Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland says that “on occasion” he studies issues of Nashville’s daily from 10 and 25 years ago “to see how the paper was at that time.” Like most Nashvillians, Sutherland has heard the persistent refrain that The Tennessean was a fabulous regional newspaper under his predecessor, John Seigenthaler, but that it has become a second-rate paper under Gannett’s stewardship. We decided to do what Sutherland does and compared papers over the last four decades.
We enlisted Leonard Assante, communication department chair at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin and a keen observer of the local media scene. He studied five issues of The Tennessean from the last Tuesdays in August of 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000. Important years to remember are 1979, when Gannett purchased The Tennessean, and 1989, when Sutherland succeeded Seigenthaler.
Assante says he undertook the analysis having already heard the conventional wisdom. “The almost universal opinion seems to be that The Tennessean was a once-great paper that has fallen from grace due to various factors related in one way or another to the purchase of the paper by Gannett,” his analysis says.
Assante offers several caveats with his analysis. First, he says that it’s difficult to make editorial comparisons over an extended period of time because readers’ wants and needs today are different than those of 40 years ago. He also notes that significant improvements should be expected over time as technology improves the ability of a newspaper to gather and present information. Just compare automobiles of 1960 and 2000, Assante says. One can only conclude that today’s vehicles run better. Even so, his findings are revealing.
By “virtually any objective measure,” Assante writes, “the paper is a superior product than it was in earlier years.” Today’s Tennessean “has a larger, more attractive style (including significant use of color), is in an easier-to-read font, covers a variety of news from a variety of places, has a substantively larger news hole, has a stable of decent writers, is reasonably priced and widely available, and has an above-average Internet site. The numbers of columnists, comics, and classifieds are all higher.”
Much of the improvement, Assante writes, “has to do with technology and stylenot journalism. A simple example is the use of color in newspapers. Color can enhance the visual appeal of a newspaper and help make a point or create a more graphic image. Color can thus help both the look of the paper and its ability to make a reader understand the news. A specific example is found in the Aug. 25, 1970, issue. The front page contains a black-and-white photo of a car damaged as a result of an explosion at the University of Wisconsin. A color photo would have been more graphic and eye-catching. This would bring the reader into the accompanying story and thus have improved the ability of the paper to disseminate news to readers.”
Assante offers additional examples of modern technology’s impactlater deadlines, satellite transmission, and even the proliferation of interstate highways and air travel, which allow reporters to travel greater distances and still meet deadlines.
The transformation of The Tennessean over time conforms with national trends. In a 1999 study of “The State of the American Newspaper,” American Journalism Review (AJR) compared issues of 10 dailies from 1963 and 1964 with copies of the same papers from 1998 and 1999. “The bottom line is that modern newspapers read different,” wrote AJR senior editor Carl Sessions Stepp. “They are, by almost any measure, far superior to their 1960s counterparts: better written, better looking, better organized, more responsible, less sensational, less sexist and racist, and more informative and public spirited than they are often given credit for.”
But, Stepp concluded, “something significant, perhaps vital, seems to be in decline. When you carefully read scores of papers from both eras, as I did, it is hard not to conclude that modern papers are less flavorful, less surprising, anddistressinglyless imbued with a distinctive sense of place.”
Assante’s analysis of Nashville’s daily hits similar notes. Old issues of The Tennessean, he writes, indicate that it was clearly not a high-achieving paper day in and day out. It was plain, short, and unattractiveat least relative to the modern version. For example, Assante cites the differences between the 1960 and 1970 papers and the 1980 paper. The 1960 and 1970 editions were very similar20 pages and 30 pages, respectively. Both were only a single section. Both were also eight columns wide and had a decidedly old-fashioned look. The eight-column format made the paper look cluttered, and it used tiny, one-column-wide photos and headlines scattered across columns, making it hard to read. A small, hard-to-read typeface didn’t help.
In 1960, Assante says, there was no sports section as such, just two-and-a-half pages in the middle of the paper. The summer Olympics in Rome were covered in just a quarter of a page. The paper also offered no local business stories, and the national business news took up less than a page. Stock reports were abbreviated, and some of the news stories were pitifully short. One “article” headlined “Walls Have Eyes” disclosed the existence of closed-circuit TV cameras in Russian coalmines. The length: one sentence, sandwiched in between the “Designing Woman” home-making tips column and an advertisement for Krystal hamburgers touting their benefits to dieters.
In 1960, there were six pages of classified advertising. In that era, the slogan of the paper reflected a parochialism that readers today might find laughable: “At the crossroads of natural gas and TVA power.”
By 1980, things had changed considerably, Assante writes. The paper had adopted a six-column format, allowing wider photos and headlines and a cleaner, easier-to-navigate look. Sports had its own section, had tripled in length, and had added coverage of high school sports. The length of the paper had grown to 34 pages, not including classifieds.
By 1990 and 2000, new fonts had evolved and the paper had grown. The 2000 paper, which used color photos, had 48 pages and was divided into five sections. Assante says the paper was definitely easier to read and more aesthetically pleasing.
If most of the changes can be attributed to technology and the needs of readers, Assante says that some journalistic changes were plainly discernible. For one, the paper’s once ridiculously elitist society page was no longer. “The Werthans Entertain at Open House,” one 1960 headline announced. By 2000, the paper became more “politically correct,” Assante says, shedding such coverage. It had more feature stories, including writers’ columns, opinion sections, and “lifestyle” pieces such as “Shortcuts” and “Brad About You.” The paper had more entertainment news, coverage of women’s issues, and school news for children and parents.
“These articles in the 2000 edition do not ruffle feathers, nor are they memorable in any way,” Assante writes. He adds that much of this new material appears directly linked to market research or focus groups comprised of readers offering their ideas for what they would like to see in The Tennessean.
However, Assante says the features The Tennessean has added are the very parts of the editorial product most criticized by readers seeking “hard news.” They are not the kinds of stories that win awards or national recognition. “In fact,” Assante says, “less hard news means an inferior product to critics.”
If the older editions of the paper were mediocre at best, then why does the perception of former glory exist? The old Tennessean would, Assante writes, “every now and then, hit a home run. And it was these magnificent home runs, not the day-to-day singles and walks, that earned the paper its national reputation prior to Gannett ownership.”
Those home runs, Assante notes, usually were first-rate investigative pieces such as Jerry Thompson’s riveting account of his infiltration of the KKK. “Today, you have a B or B+ paper every day, without much chance of investigative reports that make, as well as break, news,” he writes. “In previous decades, The Tennessean was, at best, a C or C+ paper that hit the occasional home run.”
The decision to pump up the rest of the newspaper’s elements, and not to focus on investigative journalism or big projects, has resulted in “decent coverage for the readers,” Assante writes, concluding that “the very best newspapers of today find a way to do both things wellday in and day out coverage of local, regional, national, and international events and high-quality investigative journalism.”
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