Legacy Media Case Study: The Tennessean

By Lori Shull

As the bottom began to fall out from the print journalism world thanks to the internet in the 1990s, Gannett was one of the early adopters of change. It adopted what it called News 2000, an initiative to focus on community interest stories, watchdog journalism and diversity. At the time, it seems that more than one journalism expert hated the idea. It was formula and numbers-based, and editors had to report data to executives who then gave the papers scores and orders to change what they were doing if deemed necessary. Despite the protests, others came around and eventually agreed that the company had it right. Since then, Gannett and other news organizations have tried to do essentially the same thing—reinvigorate the business model by refocusing on community initiatives—again and again.

In 2003, Gannett launched the Real Life, Real News initiative, which again focused on community conversation and added an emphasis on breaking news, rather than operating the newsroom exclusively for print deadlines.

Three years later, Gannett launched Information Centers, which seem to have been intended to destroy the traditional news desks—metro, sports, state, city and so on—in favor of more nebulous terms like community conversation, digital, local, data and multimedia to name a few. The goals were to publish more user-generated content, expand local coverage and continue developing into a 24/7 news organization instead of saving breaking news for print deadlines. Every three years, it seems that the corporation tried to reinvent itself using the same ideas but wrapping them up in a different name.

Since News 2000 launched, the company appears to have floundered, along with many other newspapers. It is well-known for its highly paid executives, several of whom earn more than $2 million a year, and frequent lay-offs.

This year is no different, with the corporation recently announcing that it was divesting the print side of its holdings into a separate company from its broadcast and digital side. The end result is that the most profitable pieces of the company, including its recent purchase of the nearly three-quarters of Cars.com it did not already own for $1.8 billion, will no longer have to bail out their less-profitable print counterparts. Gannett is not the first media corporation to do this. Like the others, the company tried to explain that everyone would win because the print side of the company would be debt-free and be able to purchase other newspapers that previously were unavailable to it because of federal regulations.

At the same time, they announced that every newspaper would have to cut 15 percent to help the new company remain profitable and keep shareholders happy in spite of industry expectations that revenues would continue to decline. Many editors would lose their jobs, though some newspapers said they would be able to add back some of the reporter positions that had been lost in previous cuts.

Though the latest announcement heralding the rise of the “newsroom of the future” has overtones of messages from years before, this one seems to be the biggest change yet.

“I haven’t felt like there’s been one as vigorous and broad as this one. This one seems to be more serious than the ones in the past,” said Michael Cass, the Tennessean’s metro reporter and 15-year veteran of its newsroom. “I would guess they feel it’s time to really attack the revenue problems we have, to finally get on top of that and create a product that people are going to feel compelled to read all the time.”

The Nashville Tennessean, which has occasionally served as a testing ground for some of the corporation’s initiatives, is one of Gannett’s largest papers. Earlier this year, it was one of about 35 test sites for daily national content additions from USA Today, which are now corporation-wide. The effort was devised mostly as a way to boost USA Today’s circulation numbers and make it more attractive to advertisers, but it was also probably a smart way to get national coverage into smaller papers operating without the staff to cover national issues and, perhaps, to cut down on the cost of subscriptions to the Associated Press or other wire services.

Despite the use of more national stories from the parent company, reporters at the Tennessean are by no means doing less reporting. Where Cass used to be able to focus on writing five or six solid stories every week, he estimates that he now writes between eight and 12. When I talked to him in the early afternoon, he had already written one web story and was in the middle of a second, a brief follow-up of a piece of political news from the day before. He was writing the second knowing that it would not make the paper; not everything that appears online appears in print and the focus of the newsroom has definitively shifted from the paper product to keeping the website and mobile fresh to try to compel people to read and check back in daily.

Cass was quick to say that the company is not going after “click bait,” but that it is very focused on giving readers what they will be interested in. Learning what readers want, Cass said, is a process.

“Sometimes we get it wrong and we’re learning,” he said. “There are certain kinds of government stories that I think are interesting and that people should be interested in, that we’re discovering they won’t read. I hope that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop covering them entirely, but we may do them differently.”

He did say that he has never been told by an editor not to write a story that he believes is important because the management thought it would not be interesting enough to the readership.

The Tennessean has redesigned its website and looks like every other Gannett publication. It has also expanded its multimedia coverage, with a section for video. Not only is there video that would be considered “news,” but also there is footage of interviews with various officials and sports content. The sports video seems to dominate, perhaps because it is football season.

The Tennessean has had a few misses in its efforts to meet the changing media climate, and not all of them are to due with its parent corporation cutting its newsroom staff. Several years ago, it attempted to launch what it called Brainstorm Nashville, which was yet another way to connect with the community and crowdsource coverage. It was developed in partnership with Middle Tennessee State University and was intended to cover a different large issue every month, beginning with childhood obesity. I can find no evidence that Brainstorm Nashville ever got out of beta or indeed covered a second issue. It’s URL, brainstormnashville.com, is for sale.

In 2009, management told reporters to get on Twitter and many had already been active on Facebook. Since then, no new social networks have been mandated by the management, though some reporters, including Cass, are beginning to dabble in Reddit.

“I saw some of my co-workers getting results using Reddit,” he said. “Twitter has become a huge part of my work and i like it a lot. I enjoy the way it can share stories but also create conversation.”

In keeping with the recent announcement that all newsrooms had to cut staff by 15 percent, an initiative called Picasso, the Tennessean decided to make all of its 89 staff members reapply for 76 positions. Several of the position descriptions have been standardized across Gannett and illustrate that reporters can no longer simply report the news.

The biggest challenge that the Tennessean, and all Gannett papers, faces is keeping its shareholders happy and the organization’s profits up.

“What a family paper doesn’t have to worry about is reporting to its shareholders every quarter,” Cass said. “It’s not always ideal, but it comes with the territory.”

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