Missing Pieces: Metro Pulse and More

Final Issue of Metro Pulse, Knoxville, October 2014
Final Issue of Metro Pulse, Knoxville, October 2014

I’ve planned for several days to write this post today about recent closures and losses. It’s fun highlighting the successes, the openings, the interesting people or just the simple progress and growth Knoxville shows every day in this bright era. Not so much when talking of failures, closures and defeats large and small.

Then yesterday, as I readied the piece in my mind, came one of the most startling and unfortunate closures of all when word broke that Metro Pulse has ceased to exist with the current issue. The news first hit via twitter, then all social networks lighted up with the news, comments on Facebook postings running through the afternoon, evening and into the night. I’m not sure it’s possible, with the news so fresh, to imagine all the consequences. After looking at other closures, I’ll consider some likely and possible outcomes.

Former Urbhana, Future Bula Boutique, 100 Block of South Gay, Knoxville, October 2014
Former Urbhana, Future Bula Boutique, 100 Block of South Gay, Knoxville, October 2014

The news of the other closures, while over-shadowed by this news, are important as well. I’ve recently written of a number of openings on the 100 block of Gay Street: Bootleg Betty,  The Village, Bula Boutique and, most recently, James Freeman Interiors. With all those businesses opening, others had to close. Some of the new businesses took long-vacant spaces and others took the place of some recent closures.

A visitor to the 100 block who’s been away for a while will notice several missing pieces to the block. On the eastern side, Slamdot has moved their web design business to west Knoxville. The largest number of losses, however, have been on the western side of the block. Wells Fargo closed their mortgage branch. Like Slamdot, Lululemon moved to west Knoxville, while Gallery Nuance closed due to family issues and Urbhana also ceased to operate on Gay Street.

Former home to Wells Fargo, 100 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville
Former home to Wells Fargo, 100 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville

Where do the five closures and four openings leave the block? I would argue that it is better off today than, perhaps, it has ever been. I’ve talked about the need for clusters of retail instead of lone stores sitting dead in an area. A walk to the 100 block just got much more appealing for visitors, in my opinion.

Slamdot is a great business, I’m sure, but they didn’t attract people to browse the block. Lululemon has its own set of problems, had very limited hours (a thematic problem on this block) and never really fit, in my opinion. Wells Fargo did not contribute foot traffic to the shopping or restaurants on the block. Gallery Nuance is greatly missed by the artistic community, so I count that a serious loss.

Former Home to Lil' Vinnie's, Old City, Knoxville, October 2014
Former Home to Lil’ Vinnie’s, Old City, Knoxville, October 2014

The openings (including the one that’s coming soon) all include a retail component and they all have full-time hours. That alone is enough for fans of the block to celebrate. I’m hopeful it is finally becoming the retail node it has needed to become. There are still available storefronts and I’m hoping the retail will continue to spread, making downtown’s most beautiful block into what we all felt it would become after the renovations and extensive closure several years ago.

I should also mention that Lil’ Vinnie’s closed in the Old City. I regret we never made it there for a meal, but I hope to have some good news about openings in the Old City within the next couple of weeks.

Former Home to Gallery Nuance, 100 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville
Former Home to Gallery Nuance, 100 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville

And now, for the Metro Pulse. I was actually surprised, yesterday, when WBIR and others noted that the paper began in 1991. I’ve been in Knoxville since 1982 and I really don’t remember not having Metro Pulse. I must have read it from early in its existence, though my reading was hit and miss until much more recent years. I’d usually find Jack Neely’s articles and read those, but it was only when I moved downtown in 2009 that it became an essential part of my week. Wednesday evening meant it was time to see what Metro Pulse had to say.

Michael Haynes’ articles about downtown offered an early orientation to the city and I appreciate that. Jack Neely is, of course, Knoxville’s history professor, guardian of our past and an eloquent spokesman on many Knoxville-related topics. He’s also a gracious person to know. So many good writers have graced its pages. Joe Sullivan told us all those downtown hotel proposals wouldn’t happen – and he was right. Many of the writers had a gift to bring us into worlds we might not otherwise enter. I know very little about classical music, for example, but reading Allen Sherrod’s classical reviews always made me want to learn more. I told him last week that his most recent review reminded me all over again that I’m no critic. It’s near poetry.

I’ll also miss the progressive political voice often found on the pages of the paper. It’s pretty easy to find the conservative viewpoint on local, state or national issues in this town, but not so much a progressive voice. If not directly progressive, the paper offered exposure to progressive political candidates, as it did in Mike Gibson’s excellent recent piece on Cheri Siler.

The paper also offered a place to promote and discuss local music. It is very difficult for local musicians to gain exposure. There are a few other spots: Wayne Bledsoe with the News Sentinel and Steve Wildsmith with the Maryville Times as well as Blank Newspaper. Still, the Metro Pulse played a critical part in informing us about local bands as well as telling us where to go to hear them.

Jack Neely at the Final Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville Awards Party, Barley's, Knoxville, Spring 2014
Jack Neely at the Final Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville Awards Party, Barley’s, Knoxville, Spring 2014

In many respects, as shocking as it feels in this moment, the end of Metro Pulse was probably predictable. Given that it was owned by Scripps and that print news is struggling to survive nationally, it was probably a matter of time. Many cities no longer have a daily paper. My home town, Mobile, Alabama which, like many cities published two daily papers when I was younger, no longer publishes a single paper each day. The same is true in Birmingham, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana. The bottom line rules and the bottom line isn’t good enough. In our current world everything is a commodity and profit margins are more important than simple profit.

So what will happen next? Social media was awash in suggestions from the moment the news broke: Crowd source funding for a new independent paper, boycott the News Sentinel, hammer the News Sentinel with complaints, maybe the current staff will come back with another independent paper, maybe a current online effort will move to print, maybe a financial savior will be found. Perhaps a pay model would work – a dollar or two a copy? It all feels like wishful thinking, but who knows?

In the meantime, we aren’t going to have the investigative reporting, progressive view and local focus brought to us for the last twenty-three years by Metro Pulse. I wonder if the great backlog of articles will be maintained online. I can’t imagine not being able to search Google for “Whatever Topic Jack Neely,” and get his eloquent discourse on the topic du jour.

Beyond wondering about links to that great wealth of material, there could be other implications for some of the rest of us offering online and print content. What implications? I don’t know. I do know the game has changed and it will shake out over the coming weeks and months as we see what the News Sentinel does next, what the former employees of Metro Pulse do next and whether another independent voice will emerge.

We’ll likely be surprised by where it all settles, but in the meantime, here’s hoping for the best for all those who have been hurt by this abrupt development.