A number of neighborhood leaders are questioning the value of The Commercial Appeal's new brand of neighborhood reporting which forgoes traditional news gathering and focuses instead on photographs, press releases, and features sent to the newspaper by its readers.
A map created by the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action shows that 23 Memphis zip codes are covered by the seven new neighborhood Appeal sections, while 17 are excluded. Though two of the covered neighborhoods, Whitehaven and Center City (the newspaper's name for Midtown), are both economically and racially diverse, the CA's critics point out that five of the seven targeted neighborhoods are mostly white and relatively affluent.
"Neighborhoods sometimes get reputations they don't always deserve," said Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser Community Development Corporation (CDC). "Frayser is a beehive of civic activity. When Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb comes to Frayser to talk about new developments, there are always 75 or 80 informed folks who show up to ask questions." Lockwood's question: Who's going to report on these kinds of meetings?
Lockwood, along with other concerned heads of CDCs, contacted the CA about their concerns. According to Lockwood, they were told that the decisions were based on economic factors.
"I just feel like we have less access," said Kathy Moore Cowan of the Works in South Memphis, which partners with Housing and Urban Development to build and rehab single-family homes. "At first it was like, hey, this sounds like a nice idea, but then I heard about the areas that weren't being served," she said. "So what happens to the lower-income neighborhoods? It just seems so racist."
Emily Trenholm, executive director of the Community Development Council, is a bit less sour on the CA: "I'm sure all the pictures of pets are important for the people in those neighborhoods, but ..."
Trenholm believes that the CA will continue reporting important stories in its Metro section, but she is afraid that transitional neighborhoods will still lose a lot of the coverage they once received.
"This is grassroots, local news gathering," said CA editor Chris Peck. "[It's] something that no other medium can do." According to Peck, advertising for the new Appeal sections is ahead of projections. Internal production and delivery problems are being solved. Once the second phase of the community-sections strategy has been implemented, Peck believes developing and transitional neighborhoods will actually receive better coverage than before. The second phase involves devoting more space and assigning more reporters to the metro beat.
"We're learning how to make these sections successful," he said. "We want to build readership, we want the neighborhoods to have more direct access to the pages of our paper for local news, and we want to develop a business model that allows smaller advertisers to afford to buy ads. These forces all work together, with building readership as our primary goal.
"The sections don't target only white neighborhoods," he said, countering charges to the contrary. "In fact, one of the most successful community sections we launched isWhitehaven Appeal. This section is all about people and events in Whitehaven and means we're running more stories and pictures from Whitehaven than we ever have."
According to Peck, the new sections are based on research conducted by the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, which suggested that readers want to see more stories about people like themselves.
"[The sections] are oriented to very local news," Peck said. "The content comes directly from the readers and reflects, in a very unfiltered way, the lives and interests of people in the neighborhood."