CNN’s Brian Stelter interviewed Tennessee Star Political Editor Steve Gill in Thursday’s edition of the network’s Reliable Sources podcast about the recent national interest in The Star and its reporting on state and local news.
“Steve Gill, co-founder of The Tennessee Star website, tells Brian Stelter about his local coverage with a conservative bent. Are sites like his filling a void left by local newspapers? Gill says he is “filling a void” in the marketplace, citing “flaming” liberal bias from other outlets. Stelter says these local sites are another sign that the U.S. is reverting back to a more partisan press,” CNN said in its promotion of Stelter’s interview.
“This weekly podcast is our chance to go in depth with media leaders and newsmakers, a chance to highlight some of the stories that might otherwise get lost amid the absolutely crushing news cycle that we’re all experiencing” CNN’s Stelter explained.
“This week I wanted to highlight a story in Politico by author Jason Schwartz. The headline is ‘Baby Breitbarts to pop up across the country?” It’s a really interesting story about what Schwartz says is a growing trend of ‘opaque, locally focused, ideological outlets dressed up as traditional newspapers.’ He says these kinds of websites are starting to fill a void that’s been left by the decimation of local newspapers in many communities. One of the sites he features is called The Tennessee Star. It was launched in February 2017, and Steve Gill is one of the co-founders, and he’s joining me now,” Stelter began.
Here’s a partial trancript of the interview:
Stelter: Steve, great to talk with you.
Gill: Hey, Brian, good to be with you.
Stelter: So you kind of revealed your identity or your involvement in the site through the Politico story, is that right?
Gill: It really hasn’t been a secret in Tennessee, I think folks nationally may not have been aware of The Tennessee Star much or what we’ve been doing, but for media in Tennessee we’ve been ‘outed’ for a long time and, we’ve really had nothing to hide, I think everyone in Tennessee, particularly in the legislature and the governor’s office and the media in Tennessee knows exactly who’s been doing it and why we’ve been doing it.
Stelter: Steve, you’re a conservative commentator, a radio host there in Tennessee, and, thanks to this Politico story the site’s been getting a lot of national attention. I wondered how you reacted to the headline: “Baby Breitbarts to pop up across the country.”
Gill: One of my reporter friends texted me after he saw the story and said, ‘You guys are more like teenage Breitbart, you’re much more trouble makers than just a mere baby, and we’ll take that appelation as well.
Stelter: What does it mean to you have that Breitbart connotation, obviously it’s a very controversial site, the one that was backed by Steve Bannon, who’s no longer with Breitbart. But you acknowledge in the Politico story, you view yourself as “the Breitbart of Tennessee.” What does that mean to you?
Gill: I think when you look at how the national media looks at Breitbart, and then attaches that label to us, they may mean something different than what we see. We are not heavily funded. I think the Mercers put like $10 million into Breitbart. We haven’t had any kind of funding like that.
We started with a website that went up. We actually had to change servers three or four times at the outset because we were having ourselves shut down by the volume of traffic we didn’t anticipate.
We’ve had over 7 million visits in the first year and two months of operation. We didn’t have big funding going in. We’ve literally grown organically, so unlike a big operation that is funded heavily, and then expands, we’ve literally grown from the ground up. So I guess maybe ‘Baby Breitbart’ does make some sense from that standpoint.
I think that we’re of a conservative bent. I think that’s the idea, that Breitbart focuses nationally, and we think media works best when it’s local, both in terms of local advertising and in terms of covering the local stories that, as you mentioned at the outset, are being lost as the mainstream media reduces size.
The Tennesseean, for example, in Nashville is selling its building, they’ve laid off massive numbers of staff. The Nashville Scene, which is a left wing alt publication is up for sale and has been losing money, so a lot of these local publications aren’t filling the void in terms of the ideological perspective of their audience. Nashville is blue, if you want to frame it that way, but Tennessee voted 65 to 35 for Donald Trump, you have counties that a few years ago were decidedly Democrat, and yet Trump was carrying them 75 to 25.
So you’ve got these pockets of media, like The Tennessean, that caters to the liberal viewpoint within that narrow perspective in Davidson County, and ignores the huge suburbs around them where there are actually more eyeballs, advertisers, and residents in the surround counties around Nashville than are in Nashville. And yet they ignore them both in terms of the news they put out as well as the attitude they have towards them.
Stelter: But hold on, taking aside the editorial page, The Tennessean wouldn’t say they’re serving liberal audiences.
Gill: They wouldn’t admit it, but they certainly are. When you look at their news focus, it’s almost exclusively what happens inside the environs of Davidson County. You have a county literally the size of Chattanooga right on the borders of Nashville, and they pay very little attention to it because it is decidedly conservative.
Stelter: You say they ignore the county because it’s conservative? That doesn’t seem possible. Maybe they don’t have the resources to cover everything.
Gill: I think the lack of resources is part of it, but part of it is also they have brought people in to their newsroom, their newsroom is almost exclusively of a liberal bent, as are most of them, and therefore they don’t have the connections or the community depth to know what’s going on in those counties, and frankly that’s a problem that’s not just a problem with The Nashville Tennessean, it’s a problem with a lot of media in a lot of places.
I tell clients all the time, that a lot of time when your media makes errors of fact in a story they cover about you, a lot of the times it is not intentional, it’s because they send out some young reporter that doesn’t really know about your industry, doesn’t really know about your business, and they make mistakes because of inexperience or lack of knowledge.
The same thing’s true in the political arena and I think you probably see it around the country as well, you’ve got a lot of reporters that get dumped into an Atlanta, or a Nashville, or a Denver, who don’t have the historical perspective of that area, so they don’t know the players, the back history, they don’t have the involvement that would kind of be the institutional memory and part of that again is in the media business you’re seeing people moved out. There aren’t people moving in who have that institutional memory. So some of it is intentional, but some of it is just the factor of the way the media is operating.
Stelter: We can agree that the gutting of local news organizations, whether red or blue, is not good.
Gill: What we saw here is that there were stories the local news organizations just weren’t covering.
Let me give you an example, from news about the big local conservative talk radio station here. A guy named Ralph Bristol, he got fired from his morning show position there. The Nashville Tennessean didn’t even write a story about it. That’s a pretty signficant story, and yet The Tennessee Star was the only one that covered it. There are other stories like that that happen regularly. Again, some of them are lack of resources where they don’t have a political reporter that goes out at stories as simple as what’s early voting in a community versus the last time you had a special election, to get some insight into what the vote turnout might be. They’re not thinking in those terms so they don’t write in those terms. And then some of them are just about an ideological bent, that they’re just going to push their perspective, not really push the news. We saw a void and we’re seeing real success in doing that.
Stelter: My concern is that as we see local papers shrink and shrink and shrink, that what replaces them on the web is definitely more ideological, is going to have less reporting and more opining. How much reporting do you all try and do at The Tennessee Star.
Gill: I think we do about 90 percent reporting, and about 10 percent opining. We very clearly set forth when we’ve got an opinion column or an analysis column. But most of what we’re doing is news focused, and it isn’t even just from a conservative perspective.
For example, the former Chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party is a lawyer over in West Tennessee now, a guy named Roy Herron. He came to us, he had a client who was a physician who had had his Medicare license suspended because they claimed he was filling out some paper work wrong. In some cases it was as simple as the day he signed the paper, the patient, because he was doing tele-medicine, had died the night before so they were claiming he was seeking money for dead patients.
It wasn’t accurate in terms of the truth, but thanks to Roy Herron, former Democratic State Party Chairman, and then getting Lamar Alexander, Republican U.S. Senator involved, we were able to get the Medicare HHS folks to come in, look at it, and restore this guy’s license, which was important because he’s in a small, rural, West Tennessee community, where senior citizens were not going to be served because there was no other doctor there. So some of our stuff is literally hands on activism, I guess you would say, but not from a partisan perspective, it’s from a ‘let’s serve the readers’ perspective.
Stelter: To me it sounds like an example of what we’re seeing across the country, in terms of a return to a more ideological, a more activist press. And activist in multiple senses. But this continued move away from ‘Here are the facts, totally non-partisan, here’s what you need to know today,’ right?
Gill: I don’t think it’s anything new, and as you point out we’re I guess getting back to our historical roots. Can you imagine Ben Franklin with the internet? Ben Franklin with Twitter? I mean, talk about heads exploding! You know, we would have had a revolution!
Stelter: Let me read from this Politico piece, which is what introduced me to your website, The Tennessee Star. It says “from the Star to the Arizona Monitor to the Maine Examiner, sites with names and layouts designed to echo those of non-partisan publications have emerged across the country. Aimed at influencing local politics by stepping into the coverage void left by local papers.’ So is that correct that you all try to mimic an old fashioned newspaper website? Try to look like a down the middle, just a “just the facts” kind of website?
Gill: I think we’re just like the rest of the news media.Politico, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed. They’re primarily online publications. They don’t have the print publication, and again, when you look around the country, we’re seeing big newspapers in big cities go to three days of print, instead of seven days of print, so, it’s not something that we’ve created, it’s what others are doing as they move online because people get their news from their Iphone, they get their news from their Ipad or online.
We’re simply following the lead of the Huffington Post, the Politicos and the others. The difference is the tenor and tone of Jason’s article in Politico was ‘why aren’t you branding yourself on your masthead as we’re conservative.’ Well, again, when the Washington Post, New York Times, Politico, CNN, The Tennessean, start having a masthead blazened ‘we’re flaming liberals’ then we’ll put the same kind of conservative bent on our masthead. But we’re not doing anything different than anybody else is doing.
Stelter: That brings us back to this age-old debate about liberal media bias. You think the newsroom of the Washington Post is made up of a bunch of liberal activists, and I just don’t see it that way.
Gill: I know the reporters at The Tennessean, and they have a decidedly philosophical bent that is reflected in their news. And I know you know that it’s not just the reporters that bring that ideological bent to the news, it’s those editorial boards that decide what gets covered, and what doesn’t get covered, that isn’t even in the public view. So, when The Tennessean editorial board decides this is news this isn’t, or when the New York Times decides this is news, this isn’t, and then dispatch their reporters to cover it, it’s not just the bias of the reporters, it’s the bias in the editorial board that decides what gets covered and not, and again, I don’t think it gets nearly as much attention as it deserves.
Stelter: I worked at the New York Times as a reporter and had very little contact with the editorial side. I barely even knew where there offices were. It’s just different.
Gill: But the editorial staff decides who gets hired as reporters. And I guarantee you that if somebody applies at most of these places, the management and staff decides who gets hired as reporters. I mean the editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is another Gannet publication, just recently–this is the editor of the publication–was in a car, trying to track down with two other men in a little LEAF vehicle a county employee who is a gay, African American county employee, and they were taking pictures of him out of his car to try and do a smear piece on the local county mayor. What’s the editor of the newspaper doing in a car, trying to cover a news story, to hit in a vindictive way somebody he doesn’t like politically. So if there’s a wall there, it apparently doesn’t apply to the vehicle.
Stelter: Well here was the concern that I think Politico was addressing. It was that the website you have didn’t really identify you or your co-founders until Politico started calling. I think Jason Schwartz’s point was, the site doesn’t really have information that helps the audience understand the point of view of the site.
Editors note: On February 7, 2017, the day after the launch of The Tennessee Star, we published this article, “The Tennessee Star Has 3,000 Unique Visitors on Launch Day.”
“The Tennessee Star website had more than 3,000 unique visitors on Monday, the day we launched,” managing editor Christina Botteri said shortly after midnight after all the day’s results were counted.
“The remarkable thing about our traffic on launch day is that each visitor came back and visited different stories on the site several times during the day. The total number of page views and visits for Monday was well over 9,000,” Botteri added.
“That means people are very interested in the kinds of stories we are covering, and how we report on them,” she concluded.
Across Middle Tennessee, conservatives who have not had a reliable media outlet cheered the arrival of The Tennessee Star on the scene. . .
“We beat our launch day projections by a factor of three,” Botteri said.
“It just goes to show that Middle Tennessee really wants an alternative source of news and information. We think The Tennessee Star is the media company that can do that. And Middle Tennesseans are telling us they agree with us,” Botteri concluded.
Gill: If people read a couple paragraphs of our stories, they’re going to know we’re conservative. And again, people in Tennessee knew exactly who was doing it, who’s doing the publication, and, as we told Jason, and we made the corrections, well, if it’s an issue to people, fine we’ll put our names up there.
I’ve been very visible and very active in politics for a long time in Tennessee, I’ve been a talk radio host. Part of the problem that we saw, and one of the reasons that we were not making me and Michael [Patrick Leahy] big factors in the stories is that we didn’t want it to be about us. It’s kind of like with Breitbart, again, to get back where we started, Bannon’s name colors the perspective, and we didn’t want it to be about us, but once Politico raised the question, “Well, why aren’t you doing it?” it’s like, fine, we don’t have any problem doing it.
Everyone here knows who we are even if the New York Times or the New York Magazine, or Politico don’t know who’s behind it, the people in Tennessee do. And again, The Tennessean, the Nashville Scene, The Tennessee Journal, they’ve all made comments about the fact that this is Steve Gill’s deal for the last year.
You can listen to the entire podcast here.
CNN promoted Stelter’s interview with The Star’s Gill on twitter in this tweet:
Listen to our new podcast for an inside look at the “baby Breitbart” of Tennessee. @GillReport, co-founder of The Tennessee Star website, tells @brianstelter he is “filling a void” in the marketplace, citing “flaming” liberal bias from other outlets https://t.co/Yt1YskS0nk
— Reliable Sources (@ReliableSources) May 3, 2018