The good news is that maybe now, with a Jewish editor at the helm, The Tennessean will finally stop calling Realtor Shirley Zeitlin for Christmastime color quotes. (I’m pretty sure that, as a 21-year-old kid on the business desk, I was guilty of this once, and not a single editor set me straight.)
For the editorial staff, the other good news is that E.J. Mitchell, who
presided over what was perhaps the most prolific era of defection in
the history of the newspaper, is gone. Though he was known for his
amicable and good-natured newsroom involvement elsewhere, it wasn’t his
hallmark in Nashville. He didn’t endear himself to staffers at 1100
Broadway, many of whom never even met him during his 21 months there.
The bad news for the staff is that new editor Mark Silverman, who was introduced as successor Monday before the smell of Mitchell’s lingering cologne even had a chance to dissipate, makes Mitchell look angelic by comparison. And Silverman’s title, Editor and VP/Content and Audience Development—with caps, of course—is the kind of corporately contrived moniker that may signal more focus-group-driven leadership from the morning daily.
As we reported back in June, Tennessean publisher Ellen Leifeld brought Silverman to the newspaper then—the two have been friendly Gannett soldiers together for some years now—to assess the daily’s news management. That series of interviews over box lunches with staff members was the first clue to low-level staff and outsiders that the publisher wasn’t content with Mitchell. After Silverman left, staffers began noticing that Mitchell was spending a lot of time in Leifeld’s office. At a recent Rotary Club appearance, Leifeld not so subtly patronized her editor. Finally, and most recently, one of Mitchell’s first hires here, Capitol Hill reporter Trent Seibert, bailed after only a year-and-a-half on the job.
Sources say the abrupt exile of Mitchell to a far smaller Gannett paper in New Jersey was, in fact, several months in the making. “She [Leifeld] has her own ideas about what the newspaper should look like,” one Tennessean source says. “She was unhappy with E.J. from the get-go.”
In the end, Silverman’s assessment, whether it was his own or one Leifeld wanted, must not have painted a very flattering picture of Mitchell.
“Neither one of those guys is human being of the year,” says one current Gannett staffer who has worked with both Silverman and Mitchell. “But the idea that Mark Silverman is going to bring fun back to journalism, as he’s said, is beyond ironic. He’s not a guy who puts a lot of credence in the idea that a newsroom staff should be happy.”
But the same Gannett staffer says that while Silverman, the former editor and publisher of The Detroit News (where Mitchell served as his managing editor), rules by intimidation, he’s also a serious news guy. “He’s committed to projects and investigative journalism. He’s not content to put out an unsophisticated product. Mark wants a paper that he would want to read in the morning.”
Among Silverman’s cap feathers was his creation of a Detroit News bureau in Germany after the merger of DaimlerChrysler. But he was also considered to have been a finalist in 2004 for editor of USA Today, a job that ultimately went to Ken Paulson. Gannett sources say his reputation as a manager who had all the warmth of a windbreaker in Alaska may have cost him the job.
Newsroom staffers at 1100 Broad don’t seem to be particularly spooked by Silverman’s ball-busting reputation—at least not yet. “Everyone just wants to get on with it,” one source says. “The mood is pretty positive.” Indeed, having a tough guy in charge may not be such a bad thing. Like Gen. Patton, Silverman may well be difficult to like, but those who have worked with him seem to respect him as a solid news guy.
Briefly, here are a few lowly suggestions from the Scene for
improving the paper:
1. Get rid of managing editor Dave Green, who is as responsible as anyone for flagging spirits at the newspaper.
2. Don’t make readers tear off Post-it notes to read the Page 1 headlines.
3. Don’t allow a talented journalist like Melvin Claxton to waste six months on an investigative piece that is neither surprising nor compelling (i.e. “The Cost of Murder”).
4. Hire a replacement for opinion editor Sandra Roberts who will continue to make the page more aggressive, but will avoid being a CliffsNotes version of The New York Times editorial page from three days earlier.
5. Hire some reporters with a pulse. Enough already with these banker look-alikes who have little to no appreciation for source
Wild card: Mr. Silverman, let us buy you a beer.