything more than just a reader, but he says that his time out of the business was well-spent. "I believe that every editor in the business should take three or four years off," says Paulson, who is as surprised as anyone about his hiring. "The newspaper business is so insular; we don't get out of the newsroom enough, and we don't talk to readers enough."

Meanwhile, Seigenthaler, the kingmaker himself, says that he's tired of taking on these kinds of starring roles. In fact, he says that when Moon first asked him to chair the Kelley panel, he demurred. "I'm 76 years old, and it's time for somebody else to start doing this. I asked Craig to ask somebody else, but he pushed it."

Still, as the former editorial page editor during USA Today's salad days, Seigenthaler seems happy with the way things have worked out. "You couldn't be there at the very beginning and not want what's best for the paper," he says. "I'm glad Ken is there."

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