Media criticism isn’t rocket science. Case in point: The front page of a newspaper is reserved for the day’s top stories, or, in some cases, a well-written narrative. That’s an easy-to-grasp concept, right?
Well, not if you punch a clock at The Tennessean. To stem its steady circulation declines, the morning daily is undergoing what its top editors call a “remodeling campaign,” in which the goal is to make the paper more “accessible” to readers. In the hands of middle-aged editor Frank Sutherland, that must mean stories about hemorrhoids.
Last Friday, The Tennessean ran a front page, above-the-fold story about a Preparation H commercial set to the Johnny Cash standard, Ring of Fire. As you might expect, Tennessean court jester Brad Schmitt penned the story that, appropriately enough, began with the words “No Joke.” Next to this fine piece of journalism was a note to readers urging them to tell the paper what they think about the Preparation H’s use of the Cash song. Anybody who actually took the time to log on to the paper’s Web site to offer their two cents on this weighty subject should be labeled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as “underemployed.”
In a journalism trend that even Ashton Kutcher would find idiotic, The Tennessean is one of many papers softening its front page. Last year, the Memphis Flyer ran a rather dispiriting cover story about its local daily, the Commercial Appeal, titled “A New Day at the CA: The Commercial Appeal just wants to be your pal.” Reporter Mary Cashiola recalled the Memphis Zoo arrival of pandas Ya Ya and Le Le, about whom the Commercial Appeal ran almost 60 stories, in addition to printing bumper stickers heralding their arrival. And as if the paper’s new editor Chris Peck hadn’t already punched his ticket to journalism hell, the paper also produced Sunday paper bags with pictures of the pandas and the words “Now this is news” printed on them.
Over the next few weeks, take note of how many panda- or hemorrhoid-like stories The Tennessean publishes on its front page. Then compare it to how many stories the paper runs that probe public policy, inform people about complicated legislative agendas and investigate the actions of people in positions of influencebasically, stories that matter.
Could it be...SATAN?
The same day The Tennessean ran a front-page story about a hemorrhoid commercial, it included a rather Freudian typo in a teaser about a religious debate: “Local Episcopalians this week will take up the controversies swirling around the demonination since it ordained its first openly gay bishop at its annual convention.”
Despite the Freudian slips and Preparation H exposés, some Tennessean reporters are intent on doing important work. One recent example: Reporter Holly Edwards’ devastating set of stories on the recent double murder at an East Nashville trailer complex in which the suspect ultimately took his own life. Crime stories don’t have to be sensational; they can show the powerful impact violence has on normal people and the struggle to return to everyday routines. Fortunately, not everybody has to endure the murder of a loved one, but with help from reporter Christian Bottorff, Edwards provided a vivid, unflinching glimpse into what it must be like:
“Marian Warren’s son, Doug Bull, was at his mother’s trailer yesterday collecting her personal belongings. Bull said he hadn’t been close to his mother in recent years but loved her very much. 'All I know is my mama’s in a better place and he’s burning in hell,’ Bull said. 'They was good people and didn’t deserve nothing like this.’ ”
Capturing another painful voice in the story, the reporters also talked to the suspect’s mother. “ 'I just want to know why he put me through this.... A mamma isn’t supposed to bury her children.’ ”
Last week, the City Paper had two rather incongruous front-page stories on the same day: The main one focused on how the Tennessee Lottery plans to have the first online game up and running in 60 days. The second, just a few inches below the first, delved into how Tying Nashville Together aims to put a computer in every children’s home. The placement of the two stories caused one reporter to remark to Desperately how telling it is that a community group is trying to aid the education of youngsters while the government is innovating new ways to gamble. We don’t disagree.