July 24, 2013


The way Chris Ferrell tells it, he was attempting to pull off quite a modern media stunt. As CEO of publishing company SouthComm Inc., he has one publication, the alternative weekly Nashville Scene, that speaks to the arts and entertainment needs of people in and around Nashville. Another publication, the subscription-based Nashville Post, covers business in and around Nashville. Yet another, the free weekly Nashville City Paper, takes on general news and sports in and around Nashville.

Three publications for the same town: What gives? “What I was trying to do was unbundle the daily paper,” says Ferrell in a chat today with the Erik Wemple Blog. “We thought that that might be a model for continuing to do local news in a combination of print and online.”

The reason for the past tense in Ferrell’s quote is the news of the day around Nashville. The Nashville City Paper will be closing on publication of its Aug. 9 issue. In a statement, Ferrell said this about the decision: “After years of being subsidized by our investors and other SouthComm publications, we finally determined that there was not enough advertiser support for the free newsweekly model we were trying to sustain. The model proved very popular with readers, but in publishing the revenue doesn’t necessarily follow the readership.”

In other words, the unbundling project has itself become unbundled.

The Nashville City Paper debuted as a free Monday-Friday product in 2000 and later switched to a weekly frequency, with Web updates surfacing according to news imperatives. Annual revenues in recent years, Ferrell told the Erik Wemple Blog, were small, in the neighborhood of $1 million. The closest that the company came to profitability was 2011, he said. That year, it lost only $120,000. Just how poorly did it trend after that? Ferrell won’t venture into those specifics. He will say this: “City Paper has lost money for its entire 13-year history.”

The paper had a “great readership,” says Ferrell, owing largely to the distribution strategy of placing the newspaper in office buildings around Nashville. Circulation is 40,000 and the Web site averages “in the neighborhood of 600,000 unique visitors per month,” says Ferrell. It also competed well against the daily Tennessean for stories, says Ferrell.

Journalism wasn’t enough, however. “It’s hard to find a revenue model … to sustain general news,” says Ferrell. The real problem? The Internet. According to Ferrell, advertisers for the Nashville City Paper “had lots of options and increasingly were inclined to use digital options that let them” reach their particular audiences.

Take a dip into the Nashville City Paper’s archives to appreciate what will go away. Here’s a piece on teacher firings in Metro Nashville Public Schools. Here’s a piece on a rash of Nashville shootings. Here’s an analysis piece on state politics. It’s all the work of about 12 employees of Nashville City Paper, according to Ferrell; other SouthComm employees also work on the paper.

Washington news consumers might recognize a pattern here. “General” local news, after all, was precisely what the Washington Examiner provided in these parts before bagging its local stuff in June and fleeing to the not necessarily greener pastures of national politics. SouthComm, too, has a direct connection to the local news game, as owner of the Washington City Paper, which it acquired a year ago. That property — where the Erik Wemple pre-Blog once worked — is “actually doing very well,” says Ferrell, citing encouraging trends in display advertising at the D.C. weekly. There are no “ramifications” for the Washington City Paper from the shutdown of the Nashville City Paper, says Ferrell.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.