Warm and Fuzzy

New CA editor Chris Peck goes all out on panda coverage.

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The pandas come to Memphis. "P-Day." "Panda Pursuit." "Cuddly Guests." It's the ultimate warm-and-fuzzy story and antidote to war coverage. Is it also a defining moment for The Commercial Appeal under the leadership of new editor Chris Peck?

Before Tuesday's blowout coverage of the arrival of the two giant pandas in Memphis, the CA had published 12 panda stories since March 18th, including several on the front page. A CA reporter and photographer have been on assignment in Beijing. And the newspaper has a running joke about a stuffed panda called "Pres Le," which is a takeoff on one of the pandas named "Le Le," which is pronounced "Luh Luh" and -- oh, never mind.

Peck, a veteran newsman who did a brief stint in academia before coming to Memphis last fall, took over for Angus McEachran, promising a focus-group-friendly "community journalism" that would connect with its readership, which has declined 15 percent in the past 10 years. McEachran, who retired at the end of last year, was more grizzly bear than panda bear and known for fiercely defending his own and his newspaper's independence. Since then, the CA has been running more feature stories, although all local news has been knocked aside lately by the war. The newspaper has localized its war coverage with an ongoing series of profiles of area servicemen and women.

Peck was out of town and unavailable for an interview. Leanne Kleinmann, assistant managing editor of the CA, said the "Call to Arms" war features are "probably a better example of Chris' approach to community journalism" than the panda stories.

"We were planning to send reporters to China before Chris got the job," she said.

No one denies that the pandas are a big story. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch once told The New York Times that two pandas at the Bronx Zoo would assure his reelection. Only three other U.S. zoos have them -- Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. Memphis Zoo officials expect attendance to increase from 700,000 patrons to more than 1 million patrons a year. FedEx, with a cherished trade relationship with China, delivered the pandas and joined in the marketing blitz, just as rival UPS did when it delivered the Atlanta pandas.

"They're very important to Memphis," said WMC-TV Channel 5 reporter Janice Broach. "It's a good news story."

But the CA, owned by E.W. Scripps, and WREG-TV Channel 3, owned by The New York Times, are in the unique position of being "media sponsors" of the panda visit as well as partners in a relationship that involves both their news and business operations. McEachran didn't do interviews with the Flyer, but according to sources inside and outside the newspaper, he was not a fan of the WREG partnership and left it to John Wilcox, who now holds McEachran's old title of publisher.

The pandas had better live up to their hype. The Memphis Zoo spent $15 million for a new China exhibition to house them, in addition to the $1.3 million it will give the Chinese government for each of the next 10 years for panda conservation efforts.

Zoo admission has been raised to $10 for adults and $6 for children 11 and under, plus a $3 per-person panda surcharge and $3 parking fee. A family of four will spend at least $47 to see the pandas when the exhibit opens April 25th. That's close to what Zoo Atlanta charges; it includes the pandas and parking in its $16.50 regular adult admission and $11.50 kids admission. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is free. The San Diego Zoo is $19.50 for adults and $11.75 for kids.

The Memphis Zoo Society borrowed from funds raised for the proposed Northwest Passage expansion to bring the pandas here and house them. Roger Knox, outgoing president of the zoo, said in a brief interview this week that the zoo will still have Northwest Passage but "there is no set time for it to open." The key corporate sponsor, Northwest Airlines, is laying off workers and fighting to stay profitable after being hit hard by terrorism, fare cuts, and a decline in international and domestic travel.

Even before the pandas and the war began to dominate the news, the CA was showing signs of change under Peck. Big color pictures and multipart features on suburban sprawl, rural Tennesseans, and a nostalgic look at the 1973 Memphis State basketball team have been spread across section fronts. Courtrooms, cops, and daycare centers seem to be getting less prominent attention, and political reporters/columnists Susan Adler Thorp and Paula Wade have left the newspaper to take government jobs.

The new CA is more of a team player. Its partner, WREG-TV Channel 3, is closely aligned with the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose current chairman is WREG -TV general manager Bob Eoff. Wilcox is on the chamber's board of advisers. (Contemporary Media, the parent company of the Flyer, also has a business relationship with the chamber on certain non-news projects.)

All print media are suffering from media glut and the effects of an advertising recession. E.W. Scripps is a publicly owned company but does not report financial results for individual properties. The CA's audited circulation is 171,937 weekdays and 234,055 Sundays, down from 203,000 and 280,000, respectively, in 1993.

The CA's headline Tuesday read "Pandas are absolutely, positively here at last."

They could have added another FedEx-ism: Just in time.

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