Opinion » Viewpoint

Why I'm Cancelling "The Commercial Appeal"

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I really didn't want to do this.

For one thing, canceling a newspaper subscription these days is wimpy. I can and will still read The Commercial Appeal for free online or at the office. It is also easily misunderstood. I don't mind viewpoints different from my own, wrong though they are. Plus, I worked for The Commercial Appeal for almost 10 years. It enabled me to buy a house and start a family. I was treated well and left on good terms. I've defended it in public more than I have criticized it. But enough is enough.

A daily newspaper, even in this fractured Internet Age, is still a valuable and uniquely influential franchise. Memphis needs fresh horses in the daily newspaper monopoly as much or more as it needs fresh horses at City Hall. The E.W. Scripps Company, which owns The CA and several other newspapers, should sell it while it still makes millions each year on a profit margin that, I am willing to bet, is around 20 percent. I realize that new ownership, local or otherwise, might be worse rather than better, but I'm willing to take the chance.

Bashing Scripps, however, is not what's on my mind. That lets the current local leadership off the hook. What nudged me over the edge after 25 years was what is and is not on the pages of the paper I read each morning. The last straw? Sunday's paper is as good a place as any to begin and, as a columnist myself, I'll start with the columns.

I think Chris Peck and Otis Sanford and editors who write columns more than a few times a year are wasting their energy and clout. Editors can hire and fire and do lots of other things to influence content on a broad scale 365 days a year. They should leave column writing to columnists, and if they don't like them, they should get some other columnists. If they must expound, they should do it in their unsigned institutional editorials, an anachronism that nobody pays attention to anyway.

I like a newspaper and a column that growls more than one that purrs. But lately I feel like I'm holding a kitty and some stranger's family photo album in my lap along with my coffee. Nothing personal, but I am not a Wendi Thomas fan. The idea she put forth Sunday ("Faithful seed of prayer blooms") that an "adopt-a-street" prayer program can be an effective crime-fighting technique struck me as strange for a featured columnist. And wasn't it Ms. Thomas who criticized Mayor Herenton for claiming divine guidance in civic affairs? I'm aware that I may well be the one who is out of step with my fellow citizens here. All I suggest is that, just as Chris Peck often seems to want to be a columnist, Wendi Thomas often seems to want to be a preacher or motivational speaker. Go for it, both of you.

A former editor at The CA, Mike Grehl, used to preach a different kind of gospel. He warned reporters and editors to beware of any story that "walked through the door" because it was probably planted by someone with an agenda. "Community journalism" as practiced by The CA for four years now has blown the doors wide open. Community journalism doesn't need anyone's blessing. It is an idea whose time has come. Letters to the editor are consistently some of the most interesting items in The CA or any newspaper. The best bloggers command an audience as loyal as any columnist's. They usually work for and think for themselves outside of a corporate structure. And that is probably why they are worth reading.

But the "guest columns" and "news articles" by non-reporters that run in The CA are another story. Most of them are often obvious plants. On Sunday, The CA ran a column by Vicky Powell, an attorney and "citizen member of the editorial board." (When, I wonder, will we see citizen attorneys at law firms?) Her topic was "the nation's antiquated infrastructure." It was uncannily similar to a guest column that appeared last Friday in The Wall Street Journal under the bylines of Harold Ford Jr. and former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall.

Both columns cited (in the fourth paragraph, coincidentally) a 2005 "report card" by the American Society of Civil Engineers, both recited the same platitudes, and both concluded that collapsing bridges and dams are a scary thing. I'll bet $5 they could be traced to the same flack.

My e-mail is full of such spam every day. This is not why I subscribe to newspapers. If this is what they are selling, then I'm no longer buying.

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