Henry Walker was the Scene’s media critic until three months ago. We asked him to critique the paper, from its beginnings to its current incarnation.
Like a vain, middle-aged woman, the Nashville Scene likes to pretend she’s younger than she is. But mastheads, like tombstones, reveal the truth: “Volume 17, Issue 21” reads the discreetly printed legend in the upper-right corner on Page 3.
That means the Scene is really 17-and-a-half years old, and that this “10th-anniversary” issue is, well, a small affectation that polite gentlemen shouldn’t question.
But, the owners argue, it’s been 10 years since they bought the paper and transformed it from a boring “shopper” to a hip “alternative” weekly. That’s not exactly true either.
In April 1989, Nashville “advertising executive” Albie Del Favero, as he was described in the paper, and a group of local investors bought a controlling interest in the weekly Scene. May 4, 1989, is the first issue with Del Favero listed as publisher. On May 25, 1989, Bruce Dobie’s name first appears as the Scene’s editor. Both anniversaries have passed without notice.
This week’s “10th anniversary” is actually the birthday of a column, one of the few Del Favero ever wrote, that appeared in the June 29, 1989, issue. The new publisher announced that this issue of the paper “is really the first one I believe that begins to communicate” his vision of an alternative Nashville weekly.
Prior to Del Favero and Dobie, the paper was, in fact, very different, but not quite so much as the paper’s mythology pretends. “Volume 1, Issue 1” of the Nashville Scene appeared Feb. 9, 1983. “We’re new, classy, affordable, informative, and a pleasure to read,” wrote publisher Ann Shockley. She promised advertisers delivery to 56,000 homes in West and South Nashville, and promised readers a weekly calendar of events, a restaurant and entertainment section, and only “positive” news. “Controversy will not be our ‘bag,’ ” she said.
The paper was tossed into driveways, whether you wanted it there or not. There was no editor, no editorial staff, and no news to speak of in the paper’s 16 pages. The paper’s first editor was radio deejay Jan Poole, who joined the paper in March, first as a columnist, then as “creative editor,” but who left by the end of the year. Other editors followed in rapid succession: J. Penny Augelli, Jennifer Harris, Bill Brittain, Nanci Gregg, Larry Rhodes, Bruce Honick, Susan Prudowsky, and Brian Mansfield. Honick, an ex-Banner reporter, lasted 19 months, longer than anyone else.
Shockley herself left the paper after little more than a year. Chuck Snyder took over as publisher in February 1984 and stayed until Del Favero arrived.
Although the old Scene kept Shockley’s promise to avoid controversy, the paper increased its circulation to 100,000 homes, launched a “Best of Nashville” contest in 1985, a section called “Hot Tickets” in 1988, and an annual “Hello Nashville” issue similar to the current Scene’s “Annual Manual.” The paper was, in some ways, beginning to resemble its modern successor. Shortly before Del Favero took over, editor Brian Mansfield had even added a couple of talented freelance writers to the masthead: Thom Storey and Susan West Richardson.
On May 11, 1989, Dobie introduced “News of the Weird” and Jules Feiffer’s cartoons, both alternative newspaper standards, and dumped the weekly Bible verse. The TV listings soon disappeared too. In their place came (I’m not making this up) sports stories by Kay West and restaurant reviews by Bill Hobbs and Mike Pigott.
But the heart of the new Scene was a foursome of writers who gave the paper edge, humor, and intelligence: Phil Ashford, Clark Parsons, John Bridges, and Susan Quick. Ashford, who coined the terms “Bizpig” and “GOPig,” skewered both groups on a weekly basis. His columns “smack[ed] of Marxism disguised as journalism,” wrote one angry reader. Parsons, writing under the pseudonym Addison DeWitt, and Bridges, author of the column “Keeping Up,” wrote with humor and intelligence about subjects we all recognized. And Susan Quick, a former “Betty Banner,” wrote the deliciously spiteful “Queazy Scene.” Queazy’s most memorable line may have been this: “poor [Tennessean society writer] Catherine Darnell, born with a silver corncob.”
The new Scene repackaged the old paper’s advertiser-driven features in smart-ass prose. The result was a paper that was both useful and fun to read.
At the same time, the Scene remained firmly rooted in West Nashville. After all, that’s where the money is. One early cover story featured “Billy Frist, M.D., On the Cutting Edge.” Other stories described Belle Meade decorators, the MBA Class of 1969, and “25 Names and When to Drop Them.” While the paper’s “Committee of Insiders” mocked the city’s upper crust, Dobie hired Trevania Dudley as the paper’s freelance art writer. Dobie also penned an obsequious obituary of Jack Massey that sounded like the praise of a grateful heir.
But then Quick left town. Parsons followed a few years later. Ashford bought some suits and went to work for Bredesen. Trying to be more serious, the paper entered what Dobie now calls “The Dark Years”relieved only by Michael McCall’s music news and Kay West’s occasionally controversial food columns.
The business side of the paper continued to grow steadily, though. After losing money for two years, the revamped Scene broke even in 1992 and has made a profit every year since.
In 1996, Dobie and Del Favero bought the paper themselves for a reported $2.5 million. (I reported it.) Today, the paper earns about $5 million a year in gross revenue and, based on industry averages, is likely worth one-and-a-half times that amount...or more. On paper, both the publisher and editor are millionaires.
Editorially, the Scene today is a writer’s paper, alternately breaking major news stories and publishing some of the city’s best writing while, in other weeks, anesthetizing readers with self-absorbed navel gazing. Crammed with advertisements and long, leisurely written features, the l999 Scene is really more magazine than newspaper, something to read slowly, more for pleasure than for information.
There’s Willy Stern, but no “Committee of Insiders.” There’s a new feature called “The Fabricator,” but no Addison DeWitt. Dobie himself writes less frequently and has said he wants to turn over the day-to-day running of the paper to someone else. Last fall, he endorsed Republican Don Sundquist for governor.
The Scene today is more mature and more profitable than it was 10 years ago. But it is not necessarily any better.
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