July 20, 2017

Staff at the Knoxville (Tennessee) Mercury went back and forth on how depressing their final issue should be.

The two-year-old publication distributed its last edition on Thursday.

“Of course, a lot of people are looking at it as more evidence of the death of print,” said Jack Neely, a contributing editor. “I’m not as convinced.”

The Mercury started several months after E.W. Scripps closed the alt-weekly Metro Pulse in the fall of 2014. Former Metro Pulse journalists Neely, Coury Turczyn, Matthew Everett turned down severance packages at the time, which contained a non-compete, in order to launch something the community told them it still wanted.

They figured Metro Pulse’s ads alone would have been enough to run off of — even if they made less.

“The problem was, Metro Pulse was a 23-year-old institution, and I think a lot of the advertisers were there maybe out of inertia,” Turczyn said.

In the approximately six-month gap from when the old publication closed and the new one started, those advertisers discovered they were doing OK with Facebook and online ads, which came with a handy analytics report.

The first issue of the Knoxville Mercury was profitable, said Turczyn, the Mercury’s editor.

“And then after that, we went right off a cliff.”

Ads weren’t the only way the Mercury planned to make money. The weekly was owned by the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit launched by Neely. They planned to accept direct donations, offer traditional advertising and tax-deductible donations through the history project. That last one, however, was pretty complicated.

The money raised initially from the community kept them going for awhile, but after about four months, with a skeleton staff, it was clear the advertisers weren’t coming back. They tried events. They worked big donors. They produced advertorial products and special sections, which did make money.

But none of it really worked consistently.

“After two years, after trying every single idea we could think of to spark business owners to come back, we ran out of ideas and the trends were just against us,” Turczyn said. “We couldn’t keep going back to donors and saying, well, we’ll figure it out this time. After two years, we felt like, well, maybe we can’t figure this out.”

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Staff became fundraisers and event managers, but it wasn’t their strength and they didn’t have the connections or time to reach the people they needed to reach while putting out an alt-weekly. It’s also easy to mobilize people around starting something, Turczyn said.

“‘Hey, send us money to keep going’ is a lot less compelling than ‘oh my God we’ve got to bring long-form journalism back to Knoxville.'”

Around the start of the year, they did consider going online only, Neely said, but they didn’t have enough online ad revenue to make up for what they’d lose in print.

“It’s a new era, things are changing and we have to figure out what’s gonna work,” said Neely, whose goodbye column isn’t a firm goodbye. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this came back in some slightly different form.”

The Mercury isn’t the first local publication that listened to the community’s cries for local news, and it isn’t the first publication to close despite those cries.

Matt DeRienzo, executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, told Poynter in June that LION has seen a 50 percent increase in membership in two years. One hundred and fifty members are now part of LION, and during those two years, 15 sites have left the organization.

“To truly succeed, we needed a bigger staff,” Turczyn said. “What we really needed was a development director.”

He thinks the Mercury’s model could work in other towns, depending on the market. And he plans to keep the site, and the work on it, live. But Turczyn isn’t sure what comes next for him — like a lot of journalists, he’s just burnt out. He’d like something steady and secure.

“But here’s the most important thing,” he wrote in a goodbye note online. “Together, we created a great paper.”

The Knoxville Mercury has been a true community effort, from the individuals who pitched in $5 to the major donors like former Metro Pulse publisher Joe Sullivan who believe Knoxville truly needs a locally owned, independent media—especially when its dominant news organizations are guided by out-of-town corporations. We showed that thoughtfully reported stories—not just clickbait headlines—can make a difference in the place we live. People will pay attention, and they do want to be informed. Progress can be made when we know the facts.

Nobody said that devising a new business model for journalism was going to be easy. And it wasn’t. But we tried our best.

For their final issue, the Mercury struck a somewhat hopeful note. Turczyn remembered an image they’d planned to use around the time when Metro Pulse was shut down. It’s of Market Square in downtown Knoxville, a place that was once a deadzone and is now an iconic town center. Dark clouds billow in the distance. A man with an umbrella strolls across the scene.

“But between the clouds,” Turczyn said, “there is an honest to gosh rainbow coming down.”


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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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