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After Harry

The daily paper needs more news, more sentinel

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

On a personal level, Harry Moskos was one of the best bosses I've ever had. During two years that I worked at The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Harry treated me extremely well. He let me write the stories I wanted to, he gave me raises when he didn't have to, and I was fortunate enough to escape ever being on the receiving end of one of his rare but fierce temper blow-outs.

Harry's departure from the News-Sentinel, announced two weeks ago in the paper and anticipated now for several years, will undoubtedly be accompanied by many such testimonials. And he deserves them, after spending 17 years of his life running what has become Knoxville's only daily newspaper. But there's a lot more to be said, most of which won't be widely acknowledged.

The fact is, as almost anyone in this city who doesn't work at the News-Sentinel (and quite a few people who do work there) will tell you, the News-Sentinel is deeply flawed. There are people who will praise individual sections or writers, but very few I've met who would honestly tell you it's a good newspaper. I remember interviewing a respected dean at the University of Tennessee who confessed to me that neither he nor anyone he knew paid much attention to the News-Sentinel; they thought it was lifeless, banal, obsessed with the minutiae of traffic accidents and routine crimes, and inattentive to its surroundings and the realities of life in its community. (Of course, UT faculty have probably been very avid readers indeed over the past few months, but I'm guessing that as a rule, the dean's observation holds true.)

During my stint there, I worked with many talented and dedicated people, some of whom are still there. And all of us labored under the stifling, frustrating weight of the paper's fundamental mediocrity. When I was hired, one of my editors told me on the first day, with a resigned shrug, that the paper just wasn't as good as it had been when it had the old daily Knoxville Journal to compete with. And, with some exceptions, it hasn't gotten any better over the past six years. Many of its most talented people have left—not an unsurprising fact for a mid-market paper, but having talked with several of them on their way out the door, I know that a major force in their departures was frustration with trying to do their jobs well at a newspaper that simply doesn't put much stock in good journalism.

This is not all Harry's fault. If anything, really, Harry has been a hold-out over the past few years against the rising tide of corporate blandness at the News-Sentinel. Snicker if you want at his idiosyncrasies, the endless stories about the Elgin Marbles and his quixotic crusade for more streetcars, but at least he has idiosyncrasies. Increasingly, at newspapers across the country, the trend is toward a homogenized newsprint "product" designed to produce maximum profit with minimum fuss. Our daily has been no exception and there's no reason to think it will be.

I don't know who the next editor of the News-Sentinel will be. I'm guessing it will be someone plucked from within the E.W. Scripps chain, someone who has "earned" the position by dint of years of service to the corporation and a willingness to jump when the big bosses in Cincinnati say so. But on the off chance that it might be someone with a genuine passion for newspapers (as opposed to "synergistic media content" or whatever the going phrase is) and a real interest in Knoxville itself (something at least you can't accuse Harry of lacking), here are a handful of suggestions. If you like any of them, or if you have some of your own, now is the time to let N-S publisher Bruce Hartmann know:

* Add a local news section. Almost every other daily newspaper I've ever seen, including many a good deal smaller than the News-Sentinel, has a B section exclusively devoted to local news. Right now, the Sentinel buries its State/Local section inside, and some days it amounts to just two pages. Having a separate section front gives more chance to play up important local stories that don't make the front page. It also gives more space for staff photographers' work.

* Add a full-time University of Tennessee reporter. The News-Sentinel has not had a reporter assigned full-time to our state's flagship university for more than five years. As recent events have proved, there's plenty there to report. And not just in Andy Holt Tower. What about the classrooms, what about the research, what about the intellectual life of the school? It is almost entirely absent from the newspaper.

* Don't pander to your audience. Too often, modern daily newspapers, like their TV counterparts, treat readers as if they not only read at the 6th-grade level but are in fact 6th graders. There's a faux naivete, a shallow "gee whiz" approach to complicated subjects that seems to presume people have never heard of issues like health care or race relations before. Don't assume your audience is dumber than you; assume it's smarter. Even the ones who aren't smarter will appreciate the flattery.

* Don't suck up so blithely to the local power structure. Apart from an aggressive approach to Sheriff Tim Hutchison, the Sentinel is generally a reliable cheerleader for the local establishment. The paper doesn't have to be the community bomb-thrower (we'll handle that, thanks), but a greater degree of independent thinking and analytical reporting would help everyone. As it is, our current mayor has glided through office with the confidence that the newspaper would praise whatever new wardrobe he trotted out, however threadbare. Ditto our local business "leaders."

In conclusion, I know that it would buck every trend in the world of modern journalism for the next editor to arrest the News-Sentinel's long slide into infotainment. But wouldn't it be nice to buck a trend?

August 16, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 33
© 2001 Metro Pulse