The Tipping Point

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

jackincolordo apologize. I’ve been distracted all winter. I owe you all about 23 columns. I don’t have a good excuse, at least not one that makes much sense to me. I’ve been writing bylaws and financial plans and emails to lawyers. Most of what I’ve written lately is not very good reading.

It’s been almost five months since that odd Wednesday afternoon when a husky fellow with a little-boy haircut appeared in our office. I’d met him once or twice. Over the last four years, several people had told me that he was our boss, but I’d never heard from him personally, never had a conversation with him. Did he ever read our paper? I don’t have any way of knowing.

But he told us our paper was over with. That fact was pretty startling in itself. We used to bleed money, but at length we figured things out. In spite of the Internet and everything else, a few years ago, we started making money.

As the husky fellow told us we were no longer employed, he told us we no longer had access to our email or any of the files on our computer. The same afternoon, they changed the locks on our door. I’ve heard of that sort of abrupt end, concerning people facing criminal charges.

I lost thousands of files. Most were stories that may never have amounted to much. Some I was proud of. I had some columns that had been cooking for more than 10 years, waiting for the perfect moment.

And I had emails from around the world, some of them from scholars in Ireland, Spain, Oregon, who are working on biographies of Knoxville figures, some from an NPR producer in Massachusetts contemplating a Knoxville project. Maybe I’ll reconnect with some of them. I can’t remember all the names.

Several people have likened the tactic to those of the Gestapo, but that’s not fair. They didn’t actually shoot us. You have to be grateful for that, since it might well have been a more effective way to accomplish their ends.

There’s more to it, and I’ll tell you all about it sometime. Today I’m looking on the bright side.

The bright side was not the severance package. Some have praised us for rejecting it. But after almost 20 years of full-time work, to get offered three months of salary, never much to begin with, in return for quitting journalism for a year—would you take it? By its terms I would be forbidden from writing for any competing publication in Knoxville until late this year. And I would have been forbidden from disparaging E.W. Scripps forever. That might have been challenging.

If I’d accepted it, my severance would have expired more than a month ago. And there I’d be, not just broke, but legally unable to work in the field I’ve cultivated for 23 years.

When E.W. Scripps bought Metro Pulse, corporate ownership bothered some staffers more than it did me. I’d known Scripps ever since I was a Scripps-Howard paperboy more than 40 years ago. In the early ’80s, I was a night-shift News Sentinel copy clerk. Later I was a regular freelance writer. I had friends there. I thought of Scripps as a kindly great-uncle. Under corporate ownership, I told many skeptics, we were still Metro Pulse, but now with a family health plan.

In the last year or two, though, I couldn’t deny some frustrations with the arrangement, decisions made somewhere on the corporate level that made little sense on Gay Street.

For a while, after the shut-down, I considered jobs outside of journalism. One Scripps representative helpfully noted that I was welcome to move to another city to write.

As annoying as unexpected unemployment can be on a personal level, the more serious issue is that all of us were facing a future in a city where almost all of the communications media were controlled by faraway corporations, all operated primarily for profit. They appraise Knoxville and its newspaper readers and radio listeners and television watchers mainly for their profit-generating potential.

Profit motivates some industries. It produces the cheapest hamburgers and hair curlers. Its positive effect on journalism is less obvious.

Why would executives in Cincinnati, much less Milwaukee—the apparent new home of Knoxville print media’s big bosses—give a poop about anything going on in Knoxville? Their main job is to please their shareholders. I don’t know where their shareholders live, but I don’t think it’s here. The big shots among them, throwing their weight around about the big merger deal, live in New York. They’ve never seen the inside of the Tennessee Theatre or taken a hike at Ijams. They’ve probably never even seen a Vols game. But they’re the ones who ultimately decide how most Knoxvillians learn about Knoxville.

A local owner would be very proud of a popular, award-winning newspaper that breaks even. No corporation would be. That was my main lesson from October.

Corporate media executives aren’t evil. They’re as innocent as any virus.

I’m proud to be part of this nonprofit, permanently local project, which is emerging at what I believe to be a critical moment in the history of my hometown.

We want to find out what will happen on West Jackson, and for that matter on East Jackson, and on Depot Street, and in Happy Holler, and on Cumberland Avenue. I want to know whether the South Side development will ever come off as envisioned, and whether we’ll ever see the Bearden Village ideal. When the ax came down, I was working on a story about the Urban Land Institute’s report. I still want to find out more about that. Meanwhile, cultural catalysts like
Big Ears change the way the world experiences music, and Knoxville.

I’m also fascinated with how Knoxville is using its own history, just lately, to good effect. The city’s past informs and challenges its future.

We’ve been following the story of Knoxville for years. We can’t quit now.

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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