The News, Man 

Tennessean editor addresses power elite

Tennessean editor E.J. Mitchell debuted in front of the city’s power elite this week, when he spoke to the Downtown Rotary Club outlining his priorities for the newspaper.
Tennessean editor E.J. Mitchell debuted in front of the city’s power elite this week, when he spoke to the Downtown Rotary Club outlining his priorities for the newspaper—namely that he wants to own coverage of such “franchise” issues as religion, health care and music. Desperately interviewed a number of Rotarians, who say the 42-year-old newspaper editor began his presentation with a slick, well-produced multimedia video trumpeting The Tennessean and echoing its prolific “Every Day Matters” motto. (Sidebar: one Tennessean reporter notes that the paper’s billboard campaign, wherein someone asks, “You read that where?” isn’t exactly a flattering message.) During the question-and-answer session, Mitchell was on the receiving end of piercing, tough and sometimes combative questions from the mostly white, mostly male, mostly conservative crowd. To be fair, that’s not unusual for this coterie—which is well informed, smart and, it would be fair to say, generally skeptical of the media. Asked whether the newspaper’s coverage of Gov. Phil Bredesen, which has been increasingly “gotcha”-oriented, has been fair and balanced, Mitchell responded that The Tennessean simply covers the decision makers; it doesn’t make the decisions that create the news. Asked whether all of his talk about state government meant that he was ceding coverage of Metro politics to the Scene, he said no, that he just talks a lot about Capitol Hill because Nashville is a capital city. During his remarks, the editor also said he was committed to investigative reporting. The newspaper itself advanced that in a story the next day (“Tennessean revamps investigative team”), announcing the hiring of Melvin Claxton, who won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize in public service reporting while he was working for The Virgin Islands Daily News. He comes, like Mitchell did in December, from The Detroit News. Mitchell, of course, was quoted in the story, as he often is in his own paper. Four Rotarians (five others Desperately contacted did not attend) variously describe Mitchell’s speech as “slick,” “self-aggrandizing,” “clueless” and “surprising.” Rotarian, publishing executive and blogger Rex Hammock says he’s underwhelmed by the seeming lack of a dynamic plan for the paper’s website. “Does [Mitchell] not know that his readers spend hours online each day compared to, if he’s lucky, a few minutes with the ‘print product’?” And Hammock is unsure whether the editor understands “just how irrelevant The Tennessean is to people who used to be its readers.... All of the ideas he outlined were about repackaging, redesigning, hiring new personnel and wrapped in verbiage about ‘serving the interests of the people.’ ” Hammock also says Mitchell “needs to let loose his new investigative reporting squad on doing a series about the creeping dangers of MBA mumbo jumbo.” Me vs. Phil The Tennessean filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee last week, playing the story on the front of the Local News section and reporting that it was motivated because Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration “is withholding” public documents. The newspaper has made a mission out of getting its hands on state sexual harassment filings and related records, some of which the administration has released and others of which officials say are privileged or nonexistent. Interestingly, the story included a photo of editor E.J. Mitchell, which appeared just to the right of the governor’s mug. And included in the story were two paragraphs of comments from Mitchell, who took the opportunity to pat the newspaper on the back: “Our coverage of this issue has clearly demonstrated that there’s a problem with sexual harassment in state government…,” he said. Mitchell says he didn’t know his photo would run with the story. “The decision to run the picture was made by a designer later that night when the page was laid out,” he says in an email to Desperately. Lower power to the people Until recently, residents of Sylvan Park who had their radios situated in just the right spot could hear dispatches from WRFN-FM, better known as Radio Free Nashville. But after just a few months on the air—it debuted in April after years in the works—the all-volunteer-run station has had to reduce power to its already weak signal. As it turns out, it accidentally built its radio tower 700 meters from where it was supposed to go because its workers misread the GPS coordinates, says co-founder Ginny Welsch. Located high on a ridge in the community of Pasquo, the station airs an eclectic hodgepodge of left-wing programming. Nobody is paid (and almost nobody is listening), but the effort and the very idea of such a community radio station is admirably idealistic. Unfortunately for WRFN (www.radiofreenashville.org), Lebanon country station WANT-FM isn’t run by aging hippies and isn’t forgiving about the tower placement. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but they had a little bit more power than they were supposed to,” says Susie Bay, owner and general manager of WANT, who adds that the error adversely affected her station’s reach. Bay won’t say if she’ll challenge RFN’s application to the FCC to operate temporarily. Welsch is certain it will, saying WANT has been a thorn in RFN’s side since the beginning. But, she says, she won’t give up. Email lgarrigan@nashvillescene.com.

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