Smoke & Mirrors 

An internal Tennessean memo is riddled with lies

An internal Tennessean memo is riddled with lies

Trying to fend off growing competition from The City Paper, Tennessean sales staffers have been coached in writing to tell advertisers that their morning paper isn’t really a monopoly and to make other misleading statements criticizing the new tabloid.

A confidential memo distributed to The Tennessean’s marketing department—titled “City Paper Strategies/Tennessean Response” and marked “CONFIDENTIAL For Internal Use ONLY”—apparently was circulated late last year in response to the Nov. 1 launch of The City Paper. The memo lists City Paper marketing “strategies” and suggests how The Tennessean sales staff should respond.

For example, the memo alleges that “CITY PAPER STRATEGY #1” is to say that “The Tennessean is a monopoly.”

Here’s the suggested response:

While The Tennessean is the largest newspaper in the area, you have many media choices. There are over 140 other print publications in the Nashville area. In addition, approximately 40 radio stations and an ever-growing list of cable and Internet opportunities are competitive advertising sources as well....

In addition, The Tennessean’s promotional and public involvement in the Middle Tennessee community gives our advertisers extra value and a larger [audience. With] The Tennessean’s commitment to the community, our advertisers receive an increased believability in their advertising message.

But from the perspective of many large advertisers—grocery stores, automobile dealers, movie theaters, and department stores—The Tennessean is, of course, a monopoly. Those advertisers don’t have other, realistic “media choices.”

As for the paper’s “increased believability,” perhaps no one in the marketing department actually reads The Tennessean, or the staff thinks readers have already forgotten stories like the “mysterious pattern of illnesses” at Oak Ridge or editor Frank Sutherland’s apology for appearing in a Gore-for-President video. Community promotions don’t build credibility. Good journalism does.

According to the memo, “CITY PAPER STRATEGY #2” is to tell advertisers that the new paper “will focus on local content and more in-depth coverage of local stories, including sports and business.”

Here’s The Tennessean’s response:

Middle Tennesseans now enjoy more local news than ever before, by reading The Tennessean. There is more local news in The Tennessean today than before the Nashville Banner ceased publication. We have more local bylines and more local copy than two years ago. When the afternoon Nashville Banner closed in 1998, The Tennessean added the best local features from the Banner, including local columns by Joe Biddle and Ms. Cheap.

In fact, most of the Banner reporters hired by The Tennessean have long since left, and the “news hole” (the space between the ads) appears to be shrinking to maintain high profit margins.

City Paper publisher Brian Brown estimates that The Tennessean is now about 65 to 70 percent ads and earns an annual profit of 35 to 36 percent.

The memo’s final point is that Tennessean sales staffers should imply that The City Paper is going to fail:

The trend is clear, evening papers are dwindling for a reason. Lifestyles and work habits have changed since the 1960s.... Afternoons have become one of our busiest times of the day. Therefore, public support of evening newspapers has dropped. Currently, there are less [sic] than 14 evening newspapers operating in America. The Nashville Banner’s circulation dropped 33 percent from 1992-1998.

In fact, The City Paper hits downtown news racks by 6:30 a.m., long before most people arrive for work, and is delivered to homes around 10 a.m. The more serious lie is the implication that the afternoon Banner closed because of changing “lifestyles and work habits.” The truth is, in fact, that the Banner’s owners pocketed millions during the paper’s last decade because of a profit-sharing arrangement between the two papers. But because The Tennessean controlled the marketing and circulation of both newspapers, the Banner withered until Gannett decided it could buy and close the afternoon paper without losing any advertising revenue.

In a speech Monday to the downtown Rotary Club, Brown said his paper will break even within three to four months. And he also promised the group that advertisers will be charged “a reasonable rate of return” and will not be forced to finance Gannett-style profit margins.

Addendum

According to The Tennessean memo, “Middle Tennesseans want local and national news coverage in their local hometown newspaper. The Tennessean offers both.” But when the biggest story of the month broke, the midair collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese plane, The Tennessean couldn’t find room on the front page. Embarrassed staffers say someone should have been blistered for the screw-up, but managing editor Dave Green’s daily critique didn’t mention the issue.

“In retrospect,” Green said Monday, “the story should have been placed on the front page that day.”

So much for national news. On the other hand, Gannett stock is holding up well, despite the recession. According to Editor & Publisher, Gannett executives recently touted profits in a presentation to investors. A meeting transcript shows that the word “journalism” never came up.

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