Print news still matters—and it needs your support

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

I’ve never been in the money-raising business before. I keep thinking that if we just explain who we are and what we do, people will get it. They’ll help, and everything will be fine, and I’ll be able to sleep again.

The Knoxville Mercury is the city’s most widely distributed, most critically acclaimed independent newspaper. Some of our readers are helping us keep it going. Most aren’t, yet.

People are used to donating to public radio and television stations. They’re not used to donating to a public newspaper. I understand that. This is a new idea: a truly locally owned community newspaper that’s supported both by its advertisers and its readers. The Mercury has drawn national attention because it might be relevant to models for sustainable journalism in the 21st century.

Media’s changing, no question. But it’s complicated. And life is complicated, it turns out, and that’s one reason we do still need newspapers.

Social media is amazing. It connects us to high-school sweethearts and saves lives in forest fires, in ways newspapers can’t touch. It has not proven itself as an effective means for thorough reporting about complex issues, with background, description, analysis.

Social-media mavens strongly advise you keep Facebook posts and blogs under 100 characters. That’s about 25 words. Just enough room to be cute or, better yet, outrageous. So-called social media has much to answer for, in terms of pushing our politics to the name-calling fringes.

I’m not here to say Facebook is good or bad. It’s not a substitute for journalism. If you’ve read this far, I don’t have to tell you that.

I’m not sure it’s even a permanent substitute for advertising, but that’s what we’ve been hearing from some former supporters of independent print media—that they don’t have to advertise anymore, because now they’re on Facebook. That’s one reason that we need your help.

Knoxville readers like the Knoxville Mercury. I hear from them daily. They call it “invaluable,” “essential,” “indispensable.” Is print media dying? You couldn’t make that case based on the Mercury’s readership. Here it is, 2017, and we distribute 25,000 copies of every issue of the Mercury. I’ve been helping restock some of the high-traffic pickup spots. It’s gratifying to see our work disappear into the community. When it runs out, it feels good to put out another bundle or two, knowing it’s going to run out again.

But it’s the 21st century, of course, and we all hear claims from multiple sources—Twitter, The Simpsons—that print is dying. But you can’t prove it by interest in the Knoxville Mercury. Our previous project, Metro Pulse, was never much more popular than the Mercury is, in terms of circulation. Even 20 years ago, before social media existed, a 25,000 circulation was considered pretty good.

So far, the effect of social media has only expanded the number of people who read the Mercury. Thousands more read the Mercury in 2017, on paper and online combined, than read Metro Pulse in 1997. I hear from readers more than I used to. Combining our still-healthy pickup rate with indicated page views of our online stories, these would seem like great days for journalism.

However, many of our old Metro Pulse advertisers haven’t returned. Some cite stories and jokes they’ve heard about print belonging to the past. I gather there’s some anxiety about seeming old-fashioned. I don’t share it.

Facebook is 13 years old. Print journalism is 400 years old. Knoxville has had independent print journalism since 1791. We had a newspaper here, the Knoxville Gazette, before we had a church or a restaurant or a mayor or a paved street.

Our readership likes what we do, but the Mercury is also impressive to judges and peers. Although the Mercury started just a little more than two years ago, with a skeletal staff, the paper has already won numerous awards from several organizations, especially the Society of Professional Journalists, in competition with both daily and weekly newspapers within a 100-mile radius of Knoxville. No independent news source in East Tennessee gets more commendations from peers than the Mercury does.

We need to keep it going. We hope to make it even better.

This opportunity won’t come again. It took a whole lot of capital, calling in a whole lot of personal favors, a whole lot of conferences with lawyers and accountants, a whole lot of working weekends and late nights and early mornings, to get where we are now. I haven’t taken a vacation since we started.

As I mentioned, we print 25,000 copies of each issue. About as many people read it online. A tiny fraction of our readers contribute.

If everybody who’s reading this issue sent us just $10—a year, that is—we would be able to go forward and keep doing our job with confidence.

You and I both know that’s not going to happen. It’s just the price of a six-pack, but most readers don’t think about bearing part of the cost of something they enjoy, or they forget to act.

Knowing there are many active readers who can’t, or won’t, give raises the stakes for those of us who can and will.

That figure is a minimum, by the way. If each of our readers sent us $20 or $30 a year—or $50 a year, less than the average public-broadcasting donation—we could think about hiring a reporter to cover city hall and get a fuller picture of our local government, courts, and developers.

So please help. If you’re reading online, click the button on this page. If not, send a donation to the paper—or, if you prefer, a tax-deductible donation to the Knoxville History Project, a 501(c)(3) educational organization that employs me and supports the Mercury through the purchase of our educational page. We’re at, and at 516 W. Vine Ave., Ste. 8, Knoxville, 37902.

Thanks very much.

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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