We asked our staff members to write whatever they wanted for this final issue of the Knoxville Mercury: memories, theories, parting thoughts. PLUS: Read “The Mercury Meltdown FAQ”—editor Coury Turczyn answers your questions about our shutdown.
It’s Just Business
The Knoxville Mercury isn’t “just business.” Over the course of my career, I’ve been around the block with some successful businesses—and a few that were … not so much. Every successful business has the right people, working capital, a product that fills a need or solves a problem—and a market willing to pay for the product.
The Mercury had the right people and I’m very grateful for the privilege of working with everyone here. Our passionate editors, writers, designers, salespeople, and support staff are smart, talented, and dedicated. All of them are also grossly under-compensated and overworked—and yet they brought readers a weekly newspaper that always punched above its weight.
When E.W. Scripps/Knoxville News Sentinel abruptly killed the successful 23-year-old Metro Pulse—during a corporate restructuring in preparation for a sale to another an out-of-town conglomerate—many loyal readers cried “foul” and encouraged a resurrection. Scripps’ sale was executed and quickly bundled and sold to an even-larger corporate entity: Gannett/USA Today. A hyper-local, scrappy independent weekly was determined to add little value to that sale. That’s just business. Knoxville’s response to the demise of Metro Pulse, however, suggested an opportunity. Thanks to some exceedingly generous benefactors and a Kickstarter campaign, we raised just enough capital to launch a successor to Metro Pulse: the Knoxville Mercury.
We knew going into this adventure that we were swimming against the tide. You hold in your hands our 109th—and final—issue. We’ve published award-winning stories, design, photography, and illustration about Knoxville and East Tennessee. Along the way we attracted an audience of highly educated and affluent readers. Mercury readers have money to spend and we know—from research and anecdotally from conversations with business owners and readers—that they often buy locally.
We had great people, some working capital, and an award-winning product—but we misread the market. Henry Holcomb, the former president of the Philadelphia Newspaper Guild and a journalist for 40 years, said that newspapers had a clearer mission when he started in the business: “Report the truth and raise hell.”
That mission has become hazy in the new era of early 21st-century journalism, when most newspapers are struggling to survive. The newspaper business is more about staying in business and less about raising hell.
So, in the business of journalism, what is the market and how does the product fit?
At the Mercury, Coury, Matthew, Jack, Heather, and the rest of the editorial and design crew knew that our readers and our advertisers are our customers—and journalism that tells the truth and raises hell is our product. The Mercury audience is comprised of Knoxville’s most informed and engaged citizens—with verified disposable incomes. Our readers are an attractive market for advertisers.
Great journalism is not inexpensive. The Mercury spent $250,000 a year on printing and distribution alone. Add salaries and overhead and our weekly nut was $15,000, which we later reduced to $13,000. To help fund the newspaper, and in an effort to keep pricing reasonable for advertisers, we asked readers to contribute through fundraisers and online funding campaigns similar to those produced by public radio and television. We promoted a fundraising concert, sold merchandise on our website, and conducted many fund drives.
The Mercury averages between 40,000 and 50,000 readers per issue between print and digital. If every reader kicked in just $10 a year, we would have a business. If every reader donated $20 a year, the Mercury would have been a better paper with more reporters, more content, and distribution to more locations throughout Knoxville. In our latest and last fund drive, less than 1 percent of our audience made a financial contribution—but we are grateful to those who did.
For now, for this incarnation of the Knoxville Mercury, we’ve determined there are just not enough readers willing to pay and not enough advertisers willing to pay enough to reach readers. Publishing an independent weekly newspaper in Knoxville is just not a good business.
We are sticking around Knoxville—and some of us are looking at ways to fill the inevitable void the Mercury leaves behind. If you have ideas for content—and thoughts on how to pay for it—let us know! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Knoxville, for giving us a shot. We gave the Mercury our all and we all appreciate your support.
—Charlie Vogel, publisher & sales director
Stories That Mattered
I’m proud that the Mercury has produced quality investigative journalism, telling local stories you won’t read elsewhere—about everything from the poor and disenfranchised to the arts community—and in a style both meaningful and personal. In this era of “fake news” and tailor-made facts, the in-depth research we did felt more important than ever.
Reporting for the Mercury, I met people I’d never have encountered otherwise and learned new things from them every day. That’s what makes my job fun—yet sometimes sobering.
I helped maneuver a wheelbarrow full of fresh-dug native plants with the Native Plant Rescue Squad, held a rare hellbender (giant native salamander) while standing hip-deep in the Hiawassee River, and met refugees who were able to beam as they shared their triumph in escaping war and fear to find a better life in Knoxville.
But I also met repeatedly with a survivor of sex trafficking, listening while she wept about how much she has despised herself. I visited displaced Gatlinburg service workers scraping by after the fire in cramped, buggy hotel rooms that served as their homes. I pored through hundreds of pages of documents and rode on police patrols to observe and track exactly how the Knoxville Police Department polices itself as well as black communities in Knoxville. I broke stories about the potential sell-off of the historic and contaminated Knoxville College and the historic Howard House, which was recently saved from demolition. I hope some of our reporting led to change and greater help for those left behind by the system.
One of my favorite stories remains one of the first cover pieces I wrote, about a showdown between Walmart and the last East Tennessee drive-in theater and what it represented in the battle for the identity of a small town. I’m happy to say the Parkway Drive-In in Maryville survives, for now. Kids are still catching fireflies beneath the big screen, or lying on mattresses in the bed of the pickup to watch the pictures flicker overhead.
I ended that story with the image of taillights disappearing as the Parkway disappeared in the rearview, and I hope that now you can think of the Mercury the same way: A slice of East Tennessee culture that you enjoyed before traveling on. A laugh with Trae Crowder, a song with Hudson K, a remembered clever quote or revelation or snatch of a melody about all that makes this place unique, lovable, horrible, and home.
—S. Heather Duncan, staff writer
Putting Our Hair Out
When people ask me what it’s like to put out a weekly paper, I tell them it’s like being on a hamster wheel with your hair on fire. It takes a lot of people to keep that wheel moving forward and I want to thank them.
I want to say thanks to our 500+ advertisers, our donors, our supporters of all types, and our readers over the past two and a half years—without you we could not have started nor continued the Mercury.
I also must give a huge thank you to our team: the editors, writers, designers, business people, freelancers (many who did work for free), and interns; they all have done yeoman’s work. In addition, a big shout-out to those who may not get much thanks, but without whom the paper would not get out: our distribution team. It is not easy to get 25,000 papers out in about a day and a half. It takes the whole team to make up the cogs in the wheel. Thank you all!
And thank you to those who came up to us at public events or on the street to say how much you loved the paper and how much it meant to you. We know that our stories made a difference and that many in the community were moved to action by them. That is something that we can all be proud of and take with us as we get off the hamster wheel and put our hair out.
It was fun while it lasted, goodbye and best regards!
—Scott Hamstead, senior account executive
Finding a Sense of Welcome
Never have I received so much gratitude from strangers on the street when they found out about my job. I’m not one to need, seek, or even enjoy attention or praise. My fulfillment usually comes from a project going smoothly and meeting my own high standards. However, the constant “thank you” and “great work” comments from true strangers—in food-truck lines, at the bar, at the farmers’ market—were signs that we were doing something important for people. So allow me to begin by thanking you in return for that support. It buoyed us during challenging weeks.
Never have I gotten paid for work that was so perfectly in line with my beliefs and skills. Design is primarily about facilitating the communication of someone else’s message. But at the Mercury, the messages I helped share were that this city is wonderful and complex and changing. There was always another side to the argument. There were always more voices to be heard. I truly believe all those things. Plus, I got to combine my publication expertise with my branding and marketing experience. I had work that kept me overwhelmingly busy, but I felt competent that I could help solve whatever design challenge came next. Those are rare treats in any job.
Never have I worked in such an egoless office full of people that totally deserve to have egos. We’ve had disagreements. We’ve been flawed. But we haven’t had to tiptoe around or manage internal politics. We spoke our minds. I have trusted and respected my coworkers and felt trusted and respected. Each person here has talents and work ethics beyond their pay scales and I will miss collaborating with them.
Never have I felt so immediately welcomed in a new place. I’ve been a regular visitor to Knoxville for 15 years, but made the leap and moved just two and a half years ago from the much busier, larger city of Cincinnati. It felt like changing out of a dressy outfit and into my favorite jeans. No pretension. No judgment. Just down-to-earth people saying “Come on in!” This city is just big enough that there is always lots of interesting stuff going on and small enough that you can show up to an event alone and find someone you know. Working at the paper has facilitated many of those connections, but also, it’s just a great place to live. I hope to find new ways to make more connections and deepen existing ones with my newfound free time.
Never have I been so proud of failing. We worked so hard and learned so much. I am sorry to see the city to lose this gem and there are many reasons why it didn’t work. I won’t go in to the theories about why except to say that no single reason is to blame. It’s a very complicated business. I’m happy to commiserate about all the reasons over a beer. We did our best and I couldn’t possible be happier with what we were able to accomplish.
My next adventure will be launching a freelance design business. I invite you to get to know my non-publication design work better. Peruse my website, find me on facebook, and stay in touch!
—Tricia Bateman, art director
Frozen Dinner Memories
This may sound bizarre, but I will miss the funky smells of what each staff member ate for lunch each day at the Mercury office. Whether it be Charlie Finch’s vegetarian sausage biscuits or Scott Hamstead’s low-sodium frozen dinners or Coury’s microwaveable Indian food… those are the odd smells that I enjoyed each and every day during my time with Mercury. I think that even as silly as that may be, it ultimately goes to show the eccentricity behind each member of the Mercury, and how each member made the newspaper special and fun to pick-up for Knoxvillians in their own unique, funky way.
—Michael Tremoulis, account executive
Moving On, Looking Ahead
I have a long list of things we could have done differently over the last two and a half years: We could have written shorter stories and more provocative headlines; we could have made better use of social media; we could have planned our fundraisers better, or started as a webzine, or had a long-term development strategy, or made sponsored content a priority. We could all have been younger.
None of it would have mattered much—not enough to make the Mercury a sustainable long-term enterprise, anyway. It seems a little ridiculous now, starting a newspaper when the whole industry is falling off a cliff. But we thought we had come up with a model that would work. It did, for a while. Sort of. Looking back, it’s apparent that we were underfunded and understaffed from the very beginning. When somebody leaves the staff and you can’t afford to fill that position, something’s not working right.
That doesn’t mean that the Mercury is a failure. Nothing lasts forever. Maybe the whole idea was quixotic, but nobody will ever convince me that publishing more than 100 issues of a not-for-profit weekly-ish news journal was failing. For two years in a row, we beat the local daily in feature writing, investigative journalism, and page design in the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ annual contest. I’ll always be proud of that.
Still, the demise of the Mercury feels like the end of more than just a business. I’ve been practicing this kind of journalism since I was an intern at Metro Pulse in the late 1990s. It suits me, and I believe in it. But I probably won’t be doing it anymore. I’m not sure I want to. I’ve started imagining a working life that’s not marked off by Tuesday deadlines and stress headaches. I’d like to have a job I know will still be around in six months.
It’s been a good run. It’s been difficult and terrifying and humbling and deeply gratifying. Working with this staff and our roster of contributors has been a privilege, and the support and confidence we’ve had from readers has been overwhelming. I still think the Mercury’s mission—to dig deep into Knoxville’s culture and politics and find the stories that say something significant about who we are and where we’re headed—is an important one. Essential, even. Those stories will never go away. I’m looking forward to seeing who figures out a new way to tell them.
—Matthew Everett, senior editor
Third Time Out
Thus ends my third attempt at providing Knoxville with a paper dedicated to longform journalism, smart opinions, unique culture, and odd characters. Over the course of 20 years—with two tours of duty at Metro Pulse, and now the Mercury—it has been the major achievement of my career: sharing the things that I thought were most interesting about life in Knoxville and East Tennessee.
The fact that none of these endeavors were particularly successful in monetary terms has been no small source of anxiety for me. But even though potential advertisers were apparently unexcited by my story choices, it has been gratifying to hear from readers who felt otherwise. Journalism is not exactly a revered service, especially now—and reporters mostly hear (and absorb) the complaints. But you have made us feel very appreciated with all of your letters, emails, comments, and donations. Knoxville readers are bucking the trends!
For me, the most fulfilling part of working at the Mercury and Metro Pulse was assembling very creative people and seeing what happens. Unlike any other city I’ve lived in, Knoxville is a magnet for unique talents—people with uncommon skills and minds. They do not stay here to make lots of money or to get famous—they are drawn to Knoxville because it’s where their hearts have led them, and they work at their crafts because they must. It has been my pleasure to meet hundreds of these people over the years, and to help provide a venue for their efforts and ideas.
As I vault past middle age, however, I’m starting to wonder, as most journalists eventually do: Is this any way to make a living? Is being in a constant state of stress really normal? And what’s this I hear about “savings accounts” and “401(k)s”?
Meanwhile, there’s the ever-changing media marketplace—is there any room left in our shrinking attention spans for in-depth stories? Has social media trained us to be satisfied only by piss-off headlines that reaffirm our preconceptions? Will the only stories left that people actually read be advertorials about awesome new restaurants and shops?
Well, I don’t know the answers yet. And I’ve got some self-examination to do. But I will always be around if anyone has some interesting stories to share.
—Coury Turczyn, editor
The Knoxville Mercury Sad Hour
Hey, why not join us for a few drinks in memory of our late, great endeavor?
Where: Boyd’s Jig & Reel (101 S. Central St.)
When: Thursday, July 20, 4:30-6:30 p.m.
Featured Photo: We were going to use this lovely shot by Bill Foster for a project at Metro Pulse right about when it got shut down. So we thought it would be appropriate to use for our final issue of the Knoxville Mercury. See more of Bill’s fine work at: billfosterphotos.com.
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