...what the heck are we doing?
by Coury Turczyn, Managing Editor
After five years of struggling to carve ourselves a niche in Knoxville's competitive marketplace, the fact that we still exist is just shy of remarkable. Therefore, in this issue we're allowing ourselves a moment to reflect on what it took to get here, the many lives and careers lost in the process, and just how amazingly silly putting out a weekly paper can be.
Five years ago, Metro Pulse existed as only a few ideas in the imaginations of Ashley Capps, Rand Pearson, Margaret Weston, and Ian Blackburn, who thought it would be nice to put out an entertainment publication with club listings. From there, Metro Pulse has taken on a life of its own, growing by leaps due to an odd confluence of highly talented, highly desperate people who just happened to be here when Metro Pulse needed them.
But it takes more than just slapping together articles and printing them to make a publication truly live. It takes a certain amount of self-belief bordering on insanity.
My first gleanings that Metro Pulse had become an actual "entity"--a publication people paid attention to--came in the summer of 1992. That's when the esteemed daily newspaper, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, attempted to squish us out of existence like a brontosaurus trying to stamp out one of those irksome little mammals. To be sure, we were little (having published maybe 20 issues, and only half of those in the tabloid format) and we were irksome (taking as many potshots as possible at anything we didn't like), but up to that point we were producing Metro Pulse because ... well, what the hell. It was fun and there was a need for our product. Serious competition we weren't.
At the time, a typical issue was about 20 pages long. The content was mostly about arts and entertainment. The events calendar was a two-page, center-spread pull-out. The things that separated us from the melange of other local free rags (The City Pages, Cabin Fever, The Brass Check, etc.) were: (a) we had a production schedule; (b) we had experienced writers; and (c) we had a foolish ambition to make a real go of it.
Our office was a one-room sweat box on the third floor of the Bijou building, a step up from the original facilities in a Fort Sanders living room. The staff consisted of three full-time people (the dangerously committed publisher Rand Pearson, our ever-optimistic, tie-wearing advertising manager Pat Hinds, and me), burly copy editor Jon Wallace, plus two designers who should have gotten full-time pay because they worked around the clock--literally. From Thursday afternoon till Friday morning, UT student and devious antiestablishmentarian Ian Blackburn and self-taught design genius Jared Coffin would peck nonstop at their Macintosh keyboards, struggling to put out another massive 24-page issue that had taken us two weeks to write and sell ads for.
Well after dawn (in fact, usually around lunch time), we would triumphantly emerge from our lair in the Bijou, blearily parading the box of flats down Gay Street as we jumped into a car to deliver them to the patient employees at Knoxville Printers. After the whopping press run of 13,000 copies was complete, we'd gather at the loading dock to jam the bales into our cars. (Unfortunately, the only people we could afford to pay to distribute the papers were usually ex-cons; one after another they'd disappear in the night without a trace when Johnny Law was hot on their tails, leaving us to do the job ourselves.) Finally, by Friday evening, we'd be done doling them out, our hands and faces smeared with ink. And then we'd do it all over again.
This isn't to say we five were always a smooth team. At times, tensions would, as they say, "flare" in that un-air-conditioned room. I clearly remember Rand gibbering and flailing about the office in a daze when our first job-for-hire, the program guide for the Knoxville Jazz & Blues Festival, had four different spellings of "Ricki Lee Jones" in it (lasting image: owner Ashley Capps shaking Rand by the shoulders and screaming "GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF, MAN!").
Then there was the time Jared flung a book (or was it a bottle?) across the room, screaming, sobbing, that we had "destroyed his design" by cutting a marginalia column in half to fit an ad (he later came back, newly resigned to the harsh realities of publishing). Pat, normally a happy-go-lucky sort, slammed his fist through a wall one day in a disagreement with Rand (admittedly, this happened later in our history, but it's the best example). I contented myself by making sarcastic remarks, and Ian persisted in being calm at all times (although he was later known to occasionally toss an office chair off the roof). We took our mission seriously, though, even if the majority of Knoxville still wasn't aware of our existence.
What brought us to the attention of the News-Sentinel was not our content; it was our ad sales. Reputable local businesses were buying ads in our meager publication because they knew they would hit an audience with us that other media outlets could only graze. And somewhere deep within the sales department of the mighty Sentinel machine, the order was given: Nip 'em in the bud.
Their devious plan (which we discovered by intercepting one of their rate cards) was this: Take Detours on Campus, rename it Detours on the Street, and put it in boxes around downtown.
This in itself wasn't very frightening. Detours on Campus was merely a 16-page giveaway of AP wire copy that was supposedly "youthful" (typical headline: "Sexual Fantasies: Let Your Mind Wander"). The new, improved Detours on the Street was just more of the same, along with regurgitated movie and music reviews from the daily edition. The sheer waste of paper is frightful to consider.
But here was the sales department's masterstroke: They would individually target each one of our advertisers and promise them the same readership for considerably less than our already pitiable ad rates. Obviously, profit was not the goal foremost in the minds of the News-Sentinel powers when they hatched this plot.
And that was when I realized that Metro Pulse was going to stick around for a while. Our advertisers stood by us. They didn't buy into Detours on the Street, knowing exactly what it was worth, even at a bargain rate. They wanted us. (The Sentinel's attempt at a Pulse-killer limped along for about a year before it was quietly put out of its misery.) The effect on me, and perhaps the others on staff, was to make a real commitment: Whatever it takes, we're staying.
Soon, Rand was thinking up even bigger schemes than usual. Let's tackle news and issues, he said. Let's get serious. He recruited Betty Bean, esteemed reporter from the late Knoxville Journal, to contribute news features. He convinced Ashley to employ Jared full-time, take on a bona fide calendar editor, Shelly Ridenour, and to hire an actual production manager, Laura Atkinson.
Rand then courted ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Joe Sullivan and convinced him that a bunch of people in their twenties could put out a solid paper, and that he should buy Metro Pulse. He did, and with that infusion of cash, new staff members, and credibility, we thought we had finally made it. Little did we know it was just the beginning.
Over the years, we've grown considerably: from a staff of five to over 20, from biweekly to weekly, from light features to heavy news. We've won numerous awards for our writing and our design, and have been threatened with a handful of lawsuits as well. Although we're far from becoming a Knoxville "fixture," I think it's safe to say that we're an "entity."
Still, I'm not sure people know what to make of us. Based on our mail and phone calls, I'm forced to conclude that conservatives think we're a liberal Commie rag. Liberals think we're spineless, conservative weenies. Punk rockers think we're pathetic, Lawrence Welk-loving fogies. The Lawrence Welk-loving fogies think we're anarchy-fomenting MTV doodleheads. Restaurateurs who get less-than-positive reviews simply hate our guts, and exact revenge any way they can.
"What are you trying to do?" I can hear these people asking. "What's your agenda? How come you wrote about this in that way?"
Well, let me reveal to one and all--our agenda is this: To find good stories and tell them the best we can. Whether they're going be construed as "liberal" or "conservative" is not often a consideration (we've pissed off both camps numerous times). Knoxville is a city starving for information about itself because what it usually gets from the major media sources is often trite, shallow, or filtered through, yes, someone's political or financial agenda. We attempt to fill the gap, with fewer sacred cows than most. Deep in my heart, I must believe that the silent majority of our readers like our coverage--most of the copies get picked up, our marketing surveys reveal a readership of startling diversity, and we've yet to have any threats of physical violence.
By no stretch of the imagination, however, are we perfect--there are only a handful of cover stories I can say were printed without much room for improvement--but we try like hell to be damn good. Sometimes we hit the mark, sometimes we miss. We'll never be able to find every story worth telling, or to prove every rumor we've heard. But by introducing you to the people, places, issues and news that we think are important, we're hopefully giving you a fuller understanding of this city we live in.
By letting voices speak that aren't often heard elsewhere, we're trying to better define this community. Consequently, our pages span a lot of different interests, beliefs and hopes. Some have accused us of being schizophrenic. I like to think of us as having a lot of variety. No matter what copy you pick up, no matter who you are, if you live in Knoxville and like to read, you'll find something of interest here.
Whether or not this philosophy will lead us to great financial success is still an open question. But for five years it has made us a publication worthy of your attention.
Here's looking forward to five more.