Weakly Publishing 

"Urban Journal" tries to regroup

"Urban Journal" tries to regroup

He sounded confident, in spite of it all. After losing key members of his editorial staff including David Hefner, his highly touted managing editor, publisher Sam Latham of the Urban Journal reaffirmed his commitment to putting out a newspaper. “We have a good future here,” he said in an initial interview. “I don’t care what other people think. We’re relied on to tell the story of the inner city.”

They haven’t been doing that lately. The weekly Journal hasn’t been spotted since Labor Day, while staff members have left reportedly because they weren’t getting paid. Making matters worse is that Latham has been named in nearly 10 lawsuits this decade in which various plaintiffs have tried to collect money for alleged non-payment of rent and other services.

Several cases remain unresolved. In one, Kirshner Realty Co. vs. Latham Communications, filed in March of 1996, court documents indicate that as of last month, Latham still hadn’t paid a $5,561 judgment against him. Other judgments against Latham, most of which ranged from $5,000 to $10,000, also appear to be unpaid, according to court documents.

After an initial interview about the state of his paper, Latham refused to respond to repeated attempts by the Scene to ask him about the many lawsuits filed against him.

Back to the paper. For the Journal, landing Hefner last March appeared to be a turning point. Formerly of The Tennesssean, where he covered the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals and the police department, the relatively young reporter gave the weekly paper the kind of journalistic credibility that it had always lacked. Now that he’s gone, the paper’s back where it started. Reached by phone, Hefner was reluctant to speak on the record, saying only that he left because Latham couldn’t afford to pay both his salary and those of his co-workers.

Asked whether he has been paying his writers, Latham said, “Things aren’t where we want them to be, but we’re not in any imminent danger of closing up.”

In our first interview, Latham sounded upbeat. He acknowledged that distribution of the paper has been a problem and said that he is negotiating with a delivery service to rectify that. He also said that while the paper is publishing only twice a month for now, it will resume its weekly schedule this October. Latham was even able to rationalize the loss of Hefner, for whom he says he’ll have a replacement by December.

“I don’t want to say anything negative about David. We just needed to make some changes,” he says. “I felt like now was a good time. I didn’t want things to erode anymore. Financially, I couldn’t afford to lose any more money.”

Getting blitzed

ESPN.com’s scoop detailing accusations of academic fraud against the University of Tennessee football team have left Nashville’s media outlets scrambling. After the story was reported on ESPN’s SportsCenter Sunday night, The Tennessean gave the news front-page play on Monday and Tuesday. All four Nashville TV stations put the story at the top of their newscasts.

While it’s good that Tennessee’s media haven’t ignored the ESPN story, you can’t escape the fact that they were all badly beaten to the punch by a network that’s not exactly known for its investigative reporting. Last March, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported a similar story, exposing academic pecadillos within the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program. The Press had its sources and did its homework. The same can’t be said about the Nashville media, which either lack critical sources within the university athletics department (bad), or had the story but chose not to pursue it (really bad).

At the very least, you would think someone would have reported that ESPN was conducting an investigation of the athletics program. For six weeks, ESPN interviewed members of the department, as well as former staffers and athletes. That the nation’s premier sports network is digging up dirt on the Vols is in itself a big story, and you would think at least one beat reporter would have found out about it. But ESPN might have had them all fooled. The network’s correspondents apparently gave some gullible Tennessee sportswriters the impression that ESPN was doing a fairly innocuous story on how the athletics department tutors football players.

Press Clips

The Tennessean’s much maligned business desk received a major boost recently with the hiring of Richard Lawson, formerly of the Nashville Business Journal. Lawson will cover growth and development for the paper. He often scooped the daily on this beat when he was at the Journal. Another new face is Michael Scully. Formerly with Small Business, a publication put out by Fortune Magazine, Scully will cover tourism and entertainment.... This weekend, look for the premier issue of Nashville Lifestyles to hit the newsstands. The magazine will be distributed at various bookstores and will also be mailed to nearly 30,000 households.... Finally, if you haven’t already gagged, this week the Nashville Scene’s editorial trumpets the appeal of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential candidacy. Over the last year, the Scene has written editorials endorsing a Republican governor, a textbook corporate welfare deal, and the same exact five countywide candidates for office as The Tennessean. Small wonder Lamar Alexander seemed so at home at the Scene’s 10th anniversary party.

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