After more than two years, 108 issues, and a lot of really hard work, the Knoxville Mercury will publish its last regular issue on July 20. The reason is pretty simple: We were unable to raise enough money via advertisers, readers, and large donors to sustain long-term publication.
We started the Mercury out of a unique confluence of people and events: the shut-down of Metro Pulse and the ensuing outcry, the public’s interest in supporting a new effort, and the availability of some very talented people with direct experience in writing, editing, design, and advertising. Since March 12, 2015, we’ve accomplished quite a bit under challenging circumstances—publishing award-winning stories about Knoxville and East Tennessee, along with award-winning photography, illustration, and design; gathering a loyal audience of readers from a wide range of ages and backgrounds; and establishing a media resource that stands for smart ideas and communication in a time when disinformation (or lack of relevant information) appears to rule the day. But ultimately, all of those things cost more money to produce than we were bringing in.
When the Mercury launched, we introduced an ownership model that was rather unique—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Knoxville History Project, that essentially owns a newspaper. (It took some expert lawyers and lots of paperwork to earn the agreement of the IRS.) We believed this would allow us to take a three-pronged approach to raising funds: traditional ad sales, direct donations from readers, and tax-deductible donations and grants to the KHP (which could in turn take out educational ads in the Mercury). It was a daring idea, and one we thought might help us overcome the headwinds facing the news media business, both nationally and locally. But, while we were able to generate a lot of excitement for the paper at launch, with a successful Kickstarter campaign and large donations, we never found a way to spark that level of support year after year.
The same goes for our base of business clients. Originally, we thought we’d be able to reattain the same levels of advertising revenue that Metro Pulse had enjoyed before it was closed by its owner, E.W. Scripps, in 2014. That alone would’ve covered all of our expenses to publish the paper with our micro-sized staff. But by the time we were able to launch the Mercury some six months later, the market had moved on—many business owners see print advertising as simply outdated compared to social media platforms. While we were able to enlist a number of long-term and short-term advertisers, we just couldn’t find enough of them.
There has been no shortage of suggestions for other ways to raise money: subscription plans, ticketed events, auctions, advertorial publications, and more. We explored some of them as well as we could, for a few revenue bumps, but our staff has never been big enough to take on other large-scale efforts or side businesses—we’ve had just enough people to publish stories about Knoxville. Some will argue that our stories should’ve been louder or grabbier or meaner—that’s what would’ve made the difference. But our mission from the start has been to tell unique stories that provide depth and context—to give you the why and how, not just the who and what to provoke your anger. We wanted to foment clarity and discussion. On that score, I think we have done well, though there are plenty of big stories I wish we could have pursued, if we had had the reporters to pursue them. (Cloning Heather Duncan was never a realistic option, unfortunately.)
But here’s the most important thing: Together, we created a great paper. The Knoxville Mercury has been a true community effort, from the individuals who pitched in $5 to the major donors like former Metro Pulse publisher Joe Sullivan who believe Knoxville truly needs a locally owned, independent media—especially when its dominant news organizations are guided by out-of-town corporations. We showed that thoughtfully reported stories—not just clickbait headlines—can make a difference in the place we live. People will pay attention, and they do want to be informed. Progress can be made when we know the facts.
Nobody said that devising a new business model for journalism was going to be easy. And it wasn’t. But we tried our best.
We thank all of you who stood by us—freelancers, readers, advertisers, donors, online sharers and commenters, letter-writers, and interview subjects. It was a grand endeavor.
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