Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sorry, I'll Pass

I posted a while back that I'd sadly lost a longtime personal ritual: Sunday lunch with the Sunday Commercial Appeal. The CA just wasn't worth the $2.00, nor was it much of a read.

Shortly afterward, I realised rather belatedly that Andrew Smith's Cap'n Comics column had disappeared from the already anemic Sunday Arts section. I emailed Andrew, asking what happened (he didn't say) and how it felt to be an employee of a newspaper that didn't run his own syndicated column (he didn't say). He did, however, forward my email to Chris Peck, editor in chief and architect of the "new" CA. Here is Peck's reply:
Hi Michael,

Sorry you aren't a regular reader of the CA these days.

We've got a whole lot of great new stuff in the paper.

Hope you will take a look,

A week or two ago, I talked with Mark Richens, who does the Memphis Scene blog for the online CA. He mentioned he was editing the Sunday Page Two and had started a "blogroll" column, quoting notable bits from national blogs. Mark doesn't strike me as a dummy, he's actually quite clued in, so today I decided to give the Sunday paper another whirl.

Sad to say, it's still not worth $2.00.

Look at the front page: only three stories. One a "mother and child" story apparently themed to Mother's Day, but updating the tabloid "switched babies" story of Bridget Merriweather. The big headline? "She never quit," about a young woman overcoming adversity, accompanied by the requisite feel-good photo straddling the fold. Rounding out the "news?" An article on the annual Duck Stamp competition coming to Memphis. Across the bottom of the page are blurbs pointing inside the paper to deeper stories, on less important topics like the first statement from newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, upcoming nuclear non-proliferation talks, and a whole page of East Europe-after-WWII stories tied to President Bush's speech in Latvia.

Page Two is the same catch-work. The long column of contact information, subscription rates, etc. "Preview: The Week Ahead" which is easy to read quickies. A "newsmaker" story under a "Got A Minute?" headline on the oldest of the last surviving Munchkins. Sheesh.... Only Richens' "Blog Roll" snagged my attention enough to read. Mark picked multiple-paragraph selections from three blogs (Lawrence Kudlow, Defamer and Oxblog) that showed a good ability to spot the core points being made.

The rest of the front page section is the new style: maybe an eighth of a page of actual news story surrounded by advertising. Pages of this. The rest of the sections all seemed lighter than in the past, as though there are fewer pages per section.

Viewpoint is the same new tapioca. David Waters' "faith" column is yet another political screed. Wendi Thomas writes about a basketball player; yet more Fizzlies advertising and FedUp Forum boosting. Yawn. Predictable as always; nothing new to add; nothing unexpected. Same for "humor" columnist Bill Haltom in the "Downtown and Midtown Appeal" section. With all the great writers in Memphis waiting for their chance, we get this tired bore. You have to wonder what purpose these people serve. Is it their ability to fill 1000 words on a regular basis? To take what their peer groups are saying, or what they read in their daily reading, and regurgitate it for the lumpen masses? Jeez, give me their slots and half their salaries and I'd knock it out of the park for 'em twice a week.

Today's guest columnists look at the renaming of some City parks. Oddly, their thinking is in line with the paper's also-stated editorial opinion, which is largely middle of the issue. "Respect feelings but don't forget other's feelings, too." The same old issue splitting that seems to mark the new CA: find two majority opinions (regardless of complexity), take some points from each, force a compromise, walk away satisfied with yourself. I actually miss Ol' Piss'n'Vinegar. Susan Adler Thorp was dishonest, biased and willing to use her column for personal and political agendas, but she at least had strong opinions. As evil as she was, she at least brought new information to the table and made important connections. (Not least was serving the Wharton campaign before she jumped ship at the paper to take an important job with the new Wharton administration! Smooth connection, that.) The PC milquetoasts the "new" CA prefers seem carefully selected to be bland, or properly button-pushing.

Politcal reporting from around the state or neighboring states? Not today! We're not even the MidSouth anymore, but some re-oriented viewpoint called Greater Memphis, as though everything around the city are just subservient appendages and not real, distinct, historical communities. News from Tennessee that's not Memphis-centric has all but gone, as though the state ends just before Hickory Withe and Munford. News from Nashville is as likely to have an AP byline or Tom Humphrey's byline (He's a writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel for heaven's sake!) as that of their own Nashville reporter, Richard Locker. News from Arkansas or Mississippi has also disappeared, even though the southern tier of "Greater Memphis" is three counties in Mississippi that are growing faster than the titular City. But those things aren't part of "our story" in MEmphis, are they? It's all about the Memphis at the "new" CA. The new Greater MEmphis section is the catchall for what was once Metro (Yet another conceit. The metropolitan dream is dead and reborn in the more centralised Downtown Memphis. Everything else is an error waiting for Downtown to correct. Quit whining. Once Downtown is fixed, everything else will fix itself as a consequence. Shut up and sit down.)

All the arts and cultural stuff (except Travel, which still rates its own section, as travel is a lucrative ad market) is jammed into the "M" (Hey, it's all about MEmphis.) section, which isn't any bigger but also carries a larger load now. The good news is that stuffy elitist Freddy Koeppel is greatly diminished, almost buried; the bad is that books and magazines in general are nearly gone altogether.

Today's "M" even has an article on bloggers. Or at least bloggers who want to promote "literary" books. The kind that might sell a hundred copies around town, but we are all supposed to desire to read for self-improvement. The genre reviews are gone, too, it seems. At least those addressed a greater number of Memphians than the latest difficult novel about unpleasant people in depressing situations with ambiguous and distasteful endings.

Anyway, it's good to see the CA embrace bloggers. Well, some of them. Despite three years of hoping, the paper has yet to address the local blogging scene. It's exploding more than ever today, and yet the "new" CA has yet to cover it! Stories are being broken in Memphis' blogosphere, brought to light, discussed and dissected, but I guess that's one thread of the Greater Memphis narrative the paper would rather not weave into its story. On the one hand, it's a telling omission that says how the "new" CA approaches the massive industry changes blogs are precipitating. They insist on subsuming blogs into the historical institution of the newspaper, keeping a wary distance and watchful eye on these "journalists without rules."

Their experiment (Which is what the "new" CA is for Scripps; an experiment in reversing the decline of newspapers. It's being watched closely by the parent corporation.) is to advance the USA Today breakthrough and tweak content to connect to previously unserved parts of the community. The "old" CA was built around politics and crime. Frankly, I wish politics still carried some weight with the new crew. No one has the heft, reputation and institutional reach of a community newspaper. They can be places 95% of the community can't go and contact folks we don't know exist. They have the staff to cover the government and political meetings that will affect the community far more profoundly than the story of a woman overcoming adversity.

But the "new" CA values people and stories over boring old politics, mostly. Too bad. I don't want to read that. I want access, coverage and the bright, unrelenting light of publicity on the darker parts of local politics and government. You want to read about newspapers reinventing themselves digitally and relevantly? Try learning about the Greensboro, North Carolina or the Oh My News experiments.

The rest of the paper? I couldn't care less. The "new" Sunday CA is a slimmer product, fewer pages where "innovation" is pushing out "content." White space and blocky bits are the rule, as though the New York Times and the Washington Post, the nation's number two and three papers, haven't kept their classic, text-crowded look successfully. It's missing most of what I like a newspaper for. It's trading fluff and "look at us look at you" for necessary purpose.

I'm sorry Mark and Andrew and Chris. It's still not worth my money. I feel no guilt any more about not reading the CA. I don't feel that I'm missing anything important.

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