And So We Take a Break: My final print column. Or not.

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

I’m resisting comparisons to the summer’s other big event, the Great Solar Eclipse. If I were so presumptuous—and why shouldn’t I be, considering that we named our weekly paper after a god—I would point out that eclipses are always very brief.

I hope the same will be true with this pause in Knoxville’s history of independent journalism.

Humans have always looked for signs. Eclipses mean the world is ending. A newspaper closing means print journalism is dying. Even that in-depth local news is, itself, a thing of the past.

One thing historians learn is that while we can predict eclipses, confident predictions about human behavior are almost always wrong.


Part of the reason this retrospective isn’t coming easy is that I’m not convinced it’s over. One wealthy person, or an alliance of moderately affluent persons, could restart the Mercury next month and keep it going indefinitely.

If, say, some Knoxvillian were to sell a particularly disappointing pro football team for the amount he paid for it, he could use the money to run his hometown’s popular and award-winning weekly newspaper—at its current rate of loss, with no improvements to revenue and no reader donations—for 3,000 years.

Or, if all of our regular print readers, the tens of thousands who picked up the paper ever week for the last couple of years, were to send us the cost of one modest bottle of California wine—per year—we could keep going forever.

I don’t have any reason to believe that either of those things is likely to happen.

But historically, many newspapers and magazines have run at a loss for some years, sustained by a patron or a group motivated more by the fun of owning a paper than by profit. I’m not inclined to close the door.

The Mercury has been a good thing for my hometown. I want to thank everyone who contributed to our effort. Not just for giving me a platform, but for the opportunity to learn about so many things I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

The Knoxville Mercury didn’t last as long as we hoped and expected it to. The original Knoxville Mercury, in the 1850s, didn’t last any longer. It’s always been a tough business.

But since March 2015, the Mercury has created close to 2,000 articles about subjects of interest to Knoxville, and distributed about two and a quarter million copies of a newspaper into deliberate hands of citizens. We’ve let our readers know things about their city and their culture that they wouldn’t have found in any other media. Juries in other states have been impressed with our work, and given us a couple dozen awards for excellence in journalism.

To say nothing of the most local, most deftly challenging, and most fun crossword puzzle in Knoxville history. (For that I thank my longtime colleague Ian Blackburn, one of the co-founders of Metro Pulse, back in 1991.)

It’s not all for naught. The website will remain, for now, with all the articles the Mercury has ever published. Unlike the corporation that owned our predecessor, we will strive to maintain public access to it via Google. The Knoxville History Project remains as an educational nonprofit, and will carry the banner of stories associated with the city’s history. And the Mercury has been saved by librarians of the Knox County Public Library system, and its articles indexed. Like it or not, the Mercury is part of Knoxville’s permanent record.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, thanks not only to the Mercury’s eclipse but also to major layoffs at the daily—even television news departments are struggling—as of this week fewer professional reporters live in Knoxville than since the 19th century, when the city was much smaller.

If it weren’t so close to the bone, it would be interesting to watch Knoxville, which pioneered the concept of newspapers in this part of the frontier in 1791, as we pioneer an opposite sort of era. We’re a new sort of test case.

With fewer watching, will Knoxville become a haven for grifters in public office and swindlers in private business? And if it is, will we ever hear about it? Will our public servants always ask the right questions? Without an organization advocating for vigorous improvements, will Knoxville start getting predictable?

Maybe I can’t be an objective source on the subject, but I do feel obliged to point out that almost everything my weekly newspaper pushed for in the 1990s ultimately came true. Even though a lot of it once seemed harebrained.

Affluent people and even college students living downtown? I don’t think so, Metro Pulse. Market Square reviving? What, so TVA workers can have more baloney-sandwich options? Microbreweries? In Knoxville? You’re serious? We drink Bud Light here. And people commuting by bicycle? This is a car town. Bicycles are just not in Knoxville’s Appalachian DNA. Reviving pedestrian neighborhoods? You’re dreaming. And bars that have live music every night? This ain’t Manhattan, hate to tell you. New hotels in old buildings? Give me a break. We built so many hotels for the World’s Fair, they’re struggling to stay open, and at least one’s going to have to close. Movie theater downtown? Forget it. The downtown cinema died in the ’70s, for good reason. Greenways? What, for box turtles? Street festivals? You remember the last time we tried that. Go ahead, but I’ll be watching TV at home. And save these old buildings? Come on. The property’s worth more without some old wreck on it. Nobody wants old buildings. They’re dirty and old fashioned and embarrassing. That’s why they’re empty. Dumb naive annoying journalists.

If you recognize one of your own quotes in there, I apologize. I mean nothing personal. I just wanted to point out that this city has changed a lot, for the better, in the 26 years we’ve had free weekly newspapers analyzing and advocating for these things.

I’ll keep reporting, in my own way. But assuming the Mercury finds no way to revive, I will miss this paper forum, and the many readers who prefer paper for reading articles of substance. Stay in touch.

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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