Irby Simpkins, then-publisher of the Nashville Banner, attempted last July to “merge” the Nashville Scene with his own paper, Scene publisher Albie Del Favero acknowledged last week.
The “confidential” negotiations came to light recently after Simpkins, who sold the Banner in February, angered Del Favero by telling a group of downtown businessmen that the Scene would soon be out of business.
In a speech two weeks ago to the Nashville Exchange Club, Simpkins, who is now the chairman and part-owner of Edgenet, an Internet access company, predicted that the Internet would dominate the news business within five years, that dailies like The Tennessean would be reduced to running entertainment news, and that the Scene would disappear.
“If he thinks that, why did he try to buy us last summer?” Del Favero said after being told of Simpkins’ remarks. “Oops, I wasn’t supposed to say that,” he added. “It was a confidential discussion. But if Simpkins is telling people that we’re going out of business, to hell with it.”
According to a source familiar with the discussions, Simpkins talked privately to both Del Favero and Scene co-owner and editor Bruce Dobie about merging with the alternative weekly and naming Dobie editor of both the Scene and the Banner. Del Favero would have taken a leading role in the business activities of both papers.
In anticipation of further negotiations, both papers turned over confidential financial information to an accounting firm, the source said. No further discussions were held, however, and no firm offer was ever made.
Station executives at WTVF-Channel 5 are debating whether to appeal last Friday’s court order directing them to release five hours of taped telephone conversations between reporter Jennifer Kraus and accused multiple-murderer Paul Dennis Reid.
In a tightly reasoned, 10-page opinion, Clarksville trial judge John Gasaway ordered Kraus to turn over the tapes to Reid’s attorneys after prosecutors said they planned to call Kraus as a witness and play for the jury the portions of Kraus’ interview that were broadcast on Channel 5.
The station’s lawyers don’t object to re-playing the 11 minutes of tape that have already aired. The problem, according to Gasaway, is that Channel 5 only broadcast interview segments that tend to incriminate Reid, who is accused of murdering seven people in Nashville and Clarksville.
If the state plans to use portions of the tape to hang Reid, the court explained, the defense should also be entitled to use other, exculpatory statements on the tapes to try to save Reid’s life. “The defendant here should not be penalized,” Gasaway ruled, “because the news reporter chose to broadcast only the incriminating portions” of the interview.
There’s a strict “newsman’s privilege” statute in Tennessee that protects reporters, under most circumstances, from having to reveal sources or disclose unpublished information. Although a few trial courts have found the privilege inapplicable, those cases were later overturned by the state Court of Appeals, which has never ruled against the press, according to attorneys who represent media clients.
It’s hard to argue, though, with Gasaway’s reasoning. There’s no way for Reid to refute the selectively edited, incriminating statements on the tape except by playing other portions of the interview or by taking the stand himselfwhich he has the constitutional right not to do. Under the circumstances, the trial court had little choice but to order Channel 5 to produce the tapes.
If station executives are smart, they’ll comply with the court’s order. If this case goes to a higher court, it’s likely the press will lose. That’s a precedent no one wants.
Channel 5 has yet to tell viewers about the court order to turn over the tapes or Gasaway’s claim that Kraus broadcast “only the incriminating portions” of the interviews. A station source said the public isn’t interested in that aspect of the Reid story. Channel 5 news director Mike Cutler declined comment.
The mind reels
On a recent Sunday morning, the front-page headlines were about the same everywhere: “Pakistan continues nuke tests,” said The Knoxville News-Sentinel; “Pakistan conducts another nuke test,” said the Commercial Appeal in Memphis; “Pakistan sets off atomic blast, but urges ‘peace,’ ” read The New York Times.
But in The Tennessean and, presumably other Gannett-owned papers, the headline read “Pakistan, India, calm following latest bomb test.”
Feel like you missed something? Gannett-trained editors at The Tennessean call it “spinning ahead.” It means manufacturing a headline that may not reflect the story’s lead paragraph but gives the impression of more immediate, up-to-the-minute news than, say, what the reader might have seen on television the evening before.
“If I heard it once, I heard it a million times,” said a Tennessean staffer who quit the paper last year. “An editor says that ‘a story has been out there all day,’ and then assumes everyone knows about it. So they make up a headline to ‘spin ahead’ the story even if there’s nothing new to report.”
To Gannett, “spinning ahead” is a way to compete with television and the Internet. Unfortunately, it just makes readers dizzy.
Forward my calls
For the first time in years, the Associated Press has no full-time reporter assigned to cover state government.
AP reporter Phil West, the current president of the loosely organized Capitol Hill press corps, has been re-assigned to the AP’s Brentwood headquarters but will continue covering state government “by telephone” and will travel downtown “as needed,” according to state bureau chief Kent Flanagan.
Flanagan said the re-assignment is only temporary and won’t affect the bureau’s coverage. But some editors and news directors who depend on the AP for news about state government are worried.
“This is not good,” said WSMV-Channel 4 news director Al Tompkins. “There’s no substitute for covering the news in person.” Bob DeBusk, executive director of the Tennessee Press Association, said several newspapers had called him “to express their concern” over the AP’s decision. DeBusk said he is considering alternative ways for small papers to keep up with state government but, for right now, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I asked them why they were shutting down the Capitol Hill office,” he said. “But they promised that there would be no decrease in the level of coverage. We’ll see.”
Because of questions raised by Tompkins, DeBusk, and others, Flanagan said he has decided to send a letter this week to reassure the approximately 100 print and broadcast media who buy AP stories.
“Our cubicle will still be in the press room,” he said. “The phone will still be on.”
Not everyone is unhappy about the AP’s decision. “It’s great news for me,” confessed a state government flack who spends much of her time deflecting tough questions from the press. “Now I don’t have to worry about the AP unless I pick up the phone and call Brentwood.”
“And I’ll only do that when there’s good news.”
The Associated Press also announced last week that The Tennessean’s controversial series on hazardous waste at Oak Ridge won first place for investigative reporting in the AP’s annual statewide contest. The decision was made by newspaper editors in Oklahoma.
The Tennessean’s series has been criticized by other papers, including the Scene, for making exaggerated allegations about the problems in Oak Ridge. Unlike the Pulitzer awards, the AP contest does not require newspapers to provide the judges with information that contradicts the newspaper’s allegations. AP itself carried only about a third of The Tennessean’s Oak Ridge stories.
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