On Politicians and Gannett's "Seat at the Table"

Pre-arranged "exclusive" announcements by Harris and Blackburn indicate a possible competitive advantage of chain journalism in a transformational time.


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  • G. Crescoli, Unsplash
Clearly, it’s time to stop shedding tears for the poor, shrinking Tennessee newspapers on the Gannett chain. However reduced in scope and personnel, they are demonstrating an ability — and a willingness — to bargain successfully for first dibs on selected news items of arguable and actual consequence.

A case in point was the Commercial Appeal’s two-hour head start on state Senator Lee Harris’ Thursday announcement of candidacy for Shelby County Mayor. The CA’s scoop was the result of recent behind-the-scenes negotiations by Harris with various media, in which the then prospective candidate, in effect, initiated an R. F.P. (request-for-proposal) process in a quest for maximum exposure and, after direct consultation with C.A. management, awarded The Commercial Appeal with the initial news break on his announcement on Wednesday, issuing a press release to the rest of the media some hours later.

Underscoring the advantage thereby gained by the Memphis daily was this intimate-sounding line from the CA story, apropos a quote from Harris: “‘I’m not a politician that blows a lot of smoke,’ he said, sitting at his kitchen table.” A Seat at the Table, mind you, sans necessity for the venerable Smoke-Filled Room.

Scarcely a day later, another Gannett paper, the Tennessean of Nashville, was able to trumpet an “exclusive” announcement of the long-rumored candidacy of 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Bob Corker, who recently announced he would not seek reelection.

Tennessee’s Gannett papers have severe deadline restrictions — even the Tennessean, which until recently maintained an advantage from being in Nashville, not only the state Capitol but the site of a Gannett design and editing clearing house. But those publishing facilities will henceforth be operated from elsewhere, and the Tennessean, too, will face an early-evening deadline that, in effect, transforms the timeliness of Gannett newspapers into that of the old afternoon dailies, a day late.

That fact and the continuing reduction of their reporting staffs to skeleton-crew status are serious handicaps, but what the recent rash of technical “exclusives” indicates is that being part of a network does indeed convey certain opportunities unavailable to individually run competitors.

And, it must be admitted, the shrunken Gannett news staffs do contain some quality reporters still.

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