This Publication Is Not Free

In Editor's Notes by Coury Turczynleave a COMMENT

little over a year ago, we completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch the Knoxville Mercury. We raised over $60,000 from 645 backers—not just ones living in Knoxville, but from all over East Tennessee and beyond. Combined with donations from a few hundred other people, we were able to assemble enough funding to start the presses: almost $200,000.

That alone is an amazing achievement for Knoxville, and perhaps an unprecedented one: A lot of its citizens agreed that an independent alternative to corporate-owned media is important enough to fund themselves. It didn’t take an outside media company to start a professionally reported and designed paper in Knoxville—it took lots of people with a belief that local in-depth journalism still matters.

So we dived in: We set up an office downtown, bought computers and software, found a high-quality printer, established a distribution network, created a logo and overall publication design, hired a part-time reporter and freelance contributors, signed up sales people, and set a publication schedule. Along the way, we established a new sort of ownership structure for a newspaper: a not-for-profit company governed by a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, the Knoxville History Project.

It has been an exhausting, frantic, and rewarding year.

How have we done so far?

Editorially, we have striven to report stories that you won’t find elsewhere, providing a unique perspective on Knoxville and its surrounding area, from its culture to its people to its history. We also invested a lot of time and effort into writing in-depth stories that go beyond daily headlines to give context and nuance to important issues. Our part-time reporter, Heather Duncan, has worked more hours than a full-time staffer, recently completing a three-part cover series on the Knoxville Police Department that provides more insight into how it operates and how it relates to Knoxville’s black community than any other story I can remember, ever. Our full-time reporter, Clay Duda, came on board in August and quickly immersed himself into Knoxville life and governance, not only examining how public policy can go adrift (such as the contentious hillside and ridgetop plan) but also people’s lives, shadowing a homeless person for 24 hours to give a street-level view of a problem that policy-makers continue to struggle with.

Business-wise, we still have a way to go. In the real world of start-ups, $200,000 doesn’t exactly provide you with a long runway to get your company up into the air. We faced the daunting task of trying to achieve a nearly vertical take-off, and we’ve had our ups and downs since then. While citizens financed the Knoxville Mercury’s launch, local businesses play a critical role in continuing its publication through their advertising dollars.

Although we’re a niche publication with a distribution of 25,000 weekly copies, we believe our readership is truly valuable—we can deliver an audience of Knoxville’s most active, most passionate, most involved consumers. Rather than a scattershot approach, we can help local businesses target exactly the sorts of people they need to reach: the ones who actually respond to what they read, whether it’s stories or ads. And we’ve got the success stories of ad campaigns that made a difference to prove it. But we found that some business owners’ early vows of support were more theoretical than realistic, while others decided that our competition’s suddenly slashed ad rates were a better deal for them. On the other hand, we’ve also discovered new clients who believe in us and our ability to help deliver their messages. We need more of them.

In the meantime, we’ve appealed to donors again, and established our League of Supporters. One of the perks for joining up is party passes for an annual fundraising concert—and I’m happy to announce it’s here.

On Saturday, March 5 at the Bijou Theatre, the Knoxville Mercury, the Knoxville History Project, and public radio station WDVX will present a day-long variety show in support of Knoxville’s independent voices. It’ll be a free show, broadcast live on WDVX 89.9 FM, featuring all-local talent: a true Knoxtacular. 

We’ll be appealing to you to make donations to our endeavors. It’s still a tumultuous time for journalism as even national corporations grapple with finding viable business models. On the local level, independent print publications such as the Mercury need to take a few lessons from public radio stations like WDVX, WUOT, and WUTK. Our efforts require ongoing community support. It’s a route that grassroots news organizations in cities around the country are taking as traditional papers have waned and coverage has become more homogeneous: community investment in homegrown, truly local efforts.

So if you’ve appreciated any of the stories we’ve presented in the past year, now is the time to donate—either during our concert (details to be announced) or

If you’re a business owner who keeps meaning to advertise with us, now is the time to give our sales team a call: 865-313-2048

If you’re a company or foundation with an interest in underwriting journalism in Knoxville, now is the time to discuss it with me: 865-313-2052.

When Metro Pulse was suddenly terminated in 2014 by corporate decree, a common public refrain was, “I would’ve paid for it.” Although the Knoxville Mercury is similarly a free paper, it is not free to produce. We pay the talented people who assemble this publication because we feel their efforts are worth it. We hope you agree.


Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.

Share this Post