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VOL. 42 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 13, 2018

The Daily Memphian to launch in fall

By Bill Dries | Memphis Daily News

Print | Front Page | Email this story

The Daily Memphian staff so far:

Eric Barnes, president/executive editor
James Overstreet, editor-in-chief
Terry Hollahan, managing editor
Kate Simone, associate editor
Jim Weber, photo editor
Jennifer Biggs, food and dining editor
Geoff Calkins, columnist
Chris Herrington, columnist
Michael Nelson, columnist
Otis Sanford, columnist/editor at large
Clay Bailey, reporter
Tom Bailey, reporter
Michelle Corbet, reporter
Bill Dries, reporter
Yolanda Jones, reporter
Jonah Jordan, reporter
Elle Perry, reporter
Wayne Risher, reporter
John Varlas, reporter
Don Wade, reporter
Omer Yusuf, reporter
Kyra Cross, designer/copy editor
Yvette Touchet, designer/copy editor
Holly Weber, designer/copy editor
Houston Cofield, photographer
Patrick Lantrip, photographer/videographer
Natalie Chandler, video/podcast production
Madeline Faber, editor, High Ground News, in partnership
Jacinthia Jones, Chalkbeat TN, in partnership

A new seven-days-a-week news outlet called The Daily Memphian will make its debut this fall, with many of the biggest names in Memphis journalism and a unique not-for-profit funding model. The ambitious effort’s goal is to become the city’s definitive news source with reporting of, by and for Memphis.

After several years of discussions and months of behind-the-scenes work and coordination, details of The Daily Memphian were announced Monday, July 16.

"Welcome to the worst-kept secret in Memphis media," said Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, at the announcement at FedExForum. Barnes will be president and executive editor of The Daily Memphian.

"This will be a constant evolution," he said. "It's important that you understand this is about Memphis."

“There’s a real void in terms of high-quality local journalism that is grounded in the written word,” he said in an interview before the announcement. “So we are doing an online news source. It doesn’t have a print component. It will have podcasts. It will have video. But it is fundamentally grounded in the tradition of printed journalism and the high standards that still exist in a lot of printed word, written word, digital word news outlets.”

The Daily Memphian is a separate entity from The Daily News and The Memphis News. The company also owns Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald, which are headquartered in Nashville.

“It’s important to say it’s not The Daily News getting bigger. It’s a whole separate entity,” Barnes said. “Reporters from The Daily News are coming over. But people are coming over from The Commercial Appeal. They are coming from The Memphis Business Journal. They are coming from other places.”

And those reporters will be bringing their expertise in areas now covered by The Daily News as well as other topics and issues.

“(The coverage) is very similar in philosophy, just more of it,” said James Overstreet, editor-in-chief of The Daily Memphian. “Obviously our sports coverage will be greatly enhanced. But all of the things The Daily News has become known for – unbiased, objective, serious news – will continue. But we’ll have more resources to do more of it.”

The Daily News will return to being a primary source of public records, listings and notices, ending its email edition. The Memphis News, the weekly publication launched a decade ago, will transition to a similar role with circulation only in the communities outside Memphis.

Meanwhile, Barnes said The Daily Memphian will cover crime in a more in-depth way.

“There is plenty of quick and superficial coverage of last night’s crime – crime blotter coverage. I don’t think it is particularly useful to have just one more source for that type of thing,” he said. “So we will cover trends in crime. We will cover juvenile justice. We will cover the district attorney’s office and the public defender. We’ll cover overall trends and strategies.

“But I want to do it with depth and complexity and some follow through versus just constant short hits on terrible things that just happened,” he said.

New opportunities, partnerships

The Daily Memphian begins with a staff of 27.

The veteran journalists involved in The Daily Memphian at the outset will be joined by other reporters and writers in training under the terms of the charter of its governing not-for-profit organization, Memphis Fourth Estate Inc.

“The corporation will fulfill an educational role for the public and for journalists and aspiring journalists through, among other means, internships and collaborative activity with the University of Memphis Department of Journalism and Strategic Media, LeMoyne-Owen College, Christian Brothers University and Rhodes College, as well as other colleges and universities with students in the Memphis area,” the Memphis Fourth Estate charter reads. “It will also engage the community by providing seminar series, symposia and workshops, both online and by conventional means, on subjects of importance to the community.

Memphis Fourth Estate may also “provide funding and other resources to the program in an amount to be determined to assist in the training of journalists, providing opportunities to journalism students, with a focus on providing opportunities to African-American and women journalism students, and providing information and education to residents of the community,” according to the charter.

Memphis Fourth Estate Inc. board members:

Andy Cates, president and chairman
Managing member, ValFund

Robert J. Davis, vice president
President and editor-in-chief, Everwell

Roshun Austin, treasurer
President/CEO, The Works Inc.

James Maclin, secretary
Principal/consultant, M&M Enterprises

Nancy Coffee, director
President & CEO, New Memphis

Mary Tabor Engel, director
Former reporter for The New York Times

Edward Felsenthal, director
Editor, TIME

Deanie Parker, director
Former President/CEO, Soulsville Inc.

Leslie Lynn Smith, director
President and CEO, Epicenter

The undertaking also includes an agreement to publish reporting from the University of Memphis’ newly formed investigative journalism program led by former The Commercial Appeal investigative journalist Marc Perrusquia and advised by former The Commercial Appeal editor Louis Graham.

The Daily Memphian also has a partnership and non-exclusive rights to publish content from Chalkbeat Tennessee, an online nonprofit education reporting enterprise. And it has a similar agreement and partnership with High Ground News, a weekly digital magazine and website that covers technology, community leadership, and economic and neighborhood development in Memphis. Both Chalkbeat and High Ground will maintain their relationship with other partners and not be part of The Daily Memphian's staff.

Not-for-profit backing

The effort formally began April 23 with the filing of the charter for Memphis Fourth Estate Inc. with the state of Tennessee, the not-for-profit corporation that is the company that controls funding to The Daily Memphian.

“Specifically the corporation is organized for the purpose of gathering and disseminating information in a nonpartisan manner about important public-policy issues and matters of importance to residents of the city of Memphis and surrounding areas, using investigative, explanatory, data-driven and multimedia journalism,” the charter reads. “The corporation will be dedicated to bringing the community together around locally focused, locally produced, Memphis-based journalism, research, investigation and writing as a means of education and informing local residents, exploring the decisions of local governmental officials, business leaders and others in the city of Memphis and surrounding areas.”

The Daily Memphian is relying on donors to establish the enterprise.

“Primary funding will be provided by grants and donations from private foundations and individuals in amounts sufficient to sustain the basic operations of the corporation without reliance on other sources,” according to the charter. “Funding will also be provided through various types of fundraising activities including mail solicitations, email solicitations, personal solicitations and telephone solicitations.”

Andy Cates, president and chairman of the board of Memphis Fourth Estate Inc., refers to the money from donors as “philanthropic venture capital" and said the effort has raised $6.5 million thus far.

“We know we are entering a brutal industry that has undergone massive disruption,” he said. “We have a tight game plan, but we know that it’s likely we will have to make modifications to that plan. … We will make mistakes and have some failures, but we have the right board and leadership to adjust and move forward.

“We will very much run this like we’d run any other successful business – and that, of course, includes taking advantage of so many great business and media minds in Memphis and elsewhere who want us to win and are supporting us.”

Cates, managing member of ValFund and CEO of RVC Outdoor Destinations, said his involvement is a specific reaction to cutbacks in local coverage at other media institutions.

“There is excitement and encouragement as well as actual anger that the fourth estate has been put in jeopardy here over the last few years and effectively been cut down and outsourced,” he said. “There are many great writers and journalists in Memphis, and there have been voices in the wilderness. But there hasn’t been a large enough vehicle to be the daily source of information for Memphians when you wake up in the morning and want to read multiple, important stories that directly affect Memphians.”

‘A better model’

The Daily Memphian will rely on subscriptions, including a paywall, to sustain the effort financially.

“Fundamentally, I believe, and I think you see it nationally people are turning to paywalls because you’ve got to pay for this content. In the tradition of printed newspapers, people paid for content,” Barnes said. “And somehow, someway, we as a society spent the last 15 to 20 years believing that news content should be free online. And it’s been a disaster.”

Barnes said one specific result has been cutbacks in staff and coverage so investors in traditional for-profit newspaper models can lock in a return on investment.

“It’s not a great business investment if you just want to make money and we want to be free of that pressure to make money. … You can see what happened around the country when local newspapers developed that return-on-investment pressure,” he said. “They’ve gutted newsrooms and they’ve gutted circulation and they’ve gutted printed pages. They’ve made their newspapers smaller and they’ve made their newsrooms smaller. We felt this is a better model.”

The goal is sustainability, with Barnes defining that as “we can fund our operations through revenue we generate ourselves.”

“If we exceed our expectations in terms of revenue – in terms of sponsorships and paywalls and so on, we will just invest that into more journalism,” he said. “I’m a capitalist. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just when you make more money on the for-profit company you return that to the investors. In our case, we will be able to put it back into people or hold it for a rainy day in terms of the economy.”

The money from donors is administered by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis with the board and operating company, Memphis Fourth Estate, responsible for it.

“Those who donated money have literally no control,” Barnes said. “It’s not a funders’ board where people donate a certain amount of money and have a seat on the board. Some boards are structured that way and there is nothing wrong with that inherently. But it would be inappropriate, I think, for a news organization like ours.”

The mission of the nine-member board, Cates said, is to “support Eric and his team, hold them accountable, provide appropriate direction, continue raising capital and be all in on helping make this successful.”

“But we will also avoid micromanaging, never seek personal gain and avoid sticking our noses into the newsroom,” Cates added.

Board members also sign a pledge not to influence coverage for personal benefit.

All contact the board has with The Daily Memphian is through Barnes.

“We will listen to that as a newsroom. And we will listen to anyone who comes to us and says there is this really good thing or this really bad thing happening,” he said. “A board member can say that to me. But it comes through me. I want them to care about what we write and to have ideas about what’s going on in Memphis. That’s entirely different than them shaping the daily lineup.”

The Daily Memphian will launch in the fall with a subscription rate of $7 a month and the first month free.

There also will be efforts, through underwriting and other initiatives, to spread access to those who can’t afford the subscription rate or don’t have regular access to a computer or digital device.

“You just can’t generate enough online advertising revenue to support a meaningful newsroom of the scale that we are putting together,” Barnes said. “I hope people get it that it costs money.”

Cates said the online-paywall model is “the logical format.”

”The last few years has only boldfaced and underlined why we all need to be careful about what content we rely on and trust,” he said. “And, we strongly believe folks will pay for quality. We must provide an excellent product, and we of course know that. Once we do, and we will, I believe Memphians will support it.”

Visit dailymemphian.com for more information and to sign up for launch updates.

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