The Shapeshifter: E.W. Scripps, and Its 94 Years in Town

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neely7 Comments

One of the charms of declining to sign a certain severance offer, a year ago, is that among its many demands was that I never say anything bad about E.W. Scripps. There were several reasons not to sign that weird document, but I was much looking forward to badmouthing E.W. Scripps for the rest of my life. It’s not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

E.W. Scripps is a slippery villain. It’s just one year later, and E.W. Scripps has left the building. And the same year they gave up their interest in Knoxville, they gave up their interest in newspapers.

It was a year ago this week that E.W. Scripps shut down a weekly paper called Metro Pulse. If you’re just joining us, for 16 years, beginning with its founding in 1991, Metro Pulse had been a locally owned, independent weekly. However, in summer 2007, developer/publisher Brian Conley sold it to E.W. Scripps, by way of the News Sentinel. Back then we were all surprised, and several were unsettled that our locally owned, notably independent paper was suddenly owned by a big national corporation. Friends in the business warned me of dire consequences. One particular longtime friend of Metro Pulse, an experienced business journalist in Nashville, warned me that Scripps did not mean us well. He told me more than once that they were buying us to shut us down, and that when they did, it would be ugly.

I thought he was seeing spooks. I had warm feelings for this particular national corporation. How can the people who sponsor the National Spelling Bee be so bad? I’d worked for Scripps-Howard before. Taking a break from college for half a year, I was a night-shift copy clerk for the News Sentinel. Later I was a regular freelance feature writer for the same paper. I made lots of friends there.

My relationship with Scripps goes even farther back than that, more than 40 years. Was I one of the last of the bicycle paperboys? My Bearden route wasn’t big, but it included millionaires on Lyons View, people too rich to ever come to the door in person—and, down by the train tracks, people with dirty fingernails, working people who paid me in nickels and pennies, and sometimes not the whole amount. I was the paperboy for Ashe’s Package Store and Cherokee Country Club and a couple of barber shops. I got to know the people in all those places. I delivered papers to everybody, the first news about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics, the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon. For a couple hundred Knoxvillians, I was the face of Scripps-Howard, its only daily representative.

In my closet I have an old blue canvas newspaper bag, with holes worn where the rear wheel of my one-speed Schwinn rubbed against it. Although flaked away like numbers on an old football jersey, the Scripps-Howard logo is still legible. It was a dramatic lighthouse that, shining its yellow beams over the blue of the canvas bag, looks like an illustration on the cover of a Hardy Boys mystery. I’ve never been able to throw it away.

Most of my newspaper-columnist heroes were Scripps-Howard guys, from Ernie Pyle in the ’30s and ’40s to locals like Bert Vincent and Don Whitehead and Carson Brewer. If not for those guys, it probably never would have occurred to me that this might be an appealing way to make a living.

In 1988, just months after my last freelance article, E.W. Scripps became a publicly traded corporation, and something other than the family company I’d grown up with. Its new lighthouse looked like it had been redesigned by witches from Mars.

Nineteen years later, E.W. Scripps was divorcing itself from Scripps Networks Interactive, the interesting cable-television company headquartered in Knoxville. For the record—and several friends at Scripps Networks Interactive want to be sure people know this—they’re no longer associated with E.W. Scripps in any way.

It didn’t take long to realize that E.W. Scripps wasn’t the same thing Scripps-Howard had been. Being owned by a corporation comes with some annoyances. We had to fill out online time sheets, signed by a supervisor, to prove we’d worked 40 hours. I’d never counted hours before. The first time I did that for Scripps, I think it was 56. Often it was closer to 70. I was at the office most of every weekday, and almost always worked Saturdays (typically my library research day) and Sundays (crossword-puzzle-clue day) for Metro Pulse. I also worked many, many nights, reviewing plays or concerts, giving a talk to a dinner group, interviewing a dying newspaperman for a cover profile.

I had a great job, and it consumed most of my life, and I liked it. We worked as hard on Metro Pulse as people do when they’re starting their own business, long hours for little pay, with some vague notion that it’ll all seem worth it in the future.

But with corporate ownership, suddenly I had to prove, with managerial supervision, that I was working 40 hours a week. That just seemed funny. The only time I ever worked that few hours for Metro Pulse, I was on vacation.

Also, thanks to corporate ownership, we had formal multi-step performance reviews, which we’d never seemed to need before. Every year demanded a different set of personal goals to improve our performance each year. We were obliged to log into a corny and frequently troublesome website called “My Lighthouse,” and occasionally take little electronic mini-seminars about ethics or workplace harassment or “core values,” and then take little fifth-grade-level quizzes to prove we’d been paying attention.

And of course there was more fine print in the Scripps employee agreements. Alcoholic beverages were strictly forbidden in the office, under any circumstances. That signaled a startling shift in Metro Pulse culture. In the ’90s, we sometimes had keg parties in the office. One former Metro Pulse editor kept a bottle of Scotch on his desk, just because it seemed a classic, hard-boiled, newspaper-editor thing to do. About a decade ago, on every production day, when we all had to work long hours, a Metro Pulse manager would bring in a couple of six-packs of beer. When you have to work after 6 or 7, a beer or two can help. But that was a minor thing. We adapted to prohibition.

Also, reading the fine print of the corporate manual, I found I was never to work on anything but Scripps projects on the equipment Scripps had bought and on the premises Scripps was renting. Our previous owners had been indulgent of my book-writing habit. I wrote my first five or six books in the Metro Pulse office, using the Metro Pulse computers and the battery of reference books I kept in my office. It was convenient for me, not just because I had accumulated all my stuff there to help with Metro Pulse projects, but because our office was so near the downtown libraries, just across the street from the McClung Collection. I could be in the middle of a paragraph in Chapter Seven, wonder about some odd detail like what the weather was like on a Tuesday morning in 1893, and just run across the street to check it and be back before my tea had cooled.

I never felt sneaky about it. A couple of my books were sponsored by previous Metro Pulse publishers—and I figured the books all might play a role in promoting my newspaper, especially considering that each new book came with a few dozen publicity talks, and I was always introduced as the writer from Metro Pulse.

But I read, and reread, the wording in the Scripps manual. It appeared clear that writing books in my office would be forbidden. Maybe I could have gotten away with it. Scripps officials were rarely in the office. But despite the inconvenience, just to be on the safe side, I began writing my books at home, in the dining room, on the old computer the kids used to use for homework.

Last fall, I had reason to be grateful I made that choice.

They treated us poorly, even by the low standards of folks who lose their jobs without warning, and I’d hate to have to lie about that fact.

It was News Sentinel representatives who told us they would be erasing our documents, and disconnecting our e-mail, and changing the locks, and that we had three days to get our stuff out of the office, under the supervision of a uniformed guard who kept his own schedule and sometimes told us about it. I could go on and on, and I’m happy that I’m legally free to tell friends how dramatically crappy it all was. 

But we were told it was all in accord with E.W. Scripps’ strict policy on dumping employees. The News Sentinel’s representatives said they could do nothing about it.

I’ve been laid off before Metro Pulse, once from a construction job, once from a law firm, twice from failing magazines. It’s easy to say that I’ve never been treated worse by anybody, personally or professionally, than I was treated by E.W. Scripps. But who the hell is that? It was a corporation based in Cincinnati that was the offspring of Scripps-Howard, a famous newspaper corporation. However, as of this year they’re not a newspaper entity at all. This year marks the end of 94 years of Knoxville newspapers associated with the word Scripps.

It was in 1921 that Edward J. Meeman (1889-1966), a young progressive and outspoken journalist from Indiana, came to town carrying the Scripps-Howard banner and started a new daily called the Knoxville News. Knoxville had three daily papers until 1926, when Meeman combined the News with the stodgy old Knoxville Sentinel, creating the newspaper that has been the dominant daily here since then. Meeman did great things in Knoxville, supported the new Smoky Mountains park movement, condemned the state’s anti-evolution laws, and opposed Prohibition. Like a lot of company men, though, he moved on, after just 10 years, and is today better remembered as the longtime editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar.

The News and the Sentinel combined the same year that founding newspaperman E.W. Scripps, the person, died. By the time his name was associated with journalism in Knoxville, he was reportedly a recluse.

Beginning in 2007, by a deal I didn’t hear about until it was already done, I worked for E.W. Scripps for seven years. They did try to seem nice. I’d occasionally get “Best of Scripps” awards—I have a stack of them, each with a little picture of E.W. Scripps himself—but they’re all signed by Scripps officers in Cincinnati that I’ve never met nor even heard of. That’s the corporate way, and I suspect part of the problem. E.W. Scripps is still in Cincinnati, but is now interested only in television stations.

In the one year since we were laid off, the ownership of the News Sentinel has shifted to the Journal Media Group, which is based in Milwaukee, Wisc. JMG has owned the News Sentinel since early this year. But last week, we heard that Gannett, which is based in Tysons Corner, Va., an “edge-city” suburb outside of Washington, D.C., will purchase the Journal Media Group, including the News Sentinel.

So in the space of little over a year, the News Sentinel will have been owned by three different national corporations based in three different states.

It’s Gannett’s second time in town. They were the primary owners of the old daily Knoxville Journal, the News Sentinel’s rival, from 1981 to 1986, but gave it up, according to their honchos du jour, because they didn’t like the Journal’s submissive relationship to the News Sentinel. Now they own the News Sentinel. Will they keep it longer than they kept the Journal? Who knows.

Today Knoxville’s only daily paper, and all its commercial television and radio stations, the folks most of us depend on for local news, are owned by out-of-state corporations.

Corporations exist just for their shareholders, and their shareholders aren’t necessarily interested in promoting quality journalism in some middle-market place like Knoxville. They’re interested in making money to take that cruise or send junior to college. Shareholders aren’t evil, corporations aren’t evil. They’ll keep Knoxville’s best interests in mind as long as there’s money to be made in it.

But it’s good to have a locally owned and independent alternative, and after a year of long hours, I’m proud to be part of this one.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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