Metro Pulse Sold to Local Contractor

New owner promises editorial independence

Metro Pulse owner Joe Sullivan has sold the Knoxville alt-weekly to local general contractor Brian Conley.

Sullivan, who published the Pulse for more than 10 years, traded his ownership for the position of editor in chief and columnist as of April 30. He says as he approached age 65, he wanted to get out of the business end of running the alternative newsweekly and hand it over to someone local who doesn’t intend to make any dramatic changes.

“I’m very much still here,” Sullivan says. “Not about to retire.”

Neither Sullivan nor Conley would discuss the price or terms of the sale. Sullivan says maintaining the editorial budget at its present level was part of the deal.

Conley, 38, also owns and operates Cardinal Construction, a Knoxville general contractor, and Cardinal Management, which owns several downtown buildings, including the one housing the business office of the Pulse. Presently, Cardinal Construction is managing general contractor for developer Kinsey Probasco & Associates’ (KPA) contract to rehabilitate and develop Knoxville’s historic Market Square.

It’s a city-financed deal and part of a long-standing controversy over how to revitalize the slumped downtown economy. KPA’s job is to lure storefronts and customers back to Market Square; Cardinal’s is to see that the developer’s work happens. The issue will likely prove the first test of Conley’s discipline in separating his business interests, since the Pulse published a story today about why the work isn’t on schedule.

“I have no idea what’s going in that column,” Conley says. “I can’t change the fact that I own a construction company.” He says he expects the reporters to treat the story like any other and that if Cardinal is found to be the holdup, then that ought to be in the story.

The article should interest readers who’ve begun weighing in on the new owner. The May 8 Pulse carried a letter to the editor from reader Steven Friedlander, who fears Conley’s joint ownership of the Market Square contracting firm and “Knoxville’s Weekly Voice” will affect the paper’s “independent reporting and analysis” on this and other real estate issues.

“I think people have the perception that I’m just a business guy and I don’t know anything about anything but business, and I like to think that’s not accurate,” says Conley, who has no background in journalism. However, he is also a novelist — his “The Killer of Love” was published by Buckhead Press in 1999 — and he holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Tennessee.

Ashley Capps began the Pulse as a bi-weekly arts and entertainment paper in August 1991, with help from Rand Pearson, Ian Blackburn and Margaret Weston. Blackburn is still with the paper as its Webmaster and IT support staff. In November 1992, Sullivan, a Knoxville native returned home after three decades writing and running businesses in New York and Chicago — including reporting for the Wall Street Journal after earning his Master’s at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. He purchased the paper from Capps and turned it into “a full-fledged alternative newsweekly.”

“I’m a journalist at heart, and the journalistic endeavor is what appealed to me,” Sullivan says. He admits the Pulse “hasn’t exactly knocked ‘em dead” as a business venture over the years, but it has grown from fewer than 10 employees in 1992 to 22 currently, and has doubled its circulation to 30,000, with what he feels is a sizable editorial budget for a small alternative newsweekly.

Conley bought into the Pulse in 1994 as a minority shareholder. Though he sold his interest after a few years, he continued following the paper’s progress and says he and Sullivan have discussed a sale off and on over the past two years. The publisher finally approached the contractor earlier this year, wanting to get out of the newspaper business and simply write his column and the occasional cover piece.

“I still have paternal feelings toward Metro Pulse,” says Sullivan. “I try to avoid saying I still consider it my baby.”

Though Sullivan will serve as editor in chief, he will take some time off to travel. At least for awhile, Conley will oversee the ownership transition full-time and let partners run the Cardinal businesses day-to-day. He will also write occasionally for the Pulse, as he did in the May 8 “A Note From the Publisher” explaining why he bought the paper.

Conley says he does not intend to make any staff changes at this time, except to add a salesperson, nor does he foresee any major redesign or content shift soon. Instead, he sees the publication continuing as “an effective agent for positive change” in a city he believes needs an alternative print news source.

“I have neither the time nor the inclination to revamp it immediately,” he says. “I wouldn’t have even bought the Metro Pulse if I didn’t like it … I may own it, but it belongs to Knoxville.”

Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.