Tennessee Weekly Closes

Survived Tornadoes, Embezzlement, Gannett

After surviving an F-4 tornado, embezzlement and competition from Gannett, the war in Afghanistan was the final straw for Our City Weekly of Clarksville, Tenn., says Publisher Jan Massey.

After seven years, the paper published its final issue Aug. 28.

In 1995, Massey started Our City as a monthly alternative newspaper, and “we just grew real, real, real fast.” In 1998 she and the small staff planned to increase frequency, but only days before the first weekly issue would have published, a powerful tornado ripped through the office and destroyed everything.

In less than six weeks, by borrowing office space and equipment, the first weekly issue — a 74-page commemorative that Massey calls “our masterpiece” — came out. Business soon flourished.

In May 2000, with 14 employees and a weekly press run of 48 pages — 60 percent advertising — the publisher rejected a buyout offer from Gannett, owner of Clarksville’s daily The Leaf-Chronicle and The Tennessean in nearby Nashville. Massey alleges that Gannett then began underpricing her ad rates and put pressure on local businesses and organizations to keep Our City from sponsoring activities.

“Gosh, no — we actually helped her out, with some technology, back when she was starting out,” says Gene Washer, publisher and president of The Leaf-Chronicle. “We hate to see her shut down. I hate to see anyone go out of business, because it hurts all of us.”

He would not comment, however, on whether he or Gannett made an offer to buy Massey’s paper.

On top of everything else, in June 2001, the publisher says she learned an assistant had been embezzling company coffers.

“And then there was 9/11,” Massey says. “We were tenacious, and we just kept fighting back, and stuff just kept happening to us.”

Military action overseas seems to have driven the final nail, since roughly 7,000 of nearby Fort Campbell’s 25,000 active personnel have been shipped out over the past year. When troops leave, spouses often go live with their families, emptying Clarksville even further.

“You take any U.S. city, vacuum out a third of its population, and see what happens to its economy,” she says. “And now they’re talking about Iraq.”

Clarksville has a 130,000 population, including military and their families. Fort Campbell is home to the 101st Airborne Division, a.k.a., the Screaming Eagles.

In May, Massey cut publication to bi-weekly to conserve resources, but soon realized she’d have to stop publishing altogether. As of Aug. 28, she had a circulation of 13,000, 32 pages per issue, and nine employees she had to lay off.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices over the years. Personal,” the single mother of two says. “This company’s like a third child. It’s kind of like burying a child.”

Massey believes Our City will publish again, either under her own steam or the banner of another company. Last week a small independent newspaper group made her a buyout offer. She still publishes Spirit of the Trace, a monthly arts and entertainment newspaper serving nearby resort communities.

Our City had applied twice for AAN membership. While she has strong feelings about the current debate regarding admissions, Massey says AAN resources were vital to her operation.

“(AAN was) my association, even though they’d never let me in,” she says.

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

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