A Report From in the Trenches

In From the Publisher by Charlie Vogelleave a COMMENT

One recent Wednesday evening, I stopped by the world headquarters of Saw Works Brewing Company to see Adam Palmer, the president and co-founder. I walked in with a few copies of the latest issue of the Knoxville Mercury, just off the truck from the printer. There were about 25 people gathered around a few big tables they had pulled together. I placed the papers on a table and someone asked me who I was and what my connection was to the paper. So I told them.

Everyone stood, applauded, and offered me food. They even bought me a beer.

Of course, this wonderful welcome had nothing to do with me. These folks missed having a free and independent newspaper in Knoxville and welcomed its return as the Knoxville Mercury.

The Wednesday Saw Works Crew is a group of business leaders, preservationists, and musicians who meet each week. All of them are active, passionate, and invested in the Knoxville community. Our distributor had installed a rack at Saw Works on March 11 and stocked it with the inaugural issue of the Knoxville Mercury. The group was there when it arrived, got excited, and captured the moment in the photo below.

That’s just one of the many personal stories I experience as I travel around Knoxville and beyond, visiting with potential clients and partners, drumming up business to sustain our new publication. They’re reminders of why we’re doing this: to bring back the sort of paper that readers love, one that makes a difference to them and their communities.

Henry Holcomb, the former president of the Philadelphia Newspaper Guild and a journalist for 40 years, said that newspapers had a clearer mission when he started in the business: “Report the truth and raise hell.”

That mission has become hazy in the new era of journalism, with newspapers struggling to survive. It’s become more about staying in business and less about raising hell.

So, in the business of journalism, who are our customers and what is our product?

At the Mercury, Coury, Matthew, Jack, and the rest of the editorial crew know that you are our customers and journalism that tells the truth and raises hell is our product.

But as the publisher responsible for revenue, I have a different perspective. I’m trying to sell our readers to our clients. The Mercury audience, like the audience for Metro Pulse, is made up of Knoxville’s most informed and engaged citizens (with a higher than average income, too). We want to deliver that audience to our clients, who can benefit from communicating with these readers.

Balancing these two very different points of view can create a great publication. That’s why so many newspapers used to tout the “wall” between editorial and sales; readers would come for the integrity of the content, and advertisers would come to reach those passionate readers. That wall has tumbled in recent years as publishers strive to find new revenue to replace the money lost to digital media.

The local media scene is no different. Many of our free print competitors unabashedly blur the line between editorial and advertising, giving their clients coverage in return for ad purchases. These stories perhaps serve a purpose in showcasing local businesses, but the content is paid for by the advertisers. You can call it advertorial, but it’s not independent journalism. And I wonder if it really holds much credibility with the people who see the articles.

To put it in perspective: If one of those publications were to suddenly disappear, would the citizens of Knoxville unite and dig into their pockets to support its return? Would they miss those advertorials so much that they would hold public demonstrations? Would they even notice the absence?

At the not-for-profit Knoxville Mercury, we’re shoring up the wall between editorial and sales. While it’s inevitable for us to write about events or businesses that are advertised on our pages, none of those articles are paid for—they are chosen by the editors based on their newsworthiness. We believe Knoxville needs to know more about them, whether they advertise or not.

But please keep in mind that the Knoxville Mercury is free because it is largely funded by local business owners. Our local business owners help define our communities. These creative, dedicated, hard-working craftspeople, entrepreneurs, and brilliant minds make Knoxville unique and they need your support.

You have choices as a consumer about what you read and what you buy. Choose local businesses and thank them for supporting the Knoxville Mercury.

Publisher and Sales Director Charlie Vogel was one of the leading publishers at Whittle Communications, a Knoxville-based media company with a wide range of national clients. As president of the medical publishing division, he oversaw one of Whittle’s most successful endeavors, both financially and editorially: the Grand Rounds Press. You can reach Charlie at charlie@knoxmercury.com

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