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“Hunger Games” at The Commercial Appeal

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If you work for the Commercial Appeal's copy desk these days, the odds are most definitely not in your favor. Come to think of it, the same might be said for subscribers.

Earlier this month, Gannett representatives announced intentions to eliminate seven copy editor and five design jobs in Memphis, centralizing much of that work at Gannett's "design studio" in Nashville.

Memphis Newspaper Guild President Daniel Connolly has a special name for this outsourcing of work to the Tennessee Capitol. Connolly, a longtime CA reporter and Guild leader, calls the newspaper's creeping Gannettization the "Hunger Games," after Suzanne Collins' popular dystopian novel trilogy and the subsequent movie franchise.

For the handful of people who've somehow avoided exposure to Collins' work or the Jennifer Lawrence vehicles, The Hunger Games tells the story of a distant and decadent ruling class that forces poor kids to fight one another to the death for entertainment, and to remind citizens who might consider resistance or rebellion, they're entirely at the Capitol's mercy.

As Connolly recently wrote in a message to Guild members, affected Memphis employees can apply for the Nashville jobs or for six new "digital producer" jobs in Memphis, forcing coworkers to "compete for economic survival." Connolly's literary comparison is a clever one, only in this case there's no obvious Katniss Everdeen, radiant as the sun, ready to save the day with her flaming dress and flashing bow and arrow. Or with a red pen and deep well of local knowledge.

The Guild is doing what it can by filing grievances challenging Gannett's assertion that some employees who'd been working for the Commercial Appeal for years before Gannett took over don't merit severance pay. It's good to know that somebody has the workers' backs. But who's there to look out for the readers and subscribers? Who's there for advertisers who pay to put their product in front of a steadily diminishing number of eyeballs?

The CA's staff, like the newspaper itself, seems to get smaller with each passing year. And it's difficult to hear about these new cuts and not reflect on a recent, tone-deaf headline that resulted in an apology from editor Louis Graham, and a protest by members of the Black Lives matter movement. The headline — "Gunman Targets Whites" — wasn't technically incorrect, but it contextualized the facts in a racially insensitive way that called to mind, however unintentionally, the newspaper's shameful Jim Crow-era reporting.

It's difficult to understand how that kind of error could happen, given a modicum of time and writers and editors with some sense of the current political climate and sensitivity to Memphis culture. It is, however, exactly the kind of mistake one might expect if these decisions are made and approved elsewhere. Tennessee's grand divisions aren't merely geographic, they're cultural, and local editing is every bit as important as local reporting.

It's hard to remember a time when the Flyer wasn't reporting on layoffs and buyouts at The Commercial Appeal. And with Gannett turning Tennessee's major daily publications into a statewide version of USA Today, it's impossible to know when it will end.

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