All-star panelist and public strategist Clint Brewer joined The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – Wednesday morning on the newsmakers line.
During the second hour, Brewer and Leahy discussed how the dynamics have changed in journalism and the movement away from printing presses to digital online content. Brewer pointed out that not only are the newspapers losing their stature but the cable companies as well. He added that the news business model just doesn’t work.
Leahy: We are talking with our good friend Clint Brewer. There is a story at The Tennessee Star. Tennesseestar.com. One of our top stories today. Gannett newspapers are going to furlough journalists. You’ve got a long long distinguished record in journalism. You worked for The Tennessean for awhile. You were one of their political editors. I guess the only conservative to ever work for The Tennessean perhaps. Were there any others besides you?
Brewer: Not that I was aware of at the time Mike. (Laughter)
Leahy: They are owned by Gannett which was acquired by GateHouse Media for one point four billion dollars. The parent corporation announced that they are providing unpaid newsroom furloughs through April, May and June. Except that’s for all journalists making more than $38,000 per year due to COVID-19. It’s a tough time for journalism and particularly news operations that have relatively high overheads. Where do you think this goes for local news?
Brewer: I think it’s devastating. It’s easy to hate on Gannett. I think a lot of people do it. I try to… (Leahy laughs)
Leahy: I do it every day. (Laughs)
Brewer: I try to disconnect feelings about the overall company as stewards of the news business and the local management and the people on the ground working. They did a heroic job during the tornadoes here. They were all over Middle Tennessee.
Leahy: I would agree with that. They did a good job covering the tornado.
Brewer: The people who work there are fine fine people. And they deeply deeply care about the job they do and about the communities they serve. And it’s just depressing to watch. I call it the legacy news business, the older models of news delivery as businesses were not in great shape to begin with. The GateHouse thing didn’t happen because…
Leahy: They were on the ropes basically right?
Brewer: Yeah. They didn’t happen to be healthy right? So the stock I think was about down to two dollars here recently. They were already a business that was on the ropes. They were already a format that has struggled to transition to a new digital economy. None of which is the fault of journalists right?
There are journalists who do the job of journalism. And then there are business people who are charged with making money around that. And the two are not really linked. The business strategy has nothing to do with how local people at the local level do their jobs. It comes from somewhere else.
Leahy: The Tennessee Star. The Tennesseestar.com has been in business now for over three years. And after the first year, I predicted that in five years we would be bigger than the Tennessean. Not necessarily because of our growth which has been significant, but because that model was changing. I think that prediction may actually end up being true.
We’ve kept our overhead very very low. We don’t have presses and print and all that kind of stuff. We have other ways of providing digital services to our clients. And we’ve been saving for a rainy day and had no overhead. So we are in great shape. Reporting news all the time. And I think things are going to be changing in Tennessee.
Brewer: Well I think things are changing everywhere Mike. The news business has been changing. It’s like any other business. New models emerge and old models die. And people need to understand that news is not a business model. That’s the first thing.
I remember when blogs came about and everybody thought blogs were going to replace newspapers. (Leahy chuckles) What is a blog? A blog is simply a writing format. Its not a business model. So people often conflate style with a business model. It’s not. And the folks and I want to make sure that I’m really clear. Not the local folks. The folks back at the home office making these decisions. They have just proven not to be particularly good business people over the last 30 to 40 years.
Leahy: What they’ve missed as you point out Clint is the changing ways that people take their news. Who looks at hard copy? And now with the coronavirus who wants to have a newspaper that they touch as opposed to electronically delivered content? Either on the internet. In audio format. Or over their mobile device. It’s all moving towards mobile devices, right?
Brewer: It is. And it’s not just news. Cable companies are having the same problem. How people consume information has changed just all the way around. From movies to television and music to news and written content. It’s being delivered in a new way almost every day. And I haven’t had cable in I think close to 10 years.
Leahy: Yeah. And my children are like that as well. And lots of people are like that as well. They go for the streaming services now. So Facebook, did you see this? Facebook announced that they are going to make 100 million dollars of grants available for local journalism. Did you see that? Campbell Brown is running that operation.
Brewer: Honestly, its where things are headed. I think Google has flirted with this in the past. Yahoo, when it was more relevant, flirted with this in the past. It used to be that if you owned a printing press or had an FCC license to broadcast you owned the channel right? Well, now Google, Facebook, and large consumer internet platforms they are the new printing presses with a broadcasting license.
Leahy: Google and Facebook, for small businesses they are effective. You may not like their political ideology. But if you are a small business person and you are looking for the most cost-effective way to promote your business its typically with Google and Facebook.
Brewer: Right. Its pennies on the dollar and it’s so effective. They think it’s so empirical. You know down to the person how many people looked at it. What you are paying for. And how many times the information was absorbed or the person had the opportunity to absorb the impression. It’s just far more empirical and far more fact-based in terms of what your buying and what you’re getting when you’re talking about advertising.
Leahy: The problem with Facebook is despite what they say publicly they do lean significantly left. And they do censor the news I think. If you go in and you say hey if a conservative outlet like The Tennessee Star, which says hey you ought to provide some of that 100 million bucks to us. I don’t think they would really jump up and down. We’ve been waiting to talk to you, Leahy. I don’t think that’s going to happen. (Chuckles)
Brewer: Yeah. Probably not Mike. The other thing is that even at these companies as advanced as they’ve become they are still subject to manipulation. I think that we saw that and people can argue about who did it. But it’s clear that in the last election there was a foreign intervention.
You can argue whether it was Ukraine or Russia. But somebody stood up all those operations using Facebook. They don’t sometimes understand themselves what they’ve created. It’s an evolving technology. Here recently I have a friend who owns a small business in Nashville and she had an experience where she put up some very benign copy on her company’s page about helping small businesses and it was taken down because Facebook said it violated its standards.
My friend in Knoxville had the same problem. And then there was a story that came out and said because people were working from home and some of the AI that Facebook uses to moderate content in the absence of people had made a mistake.
Leahy: Clint Brewer, all-star panelist thanks for joining us and have a great day.
Listen to the second hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Gannett Building” by Shashi Bellamkonda.