August 2, 2018

Digital local news start-ups now number in the hundreds but one taking shape for a fall launch in Memphis is different — and just plain bigger — in several ways.

The Daily Memphian will begin life with a news staff of 25 and $6.5 million in seed money in the bank. Like many others, The Memphian is an opportunistic response to a shrinking traditional news operation — Gannett's Commercial Appeal — but it also builds on an existing publication and has a publisher with 15 years of local experience.

Founding president and executive editor Eric Barnes will transfer 10 staffers from his Daily News, a business, political and legal advertising publication. He also has recently hired away three locally prominent journalists from the Commercial Appeal: sports columnist Geoff Calkins, food writer Jennifer Biggs and local columnist Chris Herrington. The site is set to go live with content this fall.

"We are counting on them for great editorial content," Barnes said in phone interview, "but they are also (among) the biggest names in print journalism here." He said he hopes the three will bring audience along with them to the new venture. 

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After a month free, The Daily Memphian, will cost $7 a month, protected behind what Barnes described as a "pretty hard paywall." It will thus need selling points like the star writers and a full daily report coming out of the gate. A more typical tactic has been to start small, staying free at first or indefinitely while hoping attention and impact will gradually build.

Barnes and financial backer Andy Cates have been noodling ideas and seeking advice from successful counterparts around the country for years.

The project fully kicked into gear more recently. "There are two things Gannett did that made this possible," Barnes said.

The first was a deep newsroom staff cut in spring of 2017 with 20 to 30 positions eliminated.  Since then Gannett has consolidated some editing functions and reporting for its six Tennessee papers, which include the Tennessean in Nashville and the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Even a little dilution of local focus does not sit well in Memphis, Barnes believes, with the city hundreds of miles from the Central and Eastern parts of the state and sensitive to being an afterthought for booming Nashville.

"We are hearing desperate cries for more quality local news, and we think we can fulfill that need," he added.

Many start-up, digital-only news sites have targeted only investigative or political work, but The Daily Memphian has a broader range of topics in mind — sports and lifestyle, for sure.  "We will cover everything but last night's murder; you can find out about that on TV," Barnes said, though a criminal justice reporter is part of the plan.

If The Daily Memphian has been conceived in a combative spirit, Gannett is not responding in kind.

"We wish them success,"  Randy Lovely, vice president/community news of Gannett's USA Today Network, told me.  "Ultimately it could be a great thing that speaks to what a vital community Memphis is. Having more players in the game is good."

As for the Memphian's high profile hires, Lovely said, "we don't like the idea of losing good people. But journalists do come and go — that's how it works."

The 2017 staffing reduction came as Gannett finished integrating E.W. Scripps papers like the Commercial Appeal with its other Tennessee properties. The remaining Commercial Appeal news staff numbers in the mid-40s, Lovely said; some layout and other editing functions have been moved to news production centers elsewhere.

Besides having raised roughly as much start-up money as industry leader Texas Tribune had when it launched in 2009, The Daily Memphian has taken an unusual approach with those initial donors.  The money channels through the Memphis Community Foundation to an entity that Cates heads, known as Memphis Fourth Estate Inc.

Charter donors are anonymous. Cates, whose business is recreational vehicle campsites and whose civic resume is long, said he hopes that the arrangement will avoid the appearance that local high-rollers are treated with deference in Memphian stories.

"I don't know all of them," Barnes said, "but I have been assured there were no strings attached."

Other sites have opted instead for funding transparency from the start, and The Daily Memphian could later choose that route.

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At $7 a month, the Daily Memphian won't be breaking even anytime soon. However, with a mix of sponsorships, events and membership contributions, the founders hope it will be sustainable within four or five years. If not, they will go back for other funding to cover losses.

The Memphis Fourth Estate has a nine-member board, distinct from the donors providing start-up "philanthropic venture capital," Cates said. It includes prominent local business people and educators and some from farther away like Time editor Edward Felsenthal, who was born and grew up in the city.

As for content, Barnes, who has published three novels and 40 short stories in his spare time, has said the reporting will be "fundamentally grounded in the traditions of print journalism," even though there will be no print edition. The Daily Memphian will do podcasts and video and has collaborative publishing agreements with two other digital news sites: Chalkbeat Tennessee and High Ground News.

Memphis is on the margins of being a big city. Like Orlando and Oklahoma City, it has a single major sports team — an NBA franchise. 

"It's a big town/small city," Cates said, "that values connectivity and needs more of it.  And it's a civically engaged populace."

If they are successful, Cates said, "We hope that others will look at our example."

Memphis has an unusually large African-American population: two thirds in the city proper and roughly half in the metro. It is the site of Martin Luther King's assassination and the National Civil Rights Museum, as well as one of several cities laying claim to being birthplace of the blues.

So minority staffing is both necessity and a challenge for the completing publications.

In the American Society of News Editors 2017 annual diversity survey, the Commercial Appeal reported 23 percent of its news staff African-American (among them executive editor Mark Russell).  Barnes and Cates declined to give a percentage for the initial 25 but said that they are acutely award of the issue and hope that partnerships with local universities can help train and recruit young minority journalists.

With a first digital issue not yet here, I cannot predict the odds for the success of The Daily Memphian.  It is the third such site (after The Colorado Sun and the Salem Reporter) featured on in the last three days. 

However, I will confidently forecast that the trend to local digital launches will gain even more steam as legacy newspapers wane further. We may already be at a place where it is better to ask how a collection of news sources serves a given community rather than just wring hands over the latest round of newsroom cuts.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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