Compass: New Local News Venture Announced

It’s hard to argue that recent years have been good for media – particularly of a local variety. In Knoxville, just in the 8 years I’ve written this blog, we’ve lost Metro Pulse and the Mercury. We’ve seen the News Sentinel sold twice between large corporations. We’ve seen the number of reporters there reduced repeatedly. The result of all of this is a reduction in local news coverage, very little media oversight for government and the near extinction of long-form or investigative reporting.

And the issue is a national one. Pew Research recently released results showing that while in 2008 broadcast mediums, including newspapers, broadcast and cable television and radio employed 114,000, by 2017, that number was down to 88,000. For newspapers the numbers are worse, with a drop from 71,000 to just 39,000 over the same span. Some major metropolitan areas like my hometown, Mobile, Alabama, no longer has a daily paper, but rather one that is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Despite the national rhetoric to the contrary, media is critical as a watchdog in a democracy. Locally, Jesse Fox Mayshark and Scott Barker have decided that now is a good time for a new venture designed to fill some of that void and they are calling that venture, Compass. Jesse has experience as, “Editor at Metropulse, reporter at the Knoxville News Sentinel and a staff editor at the New York Times,” and Scott Barker, who, “for eighteen years was governmental reporter and editorial page editor for the Knoxville News Sentinel.” You may know Jesse through his more recent stint as Senior Director of Communications and Government Relations with the City of Knoxville.

The two point out that with recent and looming changes at the city and county level – as well as at UT this year and next, coverage will be critical. That belief prompted Mayshark to leave his position with the city at this time. Barker was eliminated by the Knoxville News Sentinel in one of its several employee purges, this one in March of 2017 at a time the editorial staff was reduced by 20%.

“I knew, if I wanted to stay in Knoxville -we’re both (he and his wife) from here – there wasn’t any way to get back into journalism. It wasn’t long after that when the Knox County Public Library offered a symposium featuring Wendell Potter with Barker and Mayshark on the panel discussing the topic of “Fake News,” and other topics, that the two began to consider possibilities. Mayshark said, “One thing that he (Potter) said that stuck with me was that there are news outlets doing well, but it’s niches.” After another round of local cuts, the two realized local news is becoming a niche.

 

Jesse Fox Mayshark and Scott Barker (Photo Courtesy of Casey Fox)

“We started talking about the things that aren’t being done. People are covering sports and entertainment. Local government, politics and business are just not being covered so well. Those are the areas in which we have backgrounds,” Mayshark added.

The two also had to take a look at funding for any such enterprise. They started by pointing out that money has always come from advertising and was never given to support journalism. Simply put, people needed a place to sell things and the newspaper offered the best place for a period in history. Traditionally, newspapers were derived 80% of revenue from ads and 20% from subscriptions.

As they became corporately owned and Wall Street investors wanted a 20% return while ad sales dwindled, the model became untenable. Craigslist obliterated classified ads. Facebook and other social media offered the option of advertising businesses directly and at a much lower cost.

The two made the decision that their project would be web-based and would have both a website and a newsletter, but that they would not sell ads. Their hope is that people will pay for quality local coverage at a reasonable price – $10 per month or slightly less per month for a longer contract. “We’ve got the news. If you find it valuable, pay for it,” said Mayshark.

And that’s who they are targeting: people who are involved, who really value the information they will assimilate and report. They are looking for people who want to know more about government, development and people who are civically engaged – those who always vote, for example. The focus will be local, but with a synthesis of how Knoxville is impacted by national and international news and trends.

Barker summed it up, “We want to reflect the complexity of our area, which is changing, growing and becoming more diverse. I hope that people will find that we reflect the Knoxville they see every day, but we’ll help explore it.” While they plan to steer clear of opinion columns or endorsements, they hope to offer not only the news, but insights and analysis.

 

They want to encourage discussion and development of informed opinions, or as they put it, “create room for informed civic discussion.” The concept will likely evolve as they explore the limitations of two people and one ambitious project and as they get a feel for what their readers want.

“We’re journalists and we came up through that tradition of fairness, accuracy and a willingness to admit mistakes.” They want to earn the trust of their readers and feel they have a head start given their backgrounds both in journalism, but also in local journalism and in being long-term, known members of the community.

Their years in Knoxville, they feel, give them a head start in understanding how this community works that would not be available to someone new to the area. Once started, they plan to publish an article each day with additional short news notes. They hope to have a longer piece once each week. Subscribers will get a daily newsletter with updates.

Subscriptions are available now, but the two will use the rest of this month to begin the work. They plan to publish starting September 4. Check out their website, follow and like them on Facebook and consider subscribing. It’s a way you can directly support quality local journalism.

Comments

  1. I recently found by accident a publication called Hawai’i Civil Beat https://www.civilbeat.org/. Straightforward investigative reporting, straightforward name, etc. Compelling coverage of . Diverse, too https://www.civilbeat.org/about/our-team/
    From the About page: “We believe news is a public asset and that Civil Beat can and should be a good community partner, not just an arms-length observer recounting news of the day. We have a stake in this community as much as it has a stake in us.”

  2. Dorothy Bowles says:

    Best wishes, fellows. I am really looking forward to reading Compass. I don’t understand why some people on this thread consider $10 a month to be steep. I don’t know how many days a week you plan to publish, but at five days per week, that’s just 50 cents an issue. Less than a cup of coffee or tea.

  3. Sherry Barber says:

    I am absolutely starved for unbiased, factual news reporting. I am sick to death of the inflammatory, trump-bashing, misleading, and in some cases outright lies of most of the media outlets prevalent today. I am appalled at the current journalism trend intended solely to get the population riled up, with very little in-depth digging. I agree that $120 per year sounds a bit steep, especially if there is no paper-print version. If there is I didn’t see it offered. Before I support your efforts, perhaps you can give away two or three issues so we can tell if you will be just another left-biased opinion newspaper dressed in free speech clothing.

  4. Mike Parish says:

    This is truly great news. We have not had in depth coverage of local government and related activities since the Mercury stopped publishing. The News Sentinel, once a decent but not great publication, is nothing more than a rehashed USA Today. No one bothers to ask the tough questions.
    I was brought up in a newspaper family. My father was a small town daily newspaper editor. They valued deep research, verification of the facts and excellent writing. That is what people use to expect from their local newspaper. It is the only true government oversight.
    I just signed up for a one year subscription and I hope the rest of the community extends their support to this journalistic effort.
    Good luck Compass.

  5. Knoxville seriously needs local reporting. I am grateful for the possibility of serious journalism focused on our local government, institutions, and activities. I’m usually not impulsive, but I just subscribed for a year. If we want local journalism we need to support it.

  6. Thanks, Alan. I can’t add a whole lot to what Jesse said about our goals. The stories unfolding in Knoxville and Knox County are complex and often don’t have tidy solutions. It will be our job to tell those stories in a way that allows readers to make informed decisions about the future of our community.

    I also can’t add much to Jesse’s response to Leland and others who might share his concerns, other than to say I hope they read Compass with an open mind. We’ll disclose any conflicts we might have. I will also emphasize one of part of Alan’s article — we are not going to run opinion columns or make candidate endorsements. Our readers will be fully capable of making up their own minds about the issues. We’re also not seeking advertisers, so it will be kind of hard to wind up in anyone’s pocket.

    Thanks for the kind words, JMG and Don. We’ll do our best to justify your confidence.

  7. Don Williams says:

    I believe these prize-winning veteran journalists will provide true scrutiny of area businesses, developers, governing bodies and NGOs. One test will be how energetically they cover such organizations as OREPA, local carbon fuel industries, governing bodies, religious supporters of Trump and cynical politicians who exploit their faith and turn blind eyes to his cruelty, lies, and hate mongering. I just placed my order for the 1-year subscription, and am hoping for the best from these two fine writers and editors. They’re taking on a challenging project and I wish them well. Just signed up for the one-year subscription. God speed.

  8. I know both these guys and they will do a great job. I think the subscription price is fair. As mentioned above, KNS is 9.95 a year but look what you get. I’m excited for them and look forward to reading their work.

  9. Good luck with that thing guys. Ten bucks a month access fee sounds very steep. KNS sells a year subscription for $9.95.

    Given Maysharks previous position as the spokesmodel for local government one has to wonder about the inherant bias of his reporting and focus. How tough will he be reporting on local taxpayer funded developer give-a-ways, for example?

    Scott Barker was a good reporter. However, that News Sentinel stench is hard to shake. The history of being associated with that Haslam house organ is hard to shake.

    It will be interesting to see who’s pocket Barker and Mayshark end up in once they have the *opportunity* to exercise editorial independence.

    At ten bucks a month I fear they will be preaching to the choir. Will be interesting to watch the developments.

    • Thanks for the write-up, Alan! We are both excited to be getting back into reporting and writing. I was thinking about this yesterday, that the real goal here is to tell the story of Knoxville, to Knoxville. Every city and community is not just a collection of facts or faces, it is a collection of ongoing narratives that feed each other, conflict with each other, negotiate with each other. It’s not just what happened yesterday or what’s happening tomorrow, it’s where we were 10 years ago and where we’ll be 10 years from now. We want to help put current events in the context of that big picture.

      As to Mr. Wykoff’s concerns, I’m flattered at being called a spokesmodel, but the point about bias is well taken. All journalists bring their personal experiences and opinions with them. You have to be aware of them and as upfront about them as possible. Because of my obvious closeness with this city administration, which is full of not just former coworkers but many personal friends, I am not going to be covering city government or next year’s elections. I’m sure I’ll share some background information with Scott on various issues I know about, but I will not in any way interfere with his coverage. He’s the one on the beat. (As for “developer give-aways,” the mechanics, motives and results of development incentives is one thing we will certainly cover.)

      But we’re not looking to preach, to the choir or otherwise. We want to explain what’s happening and why, who the players are, what the motives are, and what the stories are.

    • It’s more of a discount than a “giveaway”. And if none of these “giveaways” happened then Gay Street would still be a barren ghost town full of antique stores like it was in the late 90’s when I was little. So if that’s really what you miss then you’re one of a kind.

      • He ignores that these are not, at all, “giveaways”. A PILOT or TIF arrangement is not “giving away” anything. Those incentivize investment that otherwise would not happen. Without these programs, Gay Street would be in terrible shape. Mark Square would still be struggling to keep tenants. Downtown would not be the vibrant hub that it is now.

        • One point I always emphasize about TIFs and PILOTs is that they require a large private investment to be worth anything at all. The benefit from both of them is based on increased property values, which only happen after property investments and improvements have already been made. There have been several TIFs and PILOTs granted for projects that never actually happened, in which case nobody gets any benefit at all. But it is of course worth watching the projects and ensuring that they are subject to appropriate scrutiny.

          • TIF’s and PILOT’s are, indeed, taxpayer giveaways. The TIF was invented in California and is now outlawed in the golden state due to excess revenue loss and developer corruption.

            It is difficult to argue convincingly such wealth-transference schemes are necessary as they result in redevelopment which would not otherwise occur.

            Downtown Knoxville has been judged as having a serious shortage of old building inventory to renovate and rehab. Yet the tax dollars still flow. Supply and demand law tells us no incentives are needed currently.

            The State Street garage is about to undergo expansion. How long before the additional parking spaces are provided far below market value to a hotel developer as were many of the last spots created in the 2012 expansion?

            Tax abatements are not ‘free money’ they cost the adjacent property owners and city citizens who must have their taxes increased to pay for the public services those tax abated properties consume.

            Fire, police, water & sewer, schools, and other government services must all be provided for the new residents.

            There is no free lunch.

            Look at Project Hollywood to learn that lesson.

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