Watching An Institution Self-Destruct
I always try to make it a point to keep this site devoid of politics. This is a racing site and if someone wishes to voice their opinions on either side of the political spectrum, they need to go elsewhere. That is my disclaimer for this post, for it will come close to delving in the political arena if I’m not careful. But trust me – there is a racing tie-in.
Nashvillians were stunned last week to learn that our soon-to-be former newspaper, The Tennessean, was laying off some very prominent employees – including longtime sports columnist Joe Biddle who shared duties throughout the week with another Nashville mainstay, David Climer. Biddle had been a fixture in Nashville print media since 1979; first with the now-defunct Nashville Banner and then with The Tennessean. If Biddle can be laid off, no one is safe.
It’s a sign of the times in the newspaper industry. As more and more people get their news from other forms of media – the newspaper industry is quickly becoming about as relevant as the 8-track tape player (those under forty can look it up). Obviously, online content is quickly shoving all newspapers, magazines and other print media the way of the do-do bird. I can’t speak for papers in all markets, but I can tell you that The Tennessean seems to be putting its voyage toward extinction into high gear.
The Nashville/Middle Tennessee area is not exactly considered a hotbed for liberalism. With Republicans in the Governor’s Mansion, both Senate seats, almost every Congressional seat and controlling the Legislature; Tennessee is about as red as a “red state” can be, and Nashville sits in the middle of it. Yet, several years ago – The Tennessean, which is a Gannett newspaper, hired a publisher who transformed the paper from a news-reporting agency into a vehicle to promote a radical agenda that spits in the face of most of the local residents.
I think it’s safe to say that most people under the age of forty do not subscribe to daily newspapers. It’s old fogies like myself, that grew up in an age where newspapers were the only source of in-depth coverage of most events, that still subscribe to the local daily paper. I grew up in the days before the internet, CNN or ESPN. The only way to learn about anything current was to watch a thirty-minute newscast on television or read about it in the local paper. Any editorializing in those days was usually considered a breach of etiquette among journalists. Pick up a newspaper from the sixties or seventies and you’ll see that any news article in those days was strictly a case of presenting facts and not promoting an agenda or a certain ideology.
It’s also safe to say that the majority of Nashvillians over the age of fifty are fairly conservative in their social and political views. As most people get older, they tend to become more reluctant to change – not only in their values, but also in their daily habits. Although I can get my news on my phone or laptop, it doesn’t mean that I want to. I still like holding a newspaper while having my morning coffee. I can easily carry it from room to room and it is much easier to find what I want to read simply by flipping through it, rather than trying navigate through a website. Excuse the graphic visual, but it’s also much easier to fold a newspaper and carry it into the bathroom, than it is to lug a laptop, iPad or Kindle in there.
But The Tennessean is making it very hard for those in their fifties to be loyal subscribers. This is their customer base. These are the ones who would normally continue to sustain the paper over the next several years, until the base finally dies off. Newspapers are going to eventually fade away – there is no denying that. The only question is which ones will last longer than others.
The Tennessean seems intent on continually tweaking the nose of the very people that are keeping it afloat. Every day, the front page is filled with “feature articles” that target conventional religion, question local cultural values and basically lampoon the traditional lifestyle of longtime residents of Nashville. “News” articles are filled with opinions of writers that question the mainstream thinking of most Tennesseans. Certain core beliefs are labeled as "unjust" or "unfair" by the author throughout the article, simply because the author disagrees with what many Tennesseans think. Regardless of your political views, most get offended when an arrogant news agency assumes that you are too ignorant to form your own opinions. Even if I happen to agree with what is written, I get enraged when I see the author telling the reader what to think. If it is a news article, report the facts and keep your opinions out of it.
The Op/Ed page is different. That is where the newspaper has the right to give it’s opinion along with varying points of view provided by syndicated columnists and Letters To The Editor. But the line between the Op/Ed page and regular news stories has been blurred, and editorial opinions are inserted into everyday news articles. The beliefs of The Tennessean might mesh a little better with younger readers; but guess what – they’re not reading the paper. It’s the older readers that are reading it, but they are the ones that The Tennessean seems to take great delight in provoking. Considering that this segment of the population is paying their bills, they might want to be a little more representative in their viewpoint. I am sure that The Tennessean thinks they are on a mission to save the world from itself. That may be noble, but it’s a very poor business decision. Joe Biddle never had a say-so in the content of the front sections of the paper, yet he is paying the price for the irresponsible decisions of others.
I’ve never understood why some people think they are going to change the world by trying to convince the older generation that they have been wrong all their lives. My son’s latest craze is Buddhism. That’s his choice. I’ve never been one to try and inflict my fairly traditional religious beliefs on him or anyone else. I keep those things private. Yet, he seems to never let a conversation slip by where he doesn’t attack my beliefs and tell me how stupid they are. It’s the same with The Tennessean. I know several people my age that have dropped it – not to save money or to read it online – but because they get tired of getting mad every day.
The content that doesn’t irritate the readership, is nothing but meaningless drivel. The paper itself is shrinking, in both size and number of pages. Former Titan’s tight-end Frank Wycheck is now a morning Nashville sports-talk radio icon. He refers to the paper as “The Thin-assean”. What skinny pages remain are rife with full-page ads, over-sized photos and short, insignificant articles filled with typos and gaffes. Last week, a headline that was meant to have the word “tact”, used “tack” instead. I’ve seen more typos in the last year than in the previous ten years combined. It is no wonder that subscribers are leaving in droves. You get a shrinking and unprofessional paper that makes you mad on a daily basis, as the monthly rate continues to skyrocket. As they alienate readers with their personal spin on the news, the sports department – the one remaining good part of The Tennessean – suffers, even though they have no say so in the way their paper presents the news.
So where’s the racing component in all of this? The Indianapolis Star also happens to be a Gannett newspaper. I’ll admit that I don’t read any part of The Star online, except for the Motor Sports section. Nor do I know if the powers that be at The Star are representative of the values of most Hoosiers. I do know that the political and cultural landscape is not too different in central and southern Indiana than it is in Nashville. If those in charge at The Indianapolis Star take great pride in poking fun at the values and traditions of the people of Indiana, like their sister Gannett paper does in Nashville – their days will be quickly numbered as well.
Curt Cavin is a native Hoosier. Joe Biddle is a native of the Volunteer state. Both have been longtime fixtures in their respective cities. Some of the younger sportswriters at The Tennessean, saw the writing on the wall years ago and became local bloggers for ESPN.com – Chris Lowe covering the University of Tennessee and Paul Kuharsky as the beat writer for the AFC South in the NFL. Quite honestly, I’m not sure what Joe Biddle will do. He is not a young man and unless he is willing to move to another market, his options may be limited.
Curt Cavin is younger than Biddle. He has taken on outside projects including freelance work for Autoweek and also is a co-host on Trackside, along with Kevin Lee. But Curt’s day job is covering auto racing for The Indianapolis Star, along with a few other sports assignments throughout the year. He has diversified himself, which is good. Curt Cavin is smart enough to see that at his relative young age (47-ish), his career will probably outlive his main employer. What will he do then?
Certainly, I could see Curt working for ESPN.com as an IndyCar beat writer alongside John Oreovicz. Perhaps he could reunite at SPEED.com with his former partner at The Star Robin Miller, who probably thanks his lucky stars that they fired him ten years ago.
Every day, newspapers in this country are getting closer and closer to the eventual day when they will simply have to shift strictly to online content or shut their doors completely. The internet has brought us to this. I don’t necessarily see it as a good thing, but that’s just the way things have evolved. Some newspapers, like The Tennessean, are closer to that day than others. Ten years ago, no one in Nashville would have thought they would see the day when a sports columnist with the stature of a Joe Biddle would be kicked to the curb in a cost-cutting measure. If a Gannett paper can do that to Joe Biddle, who’s to say they wouldn’t do it to a sportswriter like Curt Cavin? I sure hope Curt has a plan B.