Hours after Albie Del Favero and I closed on buying the Nashville Scene, we got together to celebrate with our venture capitalist and our lawyer at McCabe Pub. We drank a few pitchers of beer. We were we so happy: We had just bought a newspaper.
The next morning, I really thought I was having a heart attack: We had just bought a newspaper.
When I showed up at the Scene offices that early summer of 1989 and walked in to meet the staff, I felt none of the cinematic swagger that the situation might have offered up. I felt no heart-thumping desire to do good journalism, no First Amendment passion. I felt only fear, interrupted by occasional glimpses of confusion.
Part of the unsettling reality had to do with where the newspaper was located. We were housed in the third floor of a Sovran Bank building in Maryland Farms, a biological precursor to Cool Springs and all that nascent, gated-community, Republican separatism that was just hatching its ugly birth. Our offices there on Maryland Way bore no evidence of journalism, or the city of Nashville at all. Inside, there were these huge, cheap winged-back chairs and empty credenzas with excessive brass knobs. I distinctly remember the framed letters on the walls from heads of various Chambers of Commerce. "Thank you Nashville Scene for all you did to make this year's Blood Drive the Best Ever!!!"
Everywhere you turned were signposts of living in a wrong and rotten land. All of which was later summed up in one of the best entries to the first "You Are So Nashville If..." contest: "You are so Nashville if your city's alt-weekly is in Williamson County."
Maybe we could have viewed the situation with irony, but instead it felt more like the flu. Albie, who was responsible for the numbers, would interrupt me every afternoon to say we were losing $15,000 a week. With $150,000 in the bank, we had only 10 weeks to live. In our first weeks on the job, the Metro Council passed a law prohibiting the free distribution of newspapers into people's driveways (which was our form of distribution). One morning we got a call saying one of our delivery people had just dumped 15,000 papers in a ravine behind Harding Mall. Would we come get them?
Our classified ad manager was a strict Pentacostalist who refused our proposal to start running personal ads in the paper. Fired. We had one good advertiser (Toys "R" Us) buying full-page ads, but store workers caught our sales director handing out coupons to inflate the effectiveness of the ads. Busted. Every single advertiser—except for the movie theaters—abandoned us. Which was understandable, because Albie was slashing circulation in half and nobody read us anyway.
Over in my end of the business (I was the editor), we had no writers on staff, just a few irregular freelancers. But hope arrived one day when there was a knock at the door and a young guy named Jim Larson introduced himself. He said he wanted to take pictures. His portfolio was so beautiful it blew me away.
"Where do you live," I asked offhandedly. Pointing out the window, he said, "Over there." In an empty field, between a couple of trees, stood a tent. "I'm homeless." Thankfully, he didn't stay homeless for long. Once I hired him, he moved into the darkroom.
Slowly, uncertainly, columns appeared. A letter appeared from a 23-year-old MTSU grad pleading to write movie reviews. "Remember: Gene Shalit is a disease, and we are the cure. Sincerely, Jim Ridley." (I kept the letter.) We started a society column called "Queasy Scene" and a John Bridges-penned essay called "Keeping Up." Kay West wrote sports, and Clark Parsons created a news digest called "An American in Nashville." Phil Ashford wrote politics, Marc Stengel wrote about literature, and two people covered food: Mike Pigott (now a big-time PR rep at McNeely, Pigott and Fox) and Bill Hobbs (now a fire-breathing Republican blogger and activist). I wrote a media column called "Desperately Seeking the News."
Because people were always flaking out on getting stories in, I also ended up writing nearly every column in the paper. This would always happen late on press day, when somebody would come to me and say, "We got a half-page with nothing on it," and I would rap out the respective column with my brain barely functioning. I probably wrote a dozen "Hot Homes," the real estate column by notorious deadline offender Bernie Sheahan. I also remember writing the first 25 personals that appeared in the paper, because we wanted the section to appear to have a bunch of ads when we launched it. My favorite creation: "Fat single male seeks slender Asian female with long toenails. I'll bring the clippers."
After a couple of months in Brentwood, we could see glimmers of hope across the urban frontier. One day our entertainment editor Brian Mansfield rushed in to turn on a new radio station with which we found great kinship: It was Radio Lightning's first broadcast. In came some cool music. Within months, we were co-sponsoring lots of events.
By the end of year one, in fact, the whole experiment began to gain traction. John Jay Hooker was calling me every day, dropping juicy pearls of wisdom. "Never pick on someone smaller than you," he advised. Mercilessly, therefore, we started attacking the city's two daily papers, the city's powerful PR firms, the mayor (who left after one term), the sheriff (who went to prison), and a thin reporter at Channel 2 whom we referred to as a "blonde on a stick" and became the first person to threaten us with a libel suit. (I later came to like Lauren Thierry, truth be told.)
It is fair to say that in the early days we behaved like our chronological age suggested we might: as a toddler in diapers. Screaming at the tops of our lungs, we ran naively and aggressively into the stories of the day, setting off little firecrackers as we went, throwing our words here and there and watching them explode with righteous fury.
I'm not sure we ever broke any substantive news that first year—in fact I'm fairly certain we didn't—but the writing was what stood out. From day one, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, the writers ran the ship. The editor certainly didn't. Sensing freedom and liberation, and knowing that the editor wasn't interested in turning their copy into garbage, the writers rose up and produced something unpredictable and unlikely and often quite remarkable week in and week out.
These were the days of hard copy, long before email and the web. Every week the writers would hand me their typewritten pages, and I would have to retype them into the office's only computer. I can't tell you how many times I sat there, typing away, with tears flowing down my face, marveling at what beauty we were about to publish. Thank God the city saw something beautiful too. And kept reading.
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