Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Desperately Seeking the News


By Henry Walker

JUNE 22, 1998:  Nothing is more natural, a famous editor once wrote, than that newspaper publishers should enjoy meeting at comfortable locations to eat, drink, and "beam upon one another" in mutual satisfaction at their profits.

Thus, 100 or so owners of alternative newspapers, including the Nashville Scene, gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for the annual conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). They elected Scene publisher Albie Del Favero their president; announced in a publishers-only meeting that nearly everyone is making money; and listened to panels on how to get rich, fight the dailies, and keep their radical edge--all at the same time.

Information distributed to the publishers indicates that AAN papers last year earned, on average, a 10-percent profit, or about the same as independently owned, daily newspapers. The top quarter of AAN papers, mostly the larger ones, earned a return of 20 percent or more, which is what many chain-owned dailies like The Tennessean reportedly earn.

Based on its 50,000 circulation, the Scene is a medium-sized AAN paper, but its page count and estimated annual revenue are substantially higher than the average, indicating that the Scene is among the more profitable AAN papers.

The Scene also did well at the awards trough, picking up three first-place and two second-place awards, the most of any newspaper in the "small" category (circulation under 54,000). Each of the paper's first-place awards, even the "media criticism" prize, went to Scene investigative reporter Willy Stern.

Judicious behavior

People aren't stupid. They understand that the state constitution says all judges "shall be elected by the qualified voters." They know what that means.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle isn't stupid either. She ruled last week that allowing a judicial "evaluation" committee to rate appellate judges and decide who can run for office, and who can't, is unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, The Tennessean can't seem to get it straight. The paper's editorial board, which strongly endorsed Lyle in last month's county-wide elections, now sounds as if the chancellor has stirred up a class war.

This is one time the paper's editors should listen to their marketing research. Tennesseans have a long-held mistrust of lawyers and judges. Two hundred years ago, the short-lived state of Franklin in East Tennessee tried to eliminate lawyers altogether by providing for a system of arbitration. Although the original Tennessee Constitution provided that judges should be selected by the Legislature, voters amended the law in 1853 to provide for judicial elections. It was the only constitutional amendment approved during that century. The current language was adopted as part of the "new" constitution of 1870 and was specifically intended to allow voters to boot out Republican judges appointed during the Reconstruction period.

But fashions change. Now many states, including Tennessee, "elect" appellate judges by allowing voters to cast "yes" or "no" ballots. The Tennessee Supreme Court has twice held that this so-called "retention" scheme counts as an "election."

According to The Tennessean, Lyle threw out the retention method because she disagreed with those decisions. In a panicky-sounding editorial last Friday, the paper said the attorney general should "rigorously challenge" Lyle's reading so that the state's "bookish" and "shy" appellate judges won't have to "travel to county courthouses, kiss babies, shake hands, and seek votes."

But Lyle knows better than to argue with a higher court. Instead of rehashing whether a retention vote qualifies as an election, she focused on the evaluation process. If the evaluation committee likes an incumbent judge, he faces only a "yes" or "no" vote in August. But if the committee decides the judge is unqualified, the election is open to anyone.

Lyle is the first Tennessee judge to address the evaluation plan, adopted in 1994. A bookish, shy person herself, she spent most of April traveling the county, shaking hands, and doing all those other nasty things that win votes. Not surprisingly, Lyle found that the evaluation system is inconsistent with the idea of an election. In response, The Tennessean reminded readers that "several judges" have ruled the Tennessee Plan constitutional and assured everyone "there is no reason--legally or otherwise--for these judges to be politicians."

This time two years ago, The Tennessean never gave readers a clue as to what was about to happen to then-Justice Penny White. They thought voters were stupid. Apparently, they still do.

Twice the man

According to Monday's Tennessean, Predators hockey team owner Craig Leipold appeared at last Friday's meeting of the Metro Sports Authority and convinced the Authority to allow smoking in the Nashville Arena.

But not even millionaire Leipold, who was at home in Wisconsin at the time, can be in two places at once.

So how could Tennessean reporter Rob Moritz make such a mistake? Because Moritz wasn't at the meeting either.

Moritz may have got his information from a front-page story in Saturday's Tennessean by Bonna M. de la Cruz which implied that Leipold had been at Friday's meeting. In fact, the Predators owner had been in town on Thursday to meet with the Authority's facilities and operations committee.

A former Banner staffer, Moritz is usually a very careful, even cautious, reporter. Perhaps he's learned that you can't believe everything you read in The Tennessean.

Leave a message for Henry at henry@nashscene.com.

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