Chris Ferrell has been named the new publisher of the Nashville Scene, effective Jan. 1. The Nashville businessman and former at-large Metro Council member takes over the business duties of the 15-year-old alt-weekly from founding publisher Albie Del Favero, who announced in July that he would retire at year's end.
"I've been a Scene reader for 13 years," says Ferrell, 35, who's also been the subject of several Scene stories. "And for 15 years the Scene has been an important voice in the conversation about what kind of city Nashville should be." Ferrell says he looks forward to helping reinvigorate that conversation with a new generation of readers, "building on the legacy of Albie and Bruce."
He's referring to Del Favero and founding editor Bruce Dobie, who together in 1989 transformed the Scene from an irrelevant shopper into an irreverent, well-read weekly. Since then, the paper rose in popularity and profitability before Del Favero and Dobie sold a majority interest in it to a newly created company now known as Village Voice Media, which owns New York's Village Voice as well as the Scene and four other papers around the country.
Del Favero says he wasn't optimistic at first that he'd be able to find one person who had all the qualities he sought in a successor. "I hoped we could find someone who was passionate not only about this paper but also about this community," Del Favero says. "Most importantly, I wanted someone who understood that our ability to do good journalism and be a catalyst for change in the community is directly related to our success as a business."
Primarily because of Ferrell's Metro Council leadership and his Internet experience, Del Favero says, "I thought of Chris. I called him, we chatted informally, he was interested. We continued the conversation, and the more we talked, the more I knew he wasn't just a good person for the job but the ideal person for the job."
For his part, Ferrell is a young old hand who has uniquely positioned himself at the nexus of business and technology, politics and religion in Nashville, a city where disparate social spheres overlap and interweave. A graduate of Furman University with a master's in divinity from Vanderbilt (and a Ph.D. in the works), Ferrell is a lifelong Baptistbut he's also been the honorary grand marshal of the city's gay pride parade. He's a businessman who voiced support for a living wage, and a council member who championed affordable housing before it was cool.
Running for a seat on the Metro Council in 1995 at the tender age of 26, Ferrell was the youngest person ever elected to that body (until Jason Alexander beat his record in 1999). Ferrell cleaned up in the countywide race and was easily reelected in 1999. (Around that time, staffers in the Scene newsroom affectionately dubbed him "Boy Wonder.") After term limits ended his council career, Ferrell ran for vice mayor but lost to Howard Gentry. He then surprised local political watchers by abandoning a 2002 run for what's now Jim Cooper's congressional seat, citing the demands of raising a family.
During his professional career, Ferrell has worked for two Internet companies, Telalink and CitySearch. He's run a marketing firm and, until now, a company that provides performance improvement, customer service and management training workshops for hospitals. In short, he's a businessman and a preacher, a politician and an Internet pioneer.
And now, a publisher wholet's be honestwill face some real challenges. The newspaper industry finds itself in the middle of a well-documented slide, although recent figures suggest an uptick. He says he's undaunted by the challenge.
"The Scene has a great reach with a loyal readership of smart people who shape opinions throughout Nashville," Ferrell says. "What advertiser wouldn't want to reach an audience like that? If we consistently show we're the best value for advertising dollars, the profits will follow."
As Ferrell prepares to take the publishing helm at the Scene, it's worth noting that this deal went down like so many others have in Nashville's colorful past. The progressive Internet pioneer found himself Monday evening at the bar of Jimmy Kelly's, the Old South restaurant favorite for lobbyists, lawmakers and well-dressed big shots, where he had the final in a series of conversations with Village Voice Media CEO David Schneiderman as well as Del Favero and former Scene editor Bruce Dobie, both of whom still own a piece of the private company. Long story short: Mike Kelly knew before anyone else that Ferrell was the new publisher of the alt-weekly.
The Scene may have a new boss, but some things never change.
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