Sunday, April 2, 2017

Goodbye, Jerome Wright and a Free Press

I double-dog dare you -- Mark Russell at The Commercial Appeal, David Plazas at The Tennessean -- or USA Today Network Tennessee -- and Gannett CEO Bob Dickey in McLean, Virginia -- anybody, to run this opinion piece.  I mean This, not a sentimental, boo-hoo letter to editor about axing editorial staff at newspapers.  Or else, Gannett has zero credibility.  

Dania Helou: Who Will Watch the Watchers when there are no reporters left?  Moore Media Images

Jerome Wright hanging up his green eye shade was the last straw for me, although Jerome says he retired, unlike 15 or so editorial staffers at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, and more at other Gannett properties in Tennessee.  Green eye shade might be too 1930-ish for Jerome's 1970s-forward generation of journalists.  But, in what he is calling a farewell column, The Commercial Appeal’s opinion editor recalls a vastly different era of newspapering.   It moved through a series of technology changes, such as from manual typewriters to computers, from hot metal type to offset printing, before the market for printed news withered in the face of the Internet.

Nowadays, reporters and editors don't actually touch much more than a keyboard – let alone melted metal to make a newspaper -- and newsrooms sound like an insurance office or bank -- not like the raucous scenes in old movies.  Yet, Jerome came up as that era was ending and technology was taking over, before capitalism ultimately smashed the free press.

In those days, every city over 100,000 population had two daily papers.  There were glue pots on every desk, and cut and paste really meant it.  There was noise even when the presses upstairs were not thundering in the old Ford glass plant at The Commercial Appeal morning newspaper in Memphis, and there was lots of yelling, like editors hollering, "Copy!" to summon a "copy boy" or "copy girl," usually a college journalism student, to fetch this or that piece of copy or something else.  

In those days, press releases were not emailed, texted, tweeted or even faxed, they were mailed in – or even hand-carried, like when a World Football League team on the edge of its existence would send over the beat writer’s favorite cheerleader  – wearing her uniform -- to hand-deliver it while every guy in the newsroom gawked. 

Jerome and others endured the changing technology and business model – I don’t
Jerome Wright in 1974 Commercial Appeal photo
know how he stood it for 46 years -- but somebody had to do it, and I am glad he did.

In Jerome’s final work, he was grasping for memories.  There is one Jerome Wright column that he left out, but it and the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin later led me to the idea for our comedy short film, “The Suburban Itch,” a role reversal of a film which may be described as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Blackish in 10 minutes. 

As I recall from his story, Jerome was jogging at twilight, and a car load of rednecks drove slowly behind him and razzed him.  One threw a bottle at him.  Jerome took it like, What is a black guy like you doing running in a mostly white neighborhood?

In “The Suburban Itch,” we turned that upside down, and a white young man is hassled by police upon suspicion while running-while-white on Chelsea near Hollywood in mostly black North Memphis.

When I tried to post Jerome’s farewell column to Facebook, the Gannett website did not function, did not hook me up to Facebook – which is exactly how The Tennessean website looks and works, or does not work, and it drove home one more time how we now have homogeneous journalism in Tennessee. 

To hide behind euphemistic titles like “storytelling coach” and “consumer experience director,” like The Tennessean staff, just won’t cut it.  That does not fool anybody who knows centralized reporting takes the local edge off news.   There used to be veteran state politics reporters at newspapers in the state’s largest cities, and Memphis had Richard Locker, Knoxville had Tom Humphreys and Nashville had Larry Daughtery.   Now the state legislature, which is already corrupt and misguided enough, will get away with even more as there will only be the Nashville newspaper covering the legislature and the governor’s shenanigans.

John Seigenthaler is rolling over in his grave.  I know it for a fact.  When Seigenthaler became the founding editor of Gannett’s USA Today, little did he know it would lead to a free press and the public interest coming in last place to stock price and bonuses in the C-suite.  By the way, in news of recent cuts to editorial staff, I missed seeing where Gannett’s CEO and executives were going to do their part to make the numbers work by foregoing their stock options.

The last time I saw Seigenthaler was 2012 when he was 84, two years before he died.   This is a man who as Bobby Kennedy’s aide was knocked unconscious by a Klansman in Montgomery while he sought to quell violence against Freedom Riders.  He was not talking to me about consolidation of assets, or convergence of media, or earnings per share.   He was worried that a woman was wrongly in state prison, and he was working to shed light on her story and get her some relief. 

We are going to miss that sort of thing in the press.  But, we better not.  We better do something.  A robust and free press goes hand in hand with democracy.  As an unhinged President bashes and punishes the press, and as dissent and the First and Fourth Amendments are under attack everywhere, including in Memphis where we have police and a mayor conducting surveillance of citizens, there is a choice:  democracy and a free press, or a further spiral into the abyss of a system that rewards those who least need help and despises those who do. 

With the demise of local journalism, in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, everywhere, there will be a hole in the story.   Looming ever larger will be the question posed by the title of our documentary:  Who Will Watch the Watchers?

Gary Moore operates the non-profit Citizens Media Resource and Moore Media & Entertainment, which makes films about social justice issues.  Moore formerly was a sportswriter at The Commercial Appeal.
After the newspaper went from hot type to offset printing, editors would use this form to mark up printing instructions.  Nothing like this exists today.

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