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Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Kevin L. McKenzie: Horses, newspapers and the idea I rode in on

by Kevin L. McKenzie, Facebook Post of the Week

For years at my former desk at the CA (The Commercial Appeal) I posted the cover of a book, “If You’re Riding a Horse and it Dies, Get Off.” The book was about education, but it fit newspapers.

As an industry, newspapers are a disaster. Organizational change requires a degree of management skill and system thinking that newspapers never knew.

As an institution of a community that embraced slavery and Jim Crow, the CA and newspapers like it desperately needed to change if they were to successfully serve increasingly diverse communities.

Instead, white men maintained tight control of historically racist and sexist private institutions that serve an important public purpose. They often insisted on continuing to serve “loyal readers.”

Generations of potential customers in changing communities like Memphis found that newspapers would not provide the news and information they wanted. Why should they pay for it?

Serving diverse communities is far more complicated than just hiring people of color and women, usually for low-level positions. Real change begins with a representative leadership team that truly values diversity and builds a system and a culture that empowers everyone.

Furthermore, what people are equipped to contribute goes far deeper than which box can be checked. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is black, but he’s not the person to represent the views of most African Americans or woke women.

I have not seen the mainstream media in Memphis devote resources needed to reflect the mainstream views and concerns of African Americans and other communities. The purchase of WREG-TV Channel 3 by the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting Group, awaiting Trump administration approval, wouldn’t help. Topics that interest “loyal audiences” tend to comfort the comfortable, and plow more ground for idiocracy. Welcome to Costco. I love you.

I arrived in Memphis more than three decades ago as an African American who did not grow up in segregation. I expected to find great stories about poverty, race and an increasingly black city in the New South, just like the New York Times, the Washington Post and other national media do.

My bitter lesson was that the institution I joined was a big part of the problem, and wouldn’t change.

Fattened by virtual monopolies and cursed with a manage-by-the-seat-of-your-pants culture, newspapers wouldn’t change.

A decades-old, anti-union cold war with rank-and-file employees led to cuts from the bottom, instead of from the fat.

They utterly failed to strategically plan for and adjust to a digital future. Their customer service is an epic failure. It took me two cell phones and a home phone over two days to cancel my subscription.

I read an article long ago that said there were two paths for newspapers. One was doubling down on being great newspapers, like the Times and Post. The other was that their owners would squeeze them for every dime, and then sell what was left to the highest bidder.

That analysis was on target. The path for the CA was chosen long before Gannett arrived to buy an underfed, lame horse.

I’ll be interested to see if a fresh horse can avoid the missteps of Old Reliable. Can it resist the siren song of the Trump era to make Memphis great again by concentrating on gentrified readers, the next generation of “loyal readers?” Good luck.

(Kevin L. McKenzie submitted this column to The New Tri-State Defender after first publishing it on his Facebook page.)

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