Watching An Institution Self-Destruct

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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.

George Phillips

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21 Responses to “Watching An Institution Self-Destruct”

  1. Really? Why are you starting rumors about someone’s job? We all know media is evolving, but this was an unnecessary column. I can’t think you’ve done Mr Cavin any favors today.

    • Really? I’m not sure this column was meant to do Mr Cavin any favors, nor do I think it did him any disfavors. Surely, Mr Cavin is acutely aware of the situation with today’s newspapers. I didn’t see any rumors started in this column. Facts are facts and all George has done is to point out the problems that all newspapers are facing today. If this strikes a nerve with you, I might suggest you pull your head out of the sand.

      • Head in the sand? I wrote 3 sentences, one of which stated ‘we all know media is evolving’. We’re reading a frigging IndyCar Blog after all.

        The ‘favor’ I’m referring to is Mr Cavin has stated on many occasions on his radio show and his twitter feed that he catches some grief from readers when he takes his vacation and flex time at the newspaper, even though he often mentions it ahead of time. So why would someone create unneeded speculation about his employment at the Star?

        If George has an ax to grind with his local rag, grind away…I just don’t understand why Mr Cavin’s future employment status had to be dragged into it.

        Pardon me while I go shovel more sand on my head.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    George I will certainly agree that for the most part, the newspaper business, along with much of the ‘main stream media’, have for some time now been the purveyors of a very liberal agenda.

    Newspapers much like many public school systems and even the so called bastians of ‘higher education’ have taken to instructing us all in what we should think, rather than in presenting us with the facts and information needed to come to a conclusion on our own.

    With regard to what one does when ones career comes to an end somewhere. I believe that a person with real talent in their field will always land on their feet eventually.

    Speaking from personal experience and having worked in a variety of areas of the aerospace industry over a 35 year period and now working in the power generation field.

    I have had to re-invent myself on several occasions now, it’s never easy, but with some perserverence a reasonably talented and intelligent individual can make lemonade with the lemons he or she has been served up.

    In fact, in Mr. Biddles case, because of the advent and evolution of the internet, he will likely find it quite a great deal easier to both seek out and secure a new position, ultimately being able to continue in his craft of sports writing ‘online’, never having to leave the comfort of his home to do so.

  3. Cavins’s job, as well as everybody who works at the Indy Star is in trouble. Two weeks ago, the Star layed off 62 people and closed 19 positions. The end is closer than we all want to admit. I believe that Gannet has layed off close to 700 employees across 82 papers, or about 2 percent of the companies employees.

  4. Jack in NC Says:

    I for one couldn’t care less if newspapers go away completely. Without exception, every time a newspaper has reported on something that I had some inside knowledge about, they reported it incorrectly. They don’t check their facts, and then inject their opinions. If they are ALWAYS wrong about the few stories that I am knowledgeable about, how can I trust them to be right about the stories that are truly “news” to me?

  5. I worked in journalism for more than 35 years. I was employed by two different newspapers in Tennessee and several in Indiana. I did a lot of free-lance work for the Indianapolis News and the Star.
    USAToday, the flagship of Gannett began the decline of newspapers when it launched with it’s headlines and short stories, with any real substance hidden deep inside.
    I use to be proud to say I was a journalist. I still am, but I am proud of the journalist I was, not what the profession (I use that word loosely) is today.
    Techonology has changed how we get our information, that can’t be denied. Whether that is good or bad can be debated. That doesn’t excuse people who claim to be journalists from working and performing to the standards of the profession as I knew it in the 60s and early 70s.

  6. Newspapers aren’t alone in this. Any business, (including, ahem… racing series) that ignores the changes in their marketplace, arrogantly tells their customers that their opinions don’t matter, and assumes that the world will accept their product regardless of it’s quality, is doomed to fail.

  7. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    While we are all rabid autosport fans to a geater or lesser degree and while I have also been in the inenviable position of being laid off myself. Ultimately, we are not talking about the New England Journal of Medicine closing it’s doors. Nor are we speaking of a cadre of cancer research personal being issued their pink slips.
    I worked in the aerospace business and looked on as tens of thousands of my co-workers were given the axe. In the whole scheme of things this relatively minor journalistic kerfuffle does not amount to a whole lot. In fact, IMHO, the sporting world in general has become nothing more than a handful of greedy owners, building stadiums with taxpayers money, filling them with equally greedy players/performers, all of whom are then enabled by fans (fanatics), who are falling all over themselves to spend incredible amounts of cash for seats, merchandise and apparently many of the overpriced non-essential products advertised during these sports broadcasts.
    In other words, if we gave just slightly more serious thought to the things whose outcome might, seriously affect our lives and spent less time and money lining the pockets of overpaid sports figures and corporations, we might, be better off, but hey, no guarantees….

  8. BRUCE PHILBRICK Says:

    George – When was the last time we heard a Town Crier?

    The printing press with its new fangled product – called a news paper – eventually eliminated the need for Town Criers… but created a multiple job market.

    Electricity brought forward various forms of communications…..telegraph, telephone, radio, television, computer, cell phones, and whatever comes next… and an expanded employment market.

    The word printed on newsprint may become a museum piece in this current age of immediate access to worldwide news.

    On the plus side, there are various environmental and energy savings benefits to our planet as the need for paper and its associated manufacturing process features are reduced.

    When televison was introduced, people thought the death nell was rung for radio … and for those employed in the radio business……when radio stations were heavily staffed… including when many of the larger radio stations had their own orchestras, etc…. Radio survived by adjusting to consumer (advertising) needs as well as to the technology of the times….satellite radio, etc….

    Likewise, news print and magazines, as well, will survive to some extent but not as we know newsprint today.

    Enjoy the ride…Bruce.

  9. I stopped subscribing to the Tennessean years ago. Newspapers are over.

  10. Steve K Says:

    Being a Columbus native, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Dispatch served it’s future well by leading the charge on the Tressel-Pryor scandal. They treated the University fairly (especially compared to SI) in my opinion but time will tell if they did long term damage to their subscription base.

  11. indygrrl Says:

    I think the main point here is not the demise of the newspaper in favor of more up-to-date media or news-gathering, but the fact that the media is telling us what we should believe. As an adult with a mind of my own, I would like to be presented with the facts–I would also like to be presented with both sides of a story (I know, I’m dreaming there) so I can form my own opinion based on these facts. I realize they need to create some sensationalism to grab your attention, but I will use politics here–I don’t want to read about all good things about one candidate and all bad things about another. There has to be a balance here and I think that is pretty much where the media has fallen short. Leave agenda-pushing to the editorial opinion page and just give us the facts. This unbalanced reporting is not limited to newspapers, but almost all media.

    • I agree: “Leave agenda-pushing to the editorial opinion page and just give us the facts. This unbalanced reporting is not limited to newspapers, but almost all media.”
      As George wrote, those of us who’re discerning news consumers, who don’t want to be told in news stories what to think of an issue or candidate, are the ones who’re cancelling fish-wrapper subscriptions and switching TV channels. This has gone beyond laughable to scornworthy and saddening.

  12. Gurney Eagle Says:

    George, I didn’t know where you were headed when I started reading but I kept thinking that you could substitute “Star” for “Tennessean” and “Indianapolis” for “Nashville” and write the same column. Gannett has destroyed the Star, the Tennessean, and who knows how many other papers. Yesterday morning the Star was a grand total of 28 pages. Today’s major front-page story was about paperless cash register receipts. The question is not if, but when, it will cease publication.

    • Could not agree more. The Indy Star hsan’t been the same since the Pulliam family gave it up many years ago. Yes, they still have Russ Pulliam on the masthead, (for continuity’s sake only,) but, as one of my journalism professors, Dr. Rice, (at Butler) told me, when the news media MAKES the message, then it can no longer be called the “fourth estate.”

      Back then, opinion was confined to the op-ed pages. As both print and electronic journalism have devolved in the last forty years, opinon and the “teaching of America,” have become the main focus of all branches of media.

  13. Newspapers have had an agenda since newspapers were invented (“remember the Maine!). Most of them would say they maintain a neutral agenda but lean to the left or to the right–just like most of us. For folks who think newspapers need fact-checking, just wait until we rely on the internet-machine for facts. I shudder to think what will define reliable sources in the future.

    I agree newspapers are fading, but I’ll miss them. And as far as the Indianapolis Star–don’t worry George–they’re far from liberal.

    • billytheskink Says:

      A good point raised here, redcar, newspapers have a long history of agenda-pushing “reporting”. There was a time before any of us were born where it was much worse than most anything going on today.

      At 26, I may be one of the younger newspaper subscribers in this country. I just prefer the printed copy to navigating the paper’s website. Plus, I don’t spend every waking moment in front of an internet-enabled device, and when I am at the computer, I’m usually working. Maybe that’ll change…
      Honestly, I think my paper does a pretty good job considering the financial pressures they are no doubt under. I disagree with plenty of editorials and am certainly not happy with the now-spotty inclusion of racing standings and qualifying results, but they continue to include enough for my money.
      I am sorry your paper is in such a sorry state, George. It’s a shame to see good reporters get let go because of the mistakes of the paper conglomerates.

      The function of a local newspaper is not going to die any time soon, people will just get it differently. The papers that can find a way to translate their product to the internet in a money-making way should do well. I, for one, look forward to a paper offering an experience similar to a printed paper through some electronic means.

  14. “the line between the Op/Ed page and regular news stories has been blurred, and editorial opinions are inserted into everyday news articles”

    That’s bad, or at least I prefer news media wherer the line is well defined. But here in uruguay we have a long tradition of partizan media. Everyone knows that this and that newspaper or magazine supports somne or other group. Some have a wel defined line: news are more or less objective / independent and opinion columns are strongly so. Others merge everything together, for example Brecha and in other countries Le Monde Diplomatique. You can’t distinguish news from opionion, and I really dislike that. But some people like that, several friends of mine for example, and buy them because they provide some news others don’t and show an opinion they share.

  15. The Lapper Says:

    I will miss newspapers and when the USAToday shuts down I will no longer have a lunchtime companion to enjoy the mid-day break with. Say what you will about Gannett, the USAToday is a good read. However, I find that I am getting the vast majority of my news from the net and, for my 2-cents, for racing I get a lot from Speed TV’s site. Some may not like it and I will agree that INDYCAR is treated like an after-thought, but in my opinion, Robin Miller does a good job with his columns and Q&A. As for the net becoming my primary media, I seek the news and I can trust my instincs to tell who is BSing me and who has an agenda.

    I read the news today, oh boy
    The Lapper

  16. I’m late to the party but I’ll post anyway. I’m over 40 and I don’t take the paper. I have three problems with them.

    1. I hate the waste. I don’t read that much, and I feel like I’m awash in paper. After a few days I have a tremendous amount of paper to throw away and it I feel decadent. Plus I don’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth, considering how much of the paper I actually read.

    2. So much of it is poorly written. A lot of journalism is slavishly written and edited to follow the inverted pyramid, so paragraphs are sliced and diced and arranged in an order that often makes it very difficult to follow. Ever try to and read a baseball game recap? They lead with the winning run, then next paragraph is something from 6 innings before, then last inning, then Inning 3, etc. Columnists can spin a yarn, but the news people have to write things that are miserable to read.

    3. They’re stuck in 1962. I swear Newspapers determined that they achieved perfection in 1962 and there will be no deviation. Cases in point: the comic section, the advice columnists, and the daily Bridge puzzle.

    I’m not sentimental. I don’t lament the passing of tickertapes either.

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