The Mercury, and Knoxville’s Tradition of Independent Journalism, Needs Your Help

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

don’t know how many of our readers are aware of it, but the Knoxville Mercury is unprecedented in the history of American journalism. If this works, and with your help it can, it may be a national model for the future of newspapers.

It all makes sense in theory. Hospitals, zoos, private schools, symphony orchestras, museums, universities, athletic teams, festivals, all run with substantial help from public donations.

Some media is publicly funded, too. Knoxville has benefited from publicly funded radio since 1949. A few years later, we got donation-based public television. To date, though, for whatever historical reason, publicly funded media has always been in the broadcast realm.

As you know, by degrees over the last 90 years or so, national corporations based in other states have gradually taken over most of Knoxville’s print and broadcast media. The biggest exceptions have been those public TV and radio stations. Today those stations, which account for almost all locally controlled media, are heavily based on public donations.

Until now, however, newspapers have been expected to run without public support, on advertising revenue. After working for months with attorneys and presenting a detailed proposal to the Internal Revenue Service, subsequently approved, we found a legal strategy based on the premise that an independent newspaper serves the public good, as a source of education about the community’s unique history, cultural opportunities, and current issues of urgent concern.

By our business model, direct non-tax-deductible donations, limited indirect tax-deductible donations, and traditional advertising revenue, could support a modest staff with minimal amenities.

We’ve gotten donations from well over 1,000 Knoxvillians. A few of them have been extraordinarily generous. In all, they’ve been more than I would have expected, and we’re grateful. We would not be here without you.

But I’m new to the fundraising business, and may lack some perspective. From all donors combined the total raised to launch and sustain the Mercury—and Knoxville’s 225-year tradition of independent journalism—is about half of what one Knoxvillian donated to an effort to promote Cleveland, Ohio, as the site of the 2016 Republican Convention.

Which, due to no fault on the part of the generous donor, may be remembered in history as the Donald Trump Coronation Ball.

Is that donor suffering any remorse? I don’t know, but we can guarantee that donations to the Knoxville History Project and the Knoxville Mercury offer more certain results you can be proud of.

For the record, if there are any multi-millionaires out there, the same amount could put the Mercury on secure footing for years, and we’d thank you for it weekly. We’re not expecting that.

We staffers donate, too. We do that mainly by working long hours, cheap. I’d work free, but I’d get foreclosed upon. I work because I enjoy it and it’s the only way I’ve found to make a living, and I’m too old to reconsider law school, the military, or pro baseball.

But I’m also doing it because I don’t ever want to live in a city that doesn’t have locally owned journalism.

For the last 20 years or so, people like to parrot rumors they’ve heard about the death of print, and when Metro Pulse’s unexpected termination in 2014 happened to coincide with the closure of a famous weekly paper on the west coast, it seemed confirmation.

But print remains the only proven model for financing in-depth local journalism. And even in 2016 most cities in America Knoxville’s size and bigger have an independent weekly paper, one that doesn’t have to respect the same agenda as the corporate daily. There are 112 of them across the nation, and those are just the ones approved by the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Chattanooga has one. Nashville has one. Asheville, our neighbor to the east, which is a fraction of the size of Knoxville, has a lively one.

We’re doing everything we can to keep ours. It’s called the Mercury, and it’s a culmination of long hours and personal investment by our small staff, our generous supporters, and our advertisers, whom we all appreciate. But we’re not there yet.

We have our old readership back. People are picking up the papers all over town and talking about it. We have a bigger circulation than some of those apparently healthy AAN weeklies elsewhere in the country. I hear from our readers as much as I ever did.

But advertisers haven’t yet caught up with readership. It takes time. I was talking to a Memphis publisher friend last week, a fellow who’s been in the business for half a century. He said don’t worry, newspapers and magazines never run in the black their first three years. It takes time to build a brand.

Everybody tells us it’ll catch up. Advertisers tell us it will catch up. Even non-advertisers who tell me they’ll advertise someday, just not now, tell me it’ll catch up. I’m confident that it will, but for now we have a gap to fill.

There are several ways you can help. You can donate directly to the Mercury, non-deductibly, or to the Knoxville History Project, which helps the Mercury, deductibly.

You can advertise. If you’re not promoting a local business, you can advertise your favorite charity or fundraising effort. Even if you don’t think you need to advertise, you can let Knoxville know that you support the Mercury and local journalism.

Or, next time you go shopping or go out for a night on the town, you can support our advertisers. That helps us, too. Their names are easy to find in each issue.

Or, if you’re free this coming Saturday, we’re co-hosting, with local public station WDVX, an event at the locally owned Bijou Theatre called the Knoxtacular. It’s a big variety show, and you can hear it on FM, or come to the storied old theater, which celebrates its 107th birthday next week, in person.

We’re grateful to the dozens of performers, volunteers, technical staff, sponsors (Yee-Haw Brewing, Knox Heritage), restaurants (Tomato Head, Hard Knox Pizza, Bistro at the Bijou) who are helping to make this happen. We’d like to think of it as the kickoff to Knoxville’s festival season. And the beginning of a fresh second wind for local journalism.

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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