Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Just in case y'all missed it last week, The Clarion-Ledger's most recent publisher, John Newhouse II, has left his post at the C-L, and we're told, the employ of the Gannett Co. chain entirely.
The state's largest newspaper has given us scant details regarding this newsworthy event--in fact, they've reported nothing that would refute at least the possibility that Newhouse has been relocated to "Gitmo." (Let's assume the best, however.)
In any case, a successor has already been announced--Mr. Larry Whitaker, formerly of The Times in Shreveport, La.
So on behalf of the Jackson Free Press, I'd like to welcome you, Mr. Whitaker, to Mississippi. Because you're new to the community--and because I'm afraid that sometimes the C-L isn't as good at maintaining its institutional memory when a new boss comes along--I thought I'd bring you up to speed on some of the issues that The Clarion-Ledger faces. I'd also like to suggest some possible solutions you could implement early in your tenure.
Of course you've heard of "TDN," Mr. Whitaker, even if it isn't an "official" Gannett strategy. Here in Jackson, "The Distribution Network" bills itself as "a subsidiary" of The Clarion-Ledger (according to TDN marketing materials), wherein C-L representatives convince business owners and managers to sign exclusive agreements in exchange for nine-pocket plastic distribution boxes placed in front of their stores.
The C-L then rounds up the boxes and racks owned by local publishers, placing them in an open-air lot across from the downtown post office. If we don't start paying The Clarion-Ledger about $100 per year per spot, we can't distribute our publications at an exclusive "TDN" location anymore.
Fortunately, many local business owners and managers have opted out of the TDN contract, allowing popular free publications to return to their locations. Indeed, more are expected to jump off the TDN bandwagon very soon.
But that's not enough. Mr. Whitaker, as chief executive of The Clarion-Ledger, you should stop the TDN program now. The editors of Editor & Publisher magazine have recommended that Gannett "bring it to a halt." And the strategy has attracted the attention of the state attorney general's office.
My suggestion: Pull the word "exclusive" from the TDN contract so that store management gets back control over their storefronts, then play fair in convincing them to distribute all those new freebie C-L publications. Trying to exclude other publishers from the free marketplace of ideas simply isn't behavior becoming a daily newspaper. Let's get the C-L back on the right side of the First Amendment.
Secondly, I encourage you to address some serious concerns that some among your Jackson readership have with The Clarion-Ledger's local coverage of important events. We're concerned that the news is being "shaped" instead of reported in the interest of Jackson's citizen-readers.
For instance, coverage of Frank Melton from the Metro desk has been seriously wanting since he entered the race in spring, 2005--and after the C-L endorsed him, it seems the "honeymoon period" lasted for an irrationally long time. The Clarion-Ledger was days behind the JFP and many of the TV stations on the Ridgeway story (the one where the mayor allegedly tore up a house with a sledgehammer and a big stick), as well as being scooped by the JFP on the release of JPD crime stats, and by the JFP and then local TV on the recent fracas over the City Attorney's contract.
Mr. Whitaker, certainly the C-L's newsroom has taken some hits in the budget, resulting in overworked reporters and editors. But the most disconcerting omission of the C-L's coverage in recent years is the lack of reporting during the mayoral campaign regarding the mayor's leaking of a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN) internal memo back in 2003. The C-L was, after all, the recipient of that memo and, in fact, Metro Editor Grace Simmons said in depositions that she "assumed" Melton was the source of the memo. Yet the Clarion-Ledger severely underreported its own involvement in the case--or even that the case was going on--during his campaign for mayor, and it endorsed Frank Melton when editors there should have known (or, at least, "assumed") that he was lying to a Meridian judge. Putting some of those facts in the "paper of record"--even if it might have embarrassed the C-L slightly--would have been a service to the community.
I've noticed, Mr. Whitaker, that during your time at Gannett's The Times in Shreveport, you were billed as a specialist in building revenue for your newspaper company via "non-daily" publications and innovations such as putting video on the newspaper's Web site. I say, go for it. Do what you can to shore up flagging sales and to create more "entry points" to your "information center."
But don't forget those old-school newspaperman values along the way. The Clarion-Ledger, in my opinion, has very little trust from the community (and, quite frankly, some pretty disgruntled folks on the staff). I encourage you to hire a Reader Editor, such as your sister paper in Nashville, The Tennessean, has on staff. The Reader Editor needs a free hand to criticize the news operation and to take up the cause of reader concerns and requests for corrections and "equal time" at the Clarion-Ledger.
And, one final suggestion--and I know this is the tough one--how about putting a few points of that profit back into serious journalism? The C-L is a little top-heavy with columnists who act as stenographers for the conventional wisdom they hear at cocktail parties. What we could use, instead, is a daily paper with the guts and the resources to dig deeper into the city's challenges, state governance, and all of the facts that Jackson Metro residents need to make informed decisions as voters and citizens.
Once again, welcome to Jackson!
Great job, Todd! I'm assuming that if Whitaker implemented the Reader Editor position you recommended, a hard-hitting female columnist (not for food or features or 'Southern Style') would definitely be an end result. I hope so.
Kacy, there are no smart, opinionated, outspoken women in Mississippi. You know that. (smile) I was just on an ethics media panel at Belhaven College with four white men—and several of the female students came up and thanked for being an outspoken woman afterward, shaking my hand firmly, I might add. It's remarkable that the Ledger doesn't understand how important it is to have serious women columnists and editorial board members. How 1955.
Well, the C-L seems to be stuck in 1955 on every other matter of significance... Cheers, TH
- Tom Head
Great point, Kacy. In fact, a woman might be well suited to the role, able to diplomatically deal with reader problems and criticize the Clarion-Ledger at the same time. It'd be a great place to put a qualified woman.
- Todd Stauffer
If it was 1955 you would'nt have been on that board. Don't forget your chaperone when you go out tonight.