Sunday, September 28, 2003

Fresh Eyes, Or Same Tired Eyes?

The Commercial Appeal, in yet another of new Chief Editor Chris Peck's moves to "get in touch" with the community, sent its reporters, photographers and other staff out into the ZIP codes of the Mid-South to talk to the folks there, to see with "Fresh Eyes" the people and problems of the community.

It's part of Peck's ideas to make the paper more a part of the lives of the readers and to make the readers more a part of the paper. I think this is a terrible idea, as the paper is devoting more and more space to the opinions of those readers and, in the process, devoting less and less space to the very things that only a newspaper can do. For every "Readers React," "Fresh Eyes," or reader television review they print, we've been seeing less and less coverage of Tennessee and Mid-South news.

The CA has long had a heirarchy: national and international news in the front, A, section, except very important or heart-tugging local news. Even then, the local items only carry over to Page Two, for completion. Everything else is New York Times stories; AP, UPI and Reuters wire stories; or stories pulled from other prominent papers.

You have to go to the Metro, or B, section for most local stories. This slim section carries the Op-Ed pair of pages (columnists, editorials, letters to the editor, guest columnists, etc.), obituaries and formal notices, regional news/crime briefs, etc., as well. In the tiny space that's left we get news from Mississippi, Arkansas, Nashville and the rest of Tennessee. The CA used to do a moderate job of state coverage, but no more. Things have gotten slim since Peck came aboard last Fall.

So, any space stolen from this pinched allotment is a valuable theft. How does "Fresh Eyes" compare? Let's look at today's example -- Somerville. It's a great, small town due east of Memphis and one county over. It's been rural Tennessee until a few years ago when the most adventurous of Shelby Countians began to filter in, the first scouts ahead of the hordes of suburbans looking to move farther and farther from the very sprawl they create.

The article talks to three people and they all seem worried about the encroachments of Memphis and Shelby County. It's the main focus of the article. The people interviewed are all worried about managing it. You'd think this was the big worry out there, that "Fresh Eyes" have looked anew and this is what they've found.

Until you look at the three folks interviewed: a bank vice-president, the manager of the local airport, and the Mayor. Well, changes things a bit, doesn't it? Naturally, these are the folks who would likely most have this near the top of their minds, especially when the Big Local Newspaper comes a-calling.

One wonders what might have happened if the "Fresh Eyes" team had just knocked on some doors, talked to the regular folks, gone to the local small stores, or hit up a church or two. I'd wager the story might have turned out differently if they had.

This series is not a confidence builder in the ability of the CA to connect to the average Memphian.

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