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VOL. 44 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 6, 2020

A new model for online journalism

Kalodimos, Cavendish think Nashvillians are willing to pay for in-depth reporting

By Tom Wood

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Whether via traditional, electronic or social media, you’ve probably read, seen or heard by now that the Nashville Banner is coming back to life – sort of a modern-day Phoenix rising from the ashes of the newspaper’s 1998 shuttering after 122 years of publication.

Well, not exactly.

Delivery-wise, about all the new Nashville Banner, which is scheduled to launch online later this year, has in common with the defunct print product is the name. Spirit-wise, the two appear to be much closer with a shared love for local news.

But this is most definitely not a revival, rejuvenation or a resurrection of the paper that last-century Nashvillians remember.

Instead, it’s a something old, something new approach – repackaging a familiar brand name with a fresh and different nonprofit business product.

“I think we put reintroduction on the (Facebook) page,” says Steve Cavendish, a former Banner staffer who has teamed with fellow longtime television journalist Demetria Kalodimos to launch the new media venture.

“No, it’s not a newspaper. I mean, I’m an old print guy and I love print, but, man, I know basic math, and it’s bad math to be trying to do a print newspaper right now,” Cavendish adds. “There’s just – particularly if you didn’t start a newspaper a half-century ago – but startup and printing costs and everything else associated with it are just brutal.

“So it’ll be online only. And that’s fine.”

The front office

Cavendish, a former editor of the Nashville Scene and the City Paper who began his newspaper career at the old Banner in 1993, will serve as president and editor of this Banner. Kalodimos, the longtime television news reporter, anchor and personality whose messy 2017 departure from WSMV was recently settled, will be the Banner’s executive producer in charge of video content.

“Any site these days that does not have an element that speaks, breathes, sings and shows you something that moves is not as successful as the sites that do. So, I’m absolutely committed to make sure that there’s meaningful video,” Kalodimos says.

“And whatever form that takes, I don’t know. That’s, to me, what has been the challenge and also the real opportunity here … is to try to figure out how to deliver that to the audience.

“What’s the sweet spot? What will they watch? How long will they engage? We do not want to be another soundbite platform,” she adds.

“We want to offer what’s been missing. And maybe that’s the opportunity to watch complete and uncut things on the site in addition to what’s packaged. Or on certain days, it might be different things. That to me is what’s intriguing … is to develop a format that truly isn’t a format.”

Beverly Keel, MTSU Dean of the College of Media and Entertainment, calls their announcement “a win-win for everybody. This is a win for journalism, it’s a win for Nashville – and it’s a win for Demetria and Steve. I don’t see a downside.”

Keel, a former country music reporter and columnist at both The Tennessean and Banner, as well as the Nashville Scene and other publications, says their Banner project is something Nashville desperately needs.

“It was exciting news, and the timing couldn’t be better for a project like this because Middle Tennessee is desperately in need of a source for local news,” Keel explains. “The Tennessean reporters are spread so thin because of layoffs and cutbacks over the years that they’re just not able to cover everything that needs to be covered.

Former WSMV anchor and reporter Demetria Kalodimos and former Nashville Scene editor and writer Steve Cavendish are launching the Nashville Banner as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit civic news organization.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“The key is hyperlocal. That’s what’s going to be the key to the success of the Nashville Banner. And having credibility, which both Steve and Demetria bring, and the experience and fairness so that it is a truly unbiased platform for news.”

How it works

The Banner will operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit civic news organization under the name Nashville Public Media. Fundraising is the lifeblood of the venture, both public and private. The Banner has received a $1.5 million matching challenge grant. And once that goal has been achieved, a launch date will be set.

“We are acting as a project of The Community Foundation right now,” Cavendish states. “The Community Foundation has set up the Banner Fund for us to take donations on a tax-deductible basis and manage them for us until we’re ready to go.

“I can’t emphasize this enough. The Community Foundation is one of the real treasures of Nashville, and their support and help on a formal and informal basis has been amazing.”

In a statement last week to announce her official return to the journalism spotlight, Kalodimos thanked WSMV’s parent company, the Meredith Corporation, for its “significant” donation. Kalodimos announced the settlement of an age discrimination suit with WSMV in early January. The 33-year veteran of the local NBC affiliate declined to reveal any monetary payments associated with the settlement.

“Both organizations (Meredith/WSMV and The Community Foundation) champion the public good and the bedrock values of quality journalism,” Kalodimos says. “I appreciate Meredith Corporation’s willingness to support this important cause.

“Nashville Public Media is an emerging civic news organization that will operate as a nonprofit, offering relevant, intelligent, in-depth coverage of local news and issues of importance to the city.

“The contribution will help seed this important and unique new resource in a challenging commercial media landscape. This ‘electronic newspaper’ will also offer high-quality video, audio and visual storytelling designed to quench the thirst for meaningful news coverage that is fair, accurate, interesting, thorough and human.”

The business plan

The Banner business model is similar to other nonprofit news-gathering operations, notably the Daily Memphian that launched in 2018 and the Texas Tribune, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

(Editor’s note: The Daily Memphian was launched and is overseen by Eric Barnes, who also is publisher of the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. The Daily Memphian is operated separately as a 501(c)(3).)

But there are differences between the way the Memphis group operates and how the Banner funding plan works.

“Yeah, I talked to those guys a bunch. It’s an interesting model,’’ Cavendish says. “The question, I think, that a lot of nonprofit news orgs are going to have is, ‘do you follow a subscriber model or do you follow a membership model?’ And there’s a difference between the two.

“The Memphian has chosen to do it as a paywall and go after subscribers. I think they’re having a lot of success doing that, and I’m thrilled for them. And they’re doing a lot of really good work.

“I always was a reporter first and still am a reporter first. And sitting on the sidelines for a couple of years has been very difficult to me,” Kalodimos says.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“They’re going to hit their head on certain pieces of philanthropy, certain foundation money, certain nonprofit giving, that doesn’t want to support content that’s in a walled garden.

“And membership is a different proposition,” Cavendish notes, stressing members and non-members will have access to content, much like public radio or TV consumers. “When I put up a paywall, I have a value proposition. And it’s ‘I have something of value and you’re willing to pay for that value.’ And that’s a great way to do things,” he adds.

“A membership model is, ‘I’m producing something of value, and you’re willing to pay me so that everyone can have this.’ And increasingly, I would argue that civic news is a public good (and) that we need more journalism that helps inform everyone’s lives about how to make decisions to vote, the accountability for the people in power and how their taxes are being spent, how their schools are being run, how their courts are being run.

“All of that, I would argue, is a public good. But because local news has been so diminished, if we’re going to put resources back in, we should put resources back in for everyone.”

The mission

And that’s why Cavendish says that while the Daily Memphian covers everything that the print Commercial Appeal covers – sports, entertainment, opinion, obituaries – his team’s goal will be focused on civic and government coverage.

“We understand that we could probably get some more subscribers if we put it behind the paywall, but we think that there is a real need for civic news for everyone in Nashville right now. And so, we’re going to find the people who will help us support that,” Cavendish says.

He goes on to explain the real reason behind his decision to launch the CNO was because of the lack of coverage by The Tennessean and other news organizations in town. He doesn’t blame his soon-to-be competitors, but rather their corporate owners – particularly Gannett – for cutting newsroom staff to the point that local news is no longer covered like it was in the newspapers’ heyday.

“I’ve pushed getting the Banner off the ground because every day we wait, Gannett gives Nashville readers less and less,” Cavendish says.

“When they bought the Banner on Feb. 20, 1998 and closed it, it took about a third of that newsroom over. And there was roughly 180 people in that new newsroom. And there’s 65 over there right now.

“And so that number from 180 to 65 – if you look at that on a curve,” Cavendish says, his hand swooping downward, “it looks like this. And the best you can hope for is that curve goes flat.

“And we know – we know – that will not happen. We know that number’s going to be smaller in the future. And so if you believe in local news, you have to look at that curve and say, ‘how do we change it?’ And the only way to change it is to be deliberate and head in a different direction. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Kalodimos says local TV news coverage is in the same disparate state, adding more news time with fewer overworked staff members.

“I mean, if I close my eyes and visualize the newsroom, I think about empty desks and empty edit bays. And gear that used to be used (is) sitting there. But at the same time, the demand for ‘let’s add a newscast, let’s add another half-hour earlier and earlier in the day,’ and fill it with what?

“I’ll tell ya – with whatever comes over the (network) feed that really does not resonate with people around here.

“But they don’t know it because they don’t have an alternative. It’s what they get to watch, it’s what they’re fed. So, if they had a more nutritious meal, let’s say, something that really helped them in their daily lives, where they live, they’d realize how important local media is to them.

“I think a lot of them already do because what I hear is that they miss some of the things that they used to rely upon. And the broadcast model, the same thing is happening with the broadcast news. You can get it anywhere now. Why would you sit in front of a television at an appointed hour?”

It has been long-rumored that The Tennessean and other Gannett newspapers will cut back on print editions – or eliminate them altogether – in the face of dwindling circulation and more deadline-driven online coverage.

“The Tennessean should be a print product for a while,” Cavendish says, “but a comedy of errors from Gannett has accelerated its decline faster than necessary: Artificially early deadlines, remote printing, Mather (market-based advertising) pricing. They have alienated some of their most loyal fans.”

Civics lessons

What Cavendish and Kalodimos say rankles them most is the lack of legislative coverage by local media.

“When I got to the Banner in the early ’90s, there were 30-plus people in the Capitol Hill press corps,” Cavendish says. “That number is now around 10. And the crisis in statehouse reporting mirrors the crisis in local reporting. It’s not a profit center. It gets cut. It’s been cut by Gannett.

“When Gannett took over the state and the papers in Knoxville and Memphis, well, the reporters that were covering for Knoxville and Memphis were redundant. And so, they’re providing the same with less. And that may be good for their corporate bottom line; it’s bad for Tennessee readers.

“And the only way to change that is to be intentional. And our first area of growth will be in the statehouse. And we will put as many reporters as we possibly can on that coverage.

“And here’s why,” he adds. “It’s not that those reporters that are up there right now are doing a bad job. As a matter of fact, some of them are among the best reporters in Tennessee. It’s that there aren’t enough to cover what Tennessee is now – and that is a $40 billion industry. And we cover the legislature and the governor.

“When was the last time you saw sustained coverage of any of the departments that are part of state government? It’s only when there’s a scandal, it’s only when there’s a problem, it’s only when there’s turnover, or such internal pressure from inside those departments that it makes it to the outside world. There is currently a meltdown going on inside the department of education. And there’s not enough reporters to cover it.”

Kalodimos says she’s looking forward to getting back out on the Nashville streets instead of delivering news in studio.

“The anchor is always lampooned in the movies and is always the person that needs to be told what to ask. Uh, not true. At least not in my position,” notes Kalodimos, a winner of multiple national investigative reporting awards.

“I always was a reporter first and still am a reporter first. And sitting on the sidelines for a couple of years has been very difficult to me. So, I said ‘Put me in, Coach.’ And here we are.”

Watchdog journalism

With such lofty goals of covering all aspects of local journalism, Cavendish says he hopes to have funding for 10 full-time reporters.

“We’ll have a professional staff and we will pay them professional wages,” he says. “We’re going to launch with a newsroom of about 10, plus or minus a couple – hopefully plus,” he says. “And then there will be a non-editorial staff, a revenue staff, kind of corresponding with that.”

Neither Kalodimos nor Cavendish will say if they have certain reporters in mind to occupy those slots, but there is a great talent pool of laid-off reporters in Nashville on both the print and TV side.

The Daily Memphian hired many of the best-known reporters and columnists from the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal when it launched.

“And, boy, just in 48 hours I’ve gotten so many messages, texts – I’m available, exactly,” Kalodimos says.

Adds Cavendish: “It’s been amazing to see just the kind of response that we’ve gotten this week. I think audiences are hungry for news and they’re hungry to support news. I can’t tell you how many people either messaged me on some form of social media or emailed me or called me and said, ‘hey, how can I donate?’”

Keel says she “would love” to get MTSU journalism students involved with the new venture.

“What better training ground, learning from Steve and Demetria, being immersed in the community, and becoming an expert on a beat? That’s so important.”

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