The Commercial Appeal seeks new home with digital forward attitude

Updated: Aug. 24, 2017 at 8:28 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Mike Jung, the new President of The Commercial Appeal (Memphis), told the Memphis Rotary Club that he expects the newspaper's long-time address at 495 Union Avenue will attract a buyer soon.

"It's been on the market awhile. It's a very desirable. We've had many people come in several times. I'm sure an offer is not too far away," Jung said.

The 6.5-acre site has an assessed value of $6.5 million. The CA's new boss is now searching for a new headquarters for the 176-year-old newspaper that he said will probably land in Downtown Memphis.

"We want to get in a building that's right for us, that's right sized, that's modern, that really reflects a digital forward company," Jung said.

The Commercial Appeal's owner, The Gannett Company, moved the Memphis newspaper's printing production to its more modern facilities at The Jackson Sun, where Jung also serves as president, earlier this year.

Jung arrived in Memphis on March 27 and took over The Commercial Appeal in a moment of profound change.

The newspaper has had three different owners in the space of one year. It had been owned by E.W. Scripps Company since 1936. It was sold in April to Journal Media Group, which promptly merged with Gannett.

"I'll be perfectly honest with you. That week there was a lot of upheaval, a lot of changes inside the building, there was a reorganization going on, "Jung told Rotarians.

Nineteen people lost their jobs when the CA's printing moved up the road to The Jackson Sun.

When the newspaper moved into the 495 Union Avenue building 40 years ago, it employed an army of 1,300.

Storms of change in the digital era reduced the newspaper to a team of about 200 people.

Jung is embracing the new reality with enthusiasm and he quoted another Gannett executive's philosophy about the current state of the newspaper business.

"Think of the company as a digital marketing company that just happens to put out a newspaper, " Jung told the Rotary Club. "That's a real difference between what most people think about the CA and its proud tradition of publishing and printing a newspaper for 176 years."

He continued, "I'm often asked, 'Do you think you'll continue to print a newspaper?' In my lifetime, we will, seven days a week. There are some smaller Gannett markets that publish three or four days a week and publish digitally 24-7."

The Commercial Appeal president quoted general industry statistics to explain why the printed newspaper remains the cash cow as media companies across the board struggle to monetize their products online.

Jung indicated industry-wide, 70 percent of revenue is generated by print ads, while digital advertising produces 30 percent.

"Digital needs to be 90 percent (of revenue) and print 10 percent (to abandon print)," Jung said.

As newspapers struggle across the country, Jung said the CA's digital platform is growing.

"What's not changing is great storytelling, meaningful journalism, truly verifiable content for our readers and consumers. That's what's important, more important than ever before," Jung said.

Jung, an avid runner, came to Memphis from Ft. Myers, Florida, where he served as president of the News-Press Media Group.

Before that assignment, Jung served as president and publisher of the Idaho Statesman and has also been publisher of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Jung heaped praise on Mark Russell, the CA's new executive editor and first African-American to oversee all of the CA's journalistic initiatives.

Russell said Gannett's statewide network in Tennessee gives the company's newspapers a big advantage in covering issues that affect all Tennesseans.

"In something like the gubernatorial coverage coming up, we have a stronger hand to play because of the network," Russell said of the 2018 race
for Tennessee Governor.

In addition to the CA and The Jackson Sun, Gannett also owns The Tennessean in Nashville, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville and The Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro.

Russell explained his Memphis newspaper is evolving in its use of Gannett partners across Tennessee, noting a story about plans for Nashville's New Year's Eve parties.

"I looked at that story and I thought, none of my neighbors or friends care about this story. I don't care about it because I'm in Memphis. So it was an awakening that we had to re-calibrate how we pick our stories and be much more measured in our approach," Russell said.

The executive editor revealed the CA will go to press at 7 p.m. beginning next week. It will be the earliest press time in modern CA history.

This means the print edition will not include up-to-date sports scores and coverage, but Russell stressed the CA's many online platforms will be abuzz with up-to-the-second reports.

Russell also addressed changes in the CA's copy editing that once featured 12 to 15 behind-the-scenes newsroom editors who poured over every word, sentence, fact, and headline.

"In some places, it's called a backfield. Those are the people who save you from those pesky typos or grammar mistakes or headlines that aren't quite right in terms of syntax," Russell said.

But, the editor explained that the copy desk dwindled dramatically in recent years to achieve cost cutting and greater efficiencies. At that point, Russell said copy editing responsibility was transferred to digital production editors, who were the people maintaining The Commercial Appeal's website while simultaneously troubleshooting newspaper copy.

Now, Russell said reporters and editors are required to double check their work before sending it to Nashville where one team copy edits three major newspapers.

"It has a long name: Digital Optimization Team. It's called DOT. Really, it's just a production desk. That's all it is. They edit our content in Nashville. So, we have a team of about 15 people in Nashville that edit content for both Memphis and Nashville, but also Knoxville," Russell said.

The new editor said his wife asked him the morning of his Rotary visit, "What's your best decision?"

Russell said naming award-winning writer David Waters as the CA's new opinion and engagement Editor was his best move so far.

"You're only as good as the people around you. He wants to challenge this community," Russell said of Waters, who distinguished himself as a brilliant journalist covering the Mid-South faith community and beyond.

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