Thursday, May 14, 2009

Clash Of The Dailies Elevates The Little Guy

Memphis Daily News reporter Bill Dries is like the NFL player who scores the winning touchdown as the clock runs out.

There are high fives all around.

It’s been that kind of week for the intrepid and highly-regarded reporter, who’s as much a fixture on the Memphis journalistic scene as murder coverage.

After all, not only did he tweak the nose of his former employer, The Commercial Appeal, with his exhaustive cover story about the decline of the newspaper in the Memphis News, the weekly version of the Memphis Daily News, his article was given greater readership when the thin skin of Chris Peck, editor of our city’s dominant media outlet, led him to write the kind of defensive explanations that greet a Marc Perrusquia expose.

Out Of Proportion

It is hard to imagine an editor in the modern era of “Old Reliable” doing the same. Angus McEachran, the gruff, old style newsman, had it right. As editor, he never acknowledged that other media existed, and any way, he knew that beating up a reporter at some much smaller outlet was the equivalent of taking a nuclear warhead to a gnat.

And yet, that’s exactly what Mr. Peck did. And in pretty unconvincing fashion.

As one reporter at 495 Union put it: “It makes the Loeffel columns look good.” The Sunday series of editor’s columns have long been the target for derision within the newspaper, but never before has it proved to be such an easy target.

In a popular refrain at the paper, others suggested that it proved once again why Otis Sanford should be holding the reins for the entire paper rather than just the editorial pages.

Amping It Up

For those of us who love newspapers and try to support our major daily, it just all felt sad. It also felt like Sunday may be the day that we look back to as the day that we knew that there was no pulling The Commercial Appeal out of its death spiral.

But back to Mr. Dries, he’s the man of the hour. If the badge of honor for a reporter is to be called out by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, to be called out by editor of The Commercial Appeal is the equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

But what made it particularly ironic is that probably more people read Mr. Dries’ article after Mr. Peck’s column than had read it before the editor's screed. After all, the circulation of The Commercial Appeal is only about 100 times larger than The Daily News.

In politics, there’s the adage that the leading candidate never acknowledges the lesser ones because it simply amplifies them. Mr. Peck handed the Daily News a veritable megaphone.

A Fixture

Here’s the thing about Mr. Dries. Few people have the breadth of understanding and institutional knowledge that he does, and in working as part of a staff whose number is surpassed by the number of Commercial Appeal reporters in just DeSoto County, he’s undoubtedly the hardest-working man in show business.

No one in this city turns out more copy week after week. With such a small staff, speed is always of the essence and there’s never enough time, and while editing may be a virtue that sometimes gets less attention as a result, we find ourselves tearing out a lot of Mr. Dries’ articles because of their details and background information.

The other thing that Mr. Dries always reminds us is that a reporter doesn’t have to be hated to do his job well. Widely respected by the people he covers (which accounts for the lengthy interviews that he frequently gets), he calls it down the middle and his fairness is never in question.

Thin Skin

For as long as most people in the halls of government can remember, Mr. Dries has been a fixture on the local scene, beginning as a young radio reporter sticking a microphone in the faces of city and county officials at all hours of the day or night. At one point, one public official even suggested that he must be a vampire, because there was no escaping him.

Mr. Dries needs no defense, but the editor’s ill-named Inside The Newsroom column, which rarely is about inside the newsroom, proved the old adage that no one has thinner skins than the reporters who spend their lives asking everyone else tough questions and writing hard-hitting articles.

Undoubtedly, the plot at 495 Union will shift with this week’s column by Mr. Peck, but for a few days this week, Mr. Dries has been man of the hour. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.


Anonymous said...

All Peck did was show the world what CA staffers have known since 2004: That he is a complete narcissist in addition to being petty and vindictive (which is why this comment is anonymous).

Anonymous said...

All Peck's column shows is whose cocktail party he attended. It's all about sucking up to the "people who matter."

Anonymous said...

some folks never learn that you should be careful how you treat people on your way up the ladder, because you never know who'll you'll meet on the way down.....

Anonymous said...

What about the "unspoken agendas" Chris Peck referred to in his response to The Memphis News' article.

Peck said the CA, and he, must "be on the lookout for work that becomes too negative in tone, too lax in reporting or doesn't recognize our own unspoken agendas."

UNSPOKEN AGENDAS? Newspapers are not to have "unspoken agendas," you're an agent of the public. But, as any constant reader of the CA will tell you, in recent years, the CA's agendas are not so "unspoken." They push Christian religion hard, and that is evident by reading what Letters to the Editor they choose to publish as well as what articles they write - and what slant is taken in those articles.

Neither do I want to the see the CA fumble and flounder. I would like to know I have a reliable daily paper - with no "unspoken agendas," that almost sounds like journalistic terrorism - to read for my local news.

As an aside:

The opening line of Peck's editorial just makes writer want to slit his OWN wrists:

"Recently this newspaper had some journalism performed on it."

Peck must have used this line so he could go into the analogy of comparing his reading of Bill Dries' article in The Memphis News to visting the dentist, who drills "on the wrong tooth without the anesthetic."

Peck was trying to find a way to use this good analogy to show how much the little guy's article affected the big guy's view of his whole enterprise, but ... wow.

I hope all of this debate and attention sparks some change in local journalism.

Observant Clam said...

Speaking of unspoken agendas, here's another unspoken one, spoken:

Anonymous said...

observant clam, i believe that's what they call being a "blog 'ho."