In February, when Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor Mike Schoenfeld announced he was leaving Vanderbilt to take a similar position at Duke, The Tennessean penned a 190-word story about it that read like a rough draft of a press release. The daily never wrote a follow-up piece, and last week Schoenfeld quietly took off for North Carolina as if he were just a two-bit administrator whose departure barely merited a mention in the local paper.
Just last Wednesday, Vanderbilt threw Schoenfeld a farewell party that drew, among many others, the last two mayors, Bill Purcell and Karl Dean. Also mingling with the outgoing vice chancellor were USA TODAY editor Ken Paulson, former Tennessean editor and publisher John Seigenthaler, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg and several mainstays of the local bar, including Lee Barfield, Keith Simmons and Paul Ney.
Throughout his 12-year tenure at Vanderbilt University, Schoenfeld protected and promoted the school’s image, deftly managing bad publicity and forging strong relationships with some of the richest and most influential people in Nashville. When he came to Vanderbilt, the university was something of an institutional pariah. Then Mayor Phil Bredesen harrumphed that Vanderbilt was an “800-pound guerrilla” while local leaders grumbled that the university was creeping into the surrounding neighborhoods.
But Schoenfeld quickly changed the perception of the school by figuring out ways to make Vanderbilt a part of Nashville—and not just an academic island on West End. Although a good chunk of his job had him lobbying in Washington, Schoenfeld always returned phone calls, joined local boards and commissions and made the school’s elite faculty readily available to the press. He also listened to neighborhood leaders, even if the school continued to expand. Most importantly, Schoenfeld managed to keep the outrageous quirks of then-Chancellor Gordon Gee and his wife Constance off the radar, until The Wall Street Journal caught up with them and reported on their lavish spending and Constance Gee’s pot use in their official residence.
The irony is that while Schoenfeld was enlisted, in part, to spin The Tennessean, at the end of his time in Nashville, that part of his job barely mattered anymore. There wasn’t much the daily could do to hurt or help Vanderbilt—the paper almost never reports critically about local businesses and institutions anyway.
For Schoenfeld it was probably a better use of his time to take a new CEO to lunch to talk about Vanderbilt initiatives than to spend time worrying about what The Tennessean was up to. It was an odd evolution of his duties: As the city grew in size and stature, Schoenfeld’s job in some ways became less encompassing, as he spent less time with the local paper in favor of the chattering class. So perhaps it was fitting that when Schoenfeld said farewell to Nashville, The Tennessean’s ever-changing cast of reporters virtually ignored his departure. They didn’t really know who he was and what he did. And that probably didn’t bother him.
On writing wellBefore The City Paper tries to redefine journalism as we know it, it would help if it paid a little attention to the old media concept called “writing.” In just about every issue, the former daily, which is now concentrating most of its energies on the web, features wretched paragraphs and passages more inscrutable than a John Wilder soliloquy. Sentences run on and on like fugitives, subjects and verbs violently disagree, words and colloquialisms are mangled like roadkill. It is simply embarrassing. Here are just a few examples of the paper’s more amusing grammatical and stylistic lapses:
“The last set of hurdles before the $100 million new Bellevue Center mall redevelopment can begin have been cleared—or are in the process of being cleared—according to those familiar with the process.”
“Not a mention of the word neighborhoods. Neither was there a mention of neighborhoods in Dean’s first State of Metro speech, which was almost universally labeled as “fluff” by Metro Council members (all of whom unanimously refused to go on the record.)
“Gentry loyalists say this and a fear of Howard Gentry’s ties to organizations like the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and associated cliques has manifested itself in an unfair line of attack against Sharon Gentry concerning her pregnancy—namely that public office would be taking on too much to truly serve.”
“Largely manning the general assignment beat since joining The Tennessean after he left the shuddered Nashville Banner….”
Wait a minute. This is awkward. I wrote that last sentence. Kind of makes me shutter.
Closed for businessLast Monday’s Tennessean business section had only one local story and ran all of two pages. Yes, two pages, before giving way to 16 pages of classified ads. Fine work, my friends.