A look back at the triumphs and tragedies of Knoxville’s alt-weekly
“Metro Pulse started out as a project and rapidly became my life, or at least what I did with the majority of its waking hours.
It’s rare that you get to be a part of something that’s not just a job, but something you sincerely believe in, and something you’re willing to make sacrifices for. We all did, in various ways, and if not always ecstatic to make them, we were all willing to. It was worth it.
While sifting through twenty-three years of back issues, I was blown away all over again by the sheer quality of the journalism and design (neither of which I can take credit for, by the way). It was a privilege to spend as much time as I did working with such an amazingly talented bunch of people.”
-Ian Blackburn, founding member of Metropulse
Just over a month has elapsed since the statement proclaiming Metro Pulse’s hasty shutdown, and the bitter taste of the sad and surprising news still remains. Go Knoxville, a rebranding of the Knoxville.com insert fashioned with resources absorbed from Metro Pulse, surfaced in the interim as a free weekly supplement to the Knoxville News Sentinel. But that paper skews toward a younger, broader audience, and it seriously lacks the insight and focus on local issues that made the MP such a revered fixture.
For more than 23 years, through myriad personnel changes and office relocations, MP earned its reputation as the go-to source for all things Knoxville, from general information about the indigenous culture to astute political commentary. The latter-day success the paper enjoyed, though, is indicative neither of its scattershot early stages nor of the financial struggles its founders experienced not long after its unveiling. This is the story of MP’s humble beginnings, its emergence as a trusted voice and its unfortunate collapse.
The project was the brainchild of then-nascent promoter Ashley Capps, who conceived of the paper as an effective means of promoting live music in town. In order to explore the idea, he contacted Ian Blackburn, a technician at a print shop who already had published a magazine of his own. After a series of dinner meetings during the summer of 1991, they recruited a pair of journalism-school grads, Rand Pearson and Margaret Weston, to help in the venture. The foursome distributed the first issue in late August of that year.
Largely centered on a calendar of events Blackburn, Pearson and Weston had compiled, the issue was designed and produced by Blackburn. Capps managed advertising and editorial content, while the others pieced the small-form paper together and readied it for circulation at Blackburn’s apartment in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. New editions were disseminated biweekly and, in subsequent months, a few fresh faces joined the team. Jon Wallace came aboard as copy editor, Jared Coffin as art director and Coury Turczyn as a regular contributor.
Up until Dec. 31, 1991, Knoxville residents had their choice of two daily papers: the News Sentinel and the Knoxville Journal. On that date, however, the Journal ceased publication, leaving a sizable hole in the market and an entire staff without work. MP, in an attempt to boost its readership and to enhance its profile, welcomed contributions from Journal writers and moved its operations to the third floor of the Bijou Theatre where it shared an office – as well as a single phone/fax/modem line – with Capps’ AC Entertainment. With the promotional firm making great strides, though, Capps scaled back his involvement, and Pat Hinds was hired as ad manager.
March 1992 saw Weston depart from the team in order to pursue other interests. In what would prove to be a seminal moment, Turczyn replaced her as managing editor. Under his watch, MP made its first foray into long-form journalism, branching out with genuine cover stories and an emphasis on full-coverage reporting. Turczyn also brought consistency and leadership to the post, remaining in the role for close to nine years and guiding the fledgling paper through several turbulent periods.
The downsizing (and eventual emptying) of Knoxville-based Whittle Communications, for which Turczyn had been an associate editor, began in 1992 and resulted in many creative types looking for jobs. Not yet a Whittle exile but nevertheless solicited by Turczyn to pen a semi-regular piece for MP, preeminent Knoxville historian and masterful spinner of yarns Jack Neely made his debut that year. His well-researched “Secret History” articles would become instrumental in exposing the city’s rich history to the indigenous population and transplants alike for the next two decades.
Diminishing returns led Capps, Pearson and their investors to decide to sell MP. In November 1992, professional newspaperman and Knoxville native Joe Sullivan bought the paper and proceeded to make wholesale changes/improvements. In addition to moving the paper’s headquarters to the mezzanine level of the Burwell Building, Sullivan bolstered coverage of local affairs. A former political reporter in both New York and Chicago, he appointed a former Journal writer, Barry Henderson, as editor. Betty Bean, another Journal refugee who already had been muckraking on an infrequent basis, increased her output.
Confirmation of MP’s rising success occurred when it was accepted by a unanimous vote into the prestigious Association of Alternative Newspapers in the summer of 1993, just one year after the organization had denied it entry. Further affirmation came in May 1994 when it won several awards at the annual banquet for the Society of Professional Journalists. Another milestone was achieved in that same year when the results of the first (of many) Best of Knoxville poll were published.
In order to accommodate its rapid expansion and newfound notoriety, MP yet again found new digs, this time occupying the entire third floor of the Arnstein Building – the former home of Whittle – where it transformed into a weekly in the summer of 1995. To take advantage of the coinciding internet boom, a web version of the paper, designed by Blackburn, was launched the following year.
Succeeding years witnessed MP settle into a relatively comfortable stasis, though there were routine alterations to the staff. Those who stayed (or returned) often assumed new positions or received promotions. Those who exited frequently did so because the allure of a larger market was too great. Writer Lee Gardner, for instance, was hired as music editor of Baltimore’s alt-weekly, while Coffin went to Dallas in order to ply his trade. Others, like Pearson and Henderson, left to live and work abroad.
MP maintained its equilibrium until the early-to-mid aughts, when a series of major developments threatened to derail its stability. In 2003, Sullivan resigned as publisher and sold the paper to Brian Conley, a Knoxville businessman. Though Conley moonlighted as an author, he had little journalistic experience. Still, he introduced several new columns, including one by noted conservative News Sentinel pundit Frank Cagle.
Adding to the upheaval were the departure and introduction of Jesse Fox Mayshark and Paige Travis, respectively. Mayshark had served in some capacity for the paper since 1996 and most recently as editor in chief, but he had left for New York the preceding year to be an editor for the Times. Travis, though she had interned at and worked for MP previously, was elevated to the difficult position of arts and entertainment editor immediately upon her arrival.
But, with a glut of grizzled veteran holdouts from the ‘90s like Mike Gibson and Joe Tarr showing the ropes to an inexperienced yet talented crop of newcomers, MP persevered. The paper demonstrated tremendous faith in its youngsters, too, even promoting then 25-year-old Leslie Wylie to editor in chief in 2006.
And at least the staff had familiar accommodations in which to work. Again needing more space, MP relocated back to the Burwell near the end of 2004, this time taking up two of its floors. Sadly, this would function as the paper’s last home, as the next challenge with which it was confronted ultimately proved to be insurmountable.
Conley’s decision in 2007 to sell MP to media conglomerate E.W. Scripps Co. was met with sharp criticism. Over the course of its 16 years of existence, the paper had eschewed mainstream ideals in favor of championing alternative viewpoints. For it to be acquired by the same corporation that owned the News Sentinel seemed unfathomable to many forward-thinking Knoxvillians. Hoping to alleviate the public’s concern, Scripps pledged to bring back into the fold a familiar face to help ease the transition.
Scripps did deliver on its promise, reinstating to his former position Turczyn, who with his family had moved back to the area in 2005. He had been working at Scripps-operated HGTV, but he jumped at the chance to return to MP after Wylie announced that she was leaving in order to pursue an equestrian career. Naturally, he was greeted warmly and with open arms, as were the hires of Matthew Everett as arts and entertainment editor and Travis Gray as art director.
Still, a general uneasiness about what the future held persisted. To be fair, though, MP continued to operate as it always had for years after the takeover, the staff churning out award-winning investigative pieces and providing total coverage with respect to local happenings. For its part, too, Scripps was responsible for cleaning up the appearance of the paper, overseeing a complete overhaul of its design and providing the website with a much-needed facelift.
The overall tone of the paper seemed muted, though, especially in comparison to how lively it had been pre-2007. And while no overt censorship of its writers was detectable, an article published in Columbia Journalism Review recently detailed how one writer, Cari Wade Gervin, repeatedly had been chastised for social media postings – made on both her work and private accounts – that her superiors found to be objectionable.
Although it was not widely reported, on July 30 of this year, MP shared on its Facebook page a link to a News Sentinel article announcing a merger between Scripps and Milwaukee-based Journal Communications Inc. Contained in it was the revelation that both companies would be shedding their newspaper assets and funneling them into a new, publicly traded entity. Certainly, such a realignment meant that MP could be impacted in some way at some point in the future, but there was no indication of what, specifically, the ramifications might be. More telling was the addendum to the Facebook post, which pointed out that the paper had not been mentioned anywhere in the article.
The very next day, the webpage went live after yet another redesign. This time, however, the results were disappointing. Gone was the user-friendly interface, replaced instead with a sterile front page that looked eerily similar to that of the News Sentinel. Even more frightening, though, was the fact that the event calendar – so reliable for so long and MP’s trademark since its inception – had been incorporated into Eventful, a generic database stored on a server located in San Diego. In retrospect, this move likely sounded the death knell for the paper.
With no advance warning, on October 15 the News Sentinel announced 23 layoffs (including all of the MP staff), which accounted for a combined 6% of its workforce. News Sentinel publisher Patrick Birmingham, explaining the dismissals, alluded to the competition between the two papers and cited projections that indicated MP eventually would lose its parent company’s money. He stated that severance packages would be extended to those employees who had been terminated, but he confirmed also that the offers could be rescinded to individuals who divulge details of the layoffs to members of the media. Although it is not an official gag order, no one yet has spoken publicly about the situation.
MP’s presence will be sorely missed, not just by its readers, but also – and perhaps even more so – by the people whose names graced its pages for the last 23 years. In many ways, the evolution of the paper paralleled the rebirth of downtown Knoxville; staffers even had multiple bird’s eye views from which to watch the rejuvenation take place. Given how integral their words were to the cause, it is a shame that they were denied the opportunity to write the final chapter on the matter.
Below are a few testimonials from East Tennesseans who either adored the Metro Pulse or at some point worked for the paper.
Ironically, I started my job as Promotions Director for Metro Pulse after 100.3 The River was purchased by a corporate media company, which led to way too many good people losing their jobs (including my Promotions Director position), and way too many people losing a quality commercial radio station with lots of local support.
I can relate to what went down with Metro Pulse in many ways. I wrote one of their first cover stories, an interview with my good buddy, Scott Miller, in 1991 (Metro Pulse Vol. 1, No. 8 Nov. 25-Dec. 9, 1991). So many of their fantastic music writers through the years graciously gave so much great ink to the many, many live shows and events that I had a part in booking and/or promoting through the years. The readers voted me “Knoxville’s Unsung Hero”, I believe, in 1994. And, in 2007, I finished runner-up to Bruce Pearl for “Knoxvillian of the Year,” beating out both the city and county mayors, at that time. We were very proud to have had Metro Pulse as a media partner in this market for the last 10 years at WUTK 90.3 The Rock. WUTK loved working with Metro Pulse on several events, especially their anniversary “MetroFest” fund raiser concerts, and the annual “Best Of Knoxville” celebrations.
And, as I stated at the beginning, I was lucky enough to work at Metro Pulse from Sept. 2003-Oct. 2004. Brian Conley and Johnny Wright hired me with no print media experience, but the transition was made so much easier by working with a group of very talented people, many of whom I already had very friendly relationships, and with whom I spent lots of time chatting about music for many years. They allowed me to run with some promotional ideas that were a bit different for the print media world, but they all made so much sense because of the positive impact that Metro Pulse had. One of the first events we pulled off was one of, if not the very first, live show on the new Market Square stage. As I recall, it was a very chilly 2003 November weeknight. We could not serve beer, so the patio at the very new Preservation Pub was packed for the show.
We also had a blast working directly with Jack Rentfro when “Cumberland Avenue Revisited” came out. The books were basically distributed out of Metro Pulse, and Jack’s vehicle. We keep a copy of that book in the control room at WUTK.
And, we put together the amazing “MetroFest” concert on Market Square on Sept. 11, 2004. It was a fantastic celebration of Knoxville music with reunion shows, Clifford Curry, Rus Harper being led off in handcuffs, and RB Morris on fire performing the last set, going over the time allowed by the city, and the policeman threatening to take me in unless I got him off stage. The cop compromised, and let RB do one more song. It was a day that probably could have gone no better, especially since Brian Conley and a local lawyer helped to keep Rus out of jail. Yes, mine was a great ride with the Metro Pulse crew.
I remember the weekly meetings to figure out what was going to be in the next issue, and how blown away I was by watching these incredibly talented journalists come up with compelling coverage, and very important local information each and every week. I could tell they loved doing what they did, and that is one other reason I enjoyed working there, so much. There were many strong and interesting personalities in that office, and especially in the writers’ carrels, not unlike radio deejays in a station. I was fascinated to watch them do their work, and then read what they would come up with. My co-workers there supported me through a knee surgery, vocal cord surgery, and the very sad time when my father passed away. Johnny Wright made the trip to Greeneville to wait in a very long line to pay respects on behalf of the entire staff. They were real people providing real good things for a lot of other real people, and I hate not having a reason to look forward to Thursday, each and every week.
I believe those who put the paper together pretty much every single week of the year, except for the break at the end of the year, knew how important their work was to the readers, and to our area, in general. There would be no downtown revitalization if it were not for the coverage, promotions, events, and more that Metro Pulse provided through those important years, and continued to do up to a month or so, ago. I would not have been involved in 15-plus years of concert promotion and booking if there were no Metro Pulse in this town to help raise excitement and awareness for the shows I put together. Not having that extensive coverage and promotion for our local music scene is what concerns me, the most, now. WUTK had to drop our concert calendar due to no longer having an extensive daily entertainment calendar to partner with, like we did with Metro Pulse sponsoring that three-times-a-day segment since 2005.
Many, many things about not having Metro Pulse break my heart, especially so many of my friends and former coworkers, and so many people so damn good at what they did having to lose their jobs the way they did. It just doesn’t seem fair in so many ways, but those people are too talented to not land somewhere else. I just hope that they don’t have to leave Knoxville to make that happen. And, although I hope most of the void left by no Metro Pulse can be filled, and sooner rather than later, we lost a very important part of Knoxville when we lost Metro Pulse. It still seems like a relative has passed away, and it sure read like that on facebook and other social media the first few days that we knew it was going down. I am very proud to have been a small part of the paper that made us stop what we were doing in our busy lives for a while to catch up on some local news, find out about some new restaurant, read about a cool concert coming to town, do the crossword puzzle (I remember the first time my name was an answer on their puzzle, my telephone blew up with calls letting me know…), or Secret History, or on and on. It really does feel like we all lost a relative or great friend, and like memories, we have articles from the past we can always read. But, yeah, it just doesn’t seem fair in so many ways. It’s true, there will never be another Metro Pulse, and you can ink that.
-Benny Smith, WUTK 90.3 Station Director
I got in on what feels to me like part of the golden age of Metro Pulse after the demise of a golden age of Raven Records. The shop (Raven) closed at the end of November 1994, and the ad manager was in touch right away. I came on board 2 months later after a much needed rest. MP was biweekly at the time. Of course, a few advertisers became angry when we switched to weekly. Selling was relatively easy for me, talking to small businesses about small business concerns came natural. Being around creative involved folks was good for me, too. We were in the Arnstein Bldg during my tenure. The 2nd floor was empty, and had rolls of old carpet lying around. I found this to be a decent place to grab a quick nap when needed. Other napping spots were around town, with a view and shade being preferred. The golf course near West Town Mall was perfect. I was there when the cash cow, Best of Knoxville was birthed. Kind of fun seeing how many ads I could stack up into one issue, I think I was the first to break the $10k mark. And some folks took it so seriously. One place didn’t win best French Fries, invited me out to supposedly talk ads just to “bless” me out for them not winning. Another highlight of my MP career was going to Salt Lake City, UT, for the AAN Conference. It was fun seeing snow in June. One of those nights, I noticed Blue Oyster Cult was playing at a biker bar, so I decided to relive my youth and go see them for the umpteenth time. Turned out to be expensive, cab drive there and back was $80 but it was so worth it, seeing my old heroes cranking it. They still had a mini laser light display to wow the hundred or so folks there. After 3.5 years, I parted ways but still keep in touch many and sometimes play poker with my former Metro Pulse colleagues.
-Jay Nations, Raven Records and Rarities
Yes, my addiction has now been uncovered now that Metro Pulse was unceremoniously shuttered in October by their parent company, Scripps. I am guilty as charged and freely admit that I started looking for each week’s paper on Wednesday afternoons at early-bird delivery locations downtown instead of waiting till Thursday when copies appeared elsewhere. Knowing my excitement for scoring each fresh issue, a former co-worker sent her sympathy to me that the paper was no more.
When the Pulse started in 1991, I had just returned to my hometown from three years living in Ft. Worth. I cannot now recall how soon I discovered Knoxville’s alternative weekly, but it is likely that I began reading it in 1992 when I returned to my former employer of UT.
Despite many comings and goings with the leadership of the paper, its voice has been about the same in my mind: measured, progressive, intelligent, a bit snarky, and off-beat which was just to my liking. I enjoyed having an alternative to the News Sentinel. With daily papers closing across the country, the loss of many reporters to downsizing, and its bottom-line-oriented ownership by Scripps, our daily paper is not well equipped to do in-depth investigative journalism or to champion alternative issues.
Without Metro Pulse leading a public conversation about what it has meant to live in Knoxville over the past two decades, I am not sure that some of the best things about our city would have happened as they did or as quickly as they did. From downtown revitalization, to Market Square becoming Knoxville’s collective front porch, to the amazing strength of our city’s music scene, to learning our city’s history from Jack Neely, the paper told the story. With each year’s local festivals and farmer’s markets getting bigger and better, the Pulse was the herald and pot stirrer shaking up the status quo and giving us hope that we do not need to look to other cities to find new ideas, but can discover a few of our own.
The Metro Pulse gave me hope that my hometown was more than the sum of the ideas of the old guard who did not know how to share power with a more diverse culture. For every local politician embarrassing us (again) in the national media, the Pulse reminded us there are true originals here such as Bistro at the Bijou owner Martha Boggs, David (Downtown Renaissance Man) Dewhirst, “the sibling stars of Knoxville’s culinary scene” (as the Pulse’s lead article reported) Holly (Holly’s Eventful Dining and Holly’s Corner) and Peggy (Magpie’s) Hambright, local schoolteacher Gloria Johnson against all odds winning a place in the state house, and my schoolmate Tom Parkhill of the Tennessee Stage Company offering open-air free plays with Shakespeare on the Square.
After reading the Pulse cover article about monthly square dances at Laurel Theater, I went on a second Thursday and laughed for two hours while I twirled and do-si-doed. The paper told me what movie to see or miss, what local band was playing where, and what was really going on in local and state government through the paper’s Ear to the Ground. For a year or two, the Pulse even ran my husband’s Soul to Sole contest where readers could attempt to correctly match photos of people’s faces with photos of their footwear. It wasn’t rocket science, but it sure was fun.
Whatever the next page is for the Metro Pulse (a digital version, a white knight group of investors to underwrite a hard-copy version with a new title) and its amazingly talented staff, Knoxville will be the poorer if they do not continue to report who we are and who we can be.
–Anna Montgomery, Knoxville native and blogger at foundobjectscreative.com
I have been setting my calendar by the music and art section of the Metro Pulse since issue I. I have no idea where I will get that information now. I have enjoyed the hard-hitting journalism not often covered by other papers, Knoxville has lost an extremely important voice and we need to make sure we work to bring that voice back!
Thank you for all the years of support in our endeavors. Midnight Voyage Productions has turned to Metro Pulse since its inception and we feel the paper has contributed to our growth and success.
The cover story, which ran on our company (EDM Empire) really helped to reach a more diverse target demographic and increased our attendance. We are grateful beyond measure for all you have contributed to our growth as well as that of other area businesses.
We relied on MP for Press Releases to get out there, calendar listings and our favorite: Free Will Astrology.
You will be missed.
–Andrea, Brian, Jennifer, and the rest of the crew at Midnight Voyage & The International.
On Wednesday, Oct. 15, Knoxville readers were dealt a sudden, stunning and devastating blow when news broke that Metro Pulse, the city’s longest-running alternative newspaper, would be ceasing operations, effective immediately, after 23 years of existence. With the weekly paper having established itself long ago as the best and most trusted source for information about local news, politics, art and entertainment, reports of its demise were met with a mixture of shock and anger.
Social media outlets were inundated for several days after the announcement with emotional outpourings bemoaning the decision. While many people offered sympathetic and supportive words of encouragement to the staff members who had just been laid off, several others responded with vitriolic rage at the unceremonious manner in which the paper’s parent companies, Knoxville News Sentinel and E.W. Scripps Co., had handled the dismissals. These reactions, though very different in tone, served as indicators both of how much Metro Pulse had meant to the community and of how hurt its passionate readership had been by its abrupt closure.
For several months, beginning in early summer, Rusty Odom and I had discussed penning a cover story about Metro Pulse that would appear in the January 2015 issue of BLANK. The article would contain a chronological history of how the paper was started, how it evolved and where it was headed. It would feature anecdotes from current and former writers and staff, and it was to function both as a mildly self-promotional piece and as an honest tribute to a beloved institution by a burgeoning rag. Research was compiled, interviews were conducted and we were good to go.
Then things went pear-shaped. After careful deliberation, we decided to proceed with the article as planned, only a couple months early. Now we are faced with the difficult and unenviable task of properly eulogizing the paper without seeming self-serving. BLANK stands to benefit from Metro Pulse’s dissolution; it is an awkward situation in which to find ourselves, and one that is hard to reconcile. Moving forward, how can we be excited at the prospect of expanding into the now-defunct paper’s share of the market while still remaining respectful of the fact that it comes at the expense of others losing their livelihoods?
Admittedly, I had to look up the date, but I can say with certainty that the first time I read an issue of Metro Pulse was on the evening of July 10, 1998. My dad and I were on the University of Tennessee campus, waiting for an astronomy meeting to begin at the Neilsen Physics Building on the Hill. He had picked up a copy while we were at dinner on the Strip and had just handed it to me to read. As we sat on a bench outdoors, I could hear the distant strains of the B-52’s – they were performing on the lawn of the World’s Fair Park – as I thumbed through the pages.
I can’t recall the content, but I remember specifically that it provided me with my first exposure to alternative journalism. It was totally unlike anything I had read previously, which to that point had consisted mainly of stuffy dailies and boring periodicals. At 16 years old, I felt as though I was glimpsing the city in which I was born for the first time, learning about people, places and a depth of knowledge I had yet to experience.
Continued reading of Metro Pulse opened the door to publications like the Onion and music magazines like Spin. It spawned an interest in writing, first for my high school newspaper and then for my college weekly. It prompted me to choose English as my major and Journalism as my minor.
Metro Pulse is the reason that I always pick up an alt-weekly in any city that I visit, forever comparing it to my hometown broadsheet. It’s why I own and have read all of Jack Neely’s books. It’s why I love Knoxville for all of its beauty and even more for its scruffiness. And it’s why I happily have worked multiple menial jobs in the dogged pursuit of forging a career in what many consider to be a dying medium.
BLANK’s motto is “Keeping You Filled In,” and it is with humility and no small amount of trepidation that my colleagues and I collectively will attempt to carry the torch into the void once filled by Metro Pulse. We do so because we adore print media, because we loved that paper and because we sincerely mourn its passing. Now it’s time for us to honor its legacy in the best way we can: by rolling up our sleeves, getting to work and enjoying the ink-stain residue that signifies a job well done.
-Matt Rankin, BLANK Arts Editor
Special thanks to Ian Blackburn and Benny Smith for the artwork and photographs.