Knoxville’s alt-weekly wasn’t losing money. It got shut down anyway

Scripps pulls the plug on Metro Pulse in favor of an entertainment supplement for the local daily

In mid-October, the entire staff of Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s alt-weekly, was laid off. On Nov. 7, the News Sentinel, Knoxville’s daily paper, which had owned Metro Pulse for seven years, launched a free arts and entertainment supplement. The timing was no coincidence.

Unlike some of its counterparts around the country—like the recently shuttered Providence Phoenix and San Francisco Bay Guardian—the Knoxville alt-weekly wasn’t losing money. But Metro Pulse’s financials just couldn’t stack up for shareholders in E.W. Scripps, which owns the daily, said News Sentinel publisher Patrick Birmingham.

“They were basically break-even, and they were in that situation because they were under the umbrella of the News Sentinel. If they had their own press or were dealing with a commercial printer, the publication would probably be underwater,” said Birmingham. “And unfortunately the trend we were forecasting was that revenues were going to slide.” 

The solution: Shut down Metro Pulse, and replace the News Sentinel’s Friday entertainment seection with the new weekly supplement, Go Knoxville. It’s a move for efficiency, offering readers (and the advertisers who want to reach them) just one guide to events around town. About four existing News Sentinel staffers will write the copy, with help from freelancers, including some who wrote for Metro Pulse. Art and production duties will also be carried out by existing News Sentinel staff. (Disclosure: I worked for Metro Pulse in a part-time and freelance capacity from 2001 to 2003. The owners and most of the staff have since changed.) 

“We were in essence competing against each other—it’s like Procter and Gamble having both Tide and Cheer,” Birmingham said. “There’s a lot of good things Metro Pulse was doing—they were maybe more avant garde, a little more exciting. We asked, can we capture some of this and add it to ours, and refresh it?”

What won’t be carried over from Metro Pulse, though, is the whole front of book: news, analysis, and opinion, especially of the political ilk. Metro Pulse was widely thought of as a left-leaning paper, in contrast to the more conservative daily. It also took on stories the daily might not have. In one 2008 case, the alt-weekly was forced to print a retraction over the objection of its staff, when a major News Sentinel advertiser threatened a lawsuit.

“We never really shied away from a story. We would write it and hope there was no blowback,” said former art director Travis Gray, who left the paper just a week before it closed.

After the closure, locals responded with a rally in downtown Knoxville, where an organizer expressed dismay for a “broad loss to the community.” Metro Pulse’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have carried on independently of Scripps, re-broadcasting readers’ messages of sadness and anger. Other local journalists are talking about starting new alternative publications. Meanwhile, a conservative state lawmaker—often the target of Metro Pulse mockerytaunted one of the laid-off reporters on Facebook.

One group that hasn’t spoken publicly, though, is the former Metro Pulse employees. Birmingham confirmed that the journalists’ proposed severance packages include a non-disparagement clause. According to a recording made by Cari Wade Gervin, one of the laid-off reporters, human resources director Debi Welch told the group when they were let go, “Statements to the media could cause us to revoke that [severance package]. All statements to the media need to go through Patrick [Birmingham].” While Birmingham denies that the clause constitutes a “gag order,” several former Metro Pulse employees declined to be interviewed for this article.

Metro Pulse’s sardonic style, typical of many alt-weeklies, may have made it an uneasy bedfellow for the News Sentinel. Gervin found herself repeatedly chastised by News Sentinel bosses because of tweets they didn’t like, sent variously from her personal and work accounts. The daily objected to Gervin’s criticism of other Scripps publications, and her use of four-letter words. Birmingham says he also drew the line at foul language in web posts and phallic symbols in artwork. (Update: Gray says he does not recall any phallic symbols in the publication, or any disputes over them.)

Birmingham, though, says the decision to close Metro Pulse was driven by business factors—and was part of a larger cost-cutting exercise. On the same day that eight Metro Pulse staffers lost their jobs, 13 employees of the News Sentinel were let go. The belt-tightening happened as Scripps merges with Journal Communications, in a deal that will see the firms’ newspapers spun off into a new company, separate from their more profitable broadcast assets.

Birmingham said he hopes the new arts supplement, which will be distributed free on racks downtown and at the University of Tennessee, as well as in the Friday edition of the daily, will expand the News Sentinel’s reach to younger readers. But, even he acknowledged, “The thing that probably got lost was the alternative editorial viewpoint of how Metro Pulse looks at the world. The more diverse voices you have in a community the richer I think it makes it.” 

Outside observers did not express much surprise at the development. Newspapers’ side publications can face the axe even when modestly profitable, if revenue projections do not look good, said Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. 

“The alt-weekly market is none too healthy lately, and I’m not sure I see a lot of synergy in ownership by the established daily,” Edmonds added. “Kind of takes the alt part out of the equation.” 

The internet has stolen alt-weeklies’ traditional mantle as a low-cost advertising vehicle in micro markets while also displacing important advertisers such as music stores, said Reuters columnist Jack Shafer, a former editor of SF Weekly and Washington City Paper.

Meanwhile, “the social currency that the alt-weekly used to have as irreverent, experimental, and daring used to be kind of its franchise… and that is no longer true,” Shafer said. The internet has stolen that title as well.

Not everyone, though, is ready to give up on alt-weeklies. Out in San Francisco, Bay Guardian employees have said they will try to buy back the paper from its parent company. In Knoxville, the Metro Pulse journalists haven’t announced any plans for a replacement paper. But a recent post on the former paper’s Facebook account dropped a hint: “Don’t worry, we’re not leaving you forever. Promise.”

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Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.