All across the city, you will soon see billboards bearing one rather simple but hopeful message: “Nashville is a two-paper town again.” The slogan heralds the arrival of City Paper, the new startup daily set to launch its debut issue next week.
Funded by Brian Brown, a wealthy entrepreneur who has made a whole lot of money in insurance and software businesses, City Paper will have the physical format of a tabloid paperbut without the sensationalism and big splotchy covers. In terms of content and style, look for City Paper to be an old-fashioned community newspaper, focusing strictly on local news “inside Old Hickory Boulevard,” as Brown puts it. In other words, don’t expect any exposés on, say, the dangers of living near Oak Ridge’s nuclear facilities.
“It will be about what happened in your neighborhood, what happened with your local high school sports team,” says Brown, who notes that The Tennessean devotes most of its space to syndicated features and national news. “I just think being in local news is a lot better investment than being in global news.”
He’ll soon find out for himself if that holds true. Brown is City Paper’s sole investor, which means that the weight of this rather laudable enterprise rests entirely on his shoulders. But with a brashness that is moderated by his soft-spoken and decidedly unpretentious personality, the fledgling publisher doesn’t seem to have any fears. “It doesn’t matter what the product is, be it insurance or software,” he says. “My background is in creating a product and getting it to the right market. Over the next 20 years, the trend will be toward the globalization of information. That will make local news more scarce and more valuable.”
It’s unusualand somewhat refreshingto hear a publisher talk about local news as if it were a commodity. Daily papers today tend to approach local news by focusing on the machinations of mayors and council membersand even then in a skimpy and often mundane fashion. Rarely do daily papers see local news, particularly of the neighborhood variety, as their bread and butter.
The alternative weeklies have filled part of the local news void by running longer, behind-the-scenes political stories or intricate analysis pieces. But what few papers are doing, and what City Paper would like to do, are the kinds of stories that Mayor Bill Purcell built his candidacy on. We’re talking simple neighborhood issues, from, say, storm-water drainage problems in a Bellevue subdivision to the issue of speeding cars on Green Hills’ Glen Echo Road. Run enough of these stories in a daily paper over the course of a week and you’re bound to print something that directly affects one of your readers. After all, Nashville’s not a big city just yet.
Of course, filling a news void is not the same as developing a financially viable newspaper. No matter how much Brown downplays the startup costs of a newspaperhe continually notes that it’s cheaper than launching a new software operationhe faces a steep challenge. City Paper will not only be free; it will be home delivered to thousands of wealthy households in West Nashville. So the distribution costs will be immense. Add the high cost of daily printing, office spacein Burton Hills no lessand salaries for an editorial and sales staff, and Brown will have a daunting overhead.
And then there’s the question of whether Brown can actually execute this ambitious Monday through Friday printing. While Brown has recruited In Review managing editor Will Williams and Scene columnist Danny Solomontwo sound pickshe has yet to lure the kind of local journalists who can give his paper instant credibility and name recognition. The Nashville Post, another daily startup, albeit on the Web, boosted its prospects considerably simply by being fronted by Bill Carey and David Fox, the James Cramer and Robert Samuelson of local business reporters.
Of course, an array of media startups, from the Scene to CNN to America Online, faced skepticism when they first hung their shingles. And if someone is to start a new daily paper in Nashville, maybe a successful businessman is better than a successful journalist who might set the sights too high.
In fact, Brown’s narrow focus may bebesides his buckets of cashhis greatest asset. Like a disciplined debater, Brown never strays far from his central message: City Paper is not going to become the city’s preeminent daily or even rival the existing one. Instead, look for it to be a news supplement in a media world that lacks a dominant player. “A lot of people ask me, am I taking on The Tennessean? That’s not what we’re doing. We are simply filling a local news niche.”
To comment or complain about the media call Matt at 244-7989 ext. 445, or e-mail at MPulle@nashville scene.com.