Tom Jones has been blogging for seven years, rarely going so much as a week without writing his usual three posts while other bloggers lose interest and fall by the wayside. He has calculated that his output comes to something close to two million words and says, with considerable understatement, "I could have written a book."
But none of his columns created as much interest or reader involvement as the "Delta Does Memphis" campaign he started two weeks ago to see if anything can be done about the high airfares charged by Delta Air Lines in Memphis. A Facebook cast of thousands including a congressman and several establishment types enlisted. The Memphis Shelby County Airport Authority, coincidentally perhaps, announced a $1 million airline incentives package. Other bloggers started related sites. And local and national media members interviewed him.
"This is the biggest response I've ever gotten, by far," Jones said. "It has been interesting to see which media outlets drive the signups. Clearly, print media still matters. It's like, bam, 500 more people when it's in the Flyer and The Commercial Appeal. I was on Live at 9 this week, and 200 people signed. While we're talking about the power of social media, it's also showing me the power of old media."
Jones is old-school. He is a former Memphis newspaper reporter with 30 years experience in Shelby County government as a mayoral aide and speechwriter. He writes nearly all of the entries under the banner of Smart City Memphis, as well as a monthly column for Memphis magazine. He started Smart City with Carol Coletta, who used to host a radio show by that name before moving to Chicago to work as a consultant on urban affairs.
"The blog started because Carol and I were coming in every morning bitching about something," Jones said. "So Carol said, 'Why don't we just write something?' That's how it started, then we had to ask ourselves, 'Are you serious about it or not?' We talked about posting every day, but that would have been a bridge too far. So usually it's three posts a week. We knew we could attract a lot of people if we wrote it a certain way — kind of throwing bombs and vilifying people. Or we could try to influence a few hundred people that mattered. So we went that direction."
Jones still throws an occasional bomb, usually at suburban legislators, but the secret of his longevity is his blend of erudition, institutional memory, braininess, and willingness to offend in the anything-goes world of blogging. Unlike some web fiends, he believes that less is sometimes more. He debates serious critics and ignores personal insults with the maturity of a man who has seen much worse things. He straddles the line by working locally as a consultant for, among others, Mayor A C Wharton, which he admits constricts him while it allows him to make a living and keep the blog going without advertising or sponsorship.
"I try to stay away from areas I'm getting paid to work in," he said. As for why he hasn't tried to sell advertising: "Probably because I didn't figure anybody would ever buy one. And then I think you run into the question of whose voice the readers would be getting if, say, Delta had an ad."
He was a latecomer to Facebook and doesn't use Twitter. He will be the first to tell you that he didn't break any news in the Delta story and that griping about Memphis airfares has been around for years.
"I don't think I got it started," he said. "We were all hitting the tipping point at the same moment. I just happened to be the person who set up the first group."
He flies about 12 times a year for business. A personal tipping point for him was a recent $750 trip to Cincinnati at about the same time other consultants were telling him they couldn't make the numbers work flying in and out of Memphis.
"At the time that we suffer from being isolated, we're isolated even more by the airfares, so we can't connect with people in other places," he said.
He decided to do a Facebook campaign, expecting it to attract about 500 people, but after a week it had exceeded 3,500 supporters — a process, it should be noted, that is not exactly strenuous. He hit a nerve. He gave an old story a fresh angle and a hook.
"Do I think there's somebody at Delta Air Lines who cares that 3,600 people in Memphis signed up to a Facebook site?" he asked. "No. It's not to their benefit to come tell us that we don't have a future as a Delta hub. It just seems like we've got nothing to lose by raising our voices as customers or as a city where the ramifications are everywhere. Everybody has a personal story, but the impact for St. Jude or International Paper or conventions is something else. Some people say it's bad PR for Memphis for us to be doing this, but I think it's bad PR to just sit here like a bunch of lemmings."
As of last week, he had not personally heard from anyone at Delta or the airport authority.
"I'm sure the airport authority feels like a lot of this has been directed at them, but one of the things I think is coming through is that everybody needs to get in the game, including our political leadership and CEOs."
A wit and bit of a cynic by nature, Jones was trending toward a dim view of all the hubbub as the bandwagon attracted more notice last week, including a new Facebook page called "My Memphis Airport," set up by the airport authority, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce to counter "Delta Does Memphis." The site had 77 members after a week.
"The usual suspects are doing the usual thing," Jones said. "It's all about control rather than having a discussion with 3,500 people already at 'Delta Does Memphis.' That said, it seems like we've gotten everyone's attention."