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This week's column is adapted from a piece in Business Nashville magazine, March/April 1998.
At a traditional Irish wake, the bereaved would gather to drink around, joke about and maybe even dance with the corpse. At the old Gerst Haus on the afternoon of Feb. 16, 1998, the soon-to-be-unemployed gathered to do likewise, upon the demise of the Nashville Banner after 122 years of daily publication.
A couple dozen reporters and editors clustered into the venerable bar, which until a few years earlier had been listed in the Banner's internal telephone directories as the "East bureau." It was the end of a trying day.
At dawn, Publisher Irby Simpkins had broken the long-dreaded news that the paper would shut down at the end of the week, becoming the latest of many afternoon dailies nationwide to succumb in the past two decades.
Banner staffers had long shared a morbid little joke when the paper ran an obituary of someone over 60: "There goes another reader." Younger Nashvillians showed little interest in the Banner, even though its editorial quality was on a par with, and often superior to, the pages of the better-funded Tennessean. By the time the shutdown was announced, Banner readership had fallen to nearly 40,000, down from 60,000 in 1992.
On that fateful Monday, nobody in the newsroom had any reason to question the stated reason for the closure: All those years of declining circulation finally forced the hand of Simpkins and co-owner Brownlee O. Currey. Only months later would it emerge that Gannett Co., parent of The Tennessean, had paid Simpkins and Currey $65 million to make the Banner go away.
In the years to come, Bannerites would occasionally muse about how things could have turned out differently. It was hard to make a case that the paper could have survived in the long term, although ongoing efforts to strategize an online future might eventually have borne fruit.
In all likelihood, neither the publisher nor the journalists could have saved the Banner. The paper had been doomed even before conflicts over coverage of Simpkins' then-wife, former Deputy Governor Peaches Blank Simpkins, led to the departure of nearly all of its veteran political reporters and editors in the prior year or so. It was probably doomed before Simpkins fired some of its most talented journalists in the "Halloween Massacre" of 1990, and before Simpkins used it to promote the congressional candidacy of his brother, Joe Simpkins, in 1984. It may even have been doomed before eccentric former Publisher Jimmy Stahlman used its editorial pages to defend the Kent State killings of 1970 and to oppose U.S. entry into World War II in 1941.
In retrospect, the Banner's fate may well have been sealed when it entered into its joint operating agreement with The Nashville Tennessean in 1937. Under the JOA, the papers shared business resources while remaining competitive editorially. The Banner was the stronger paper then; the Tennessean was emerging from bankruptcy. Yet it was the Banner that dropped its Sunday edition under the terms of the agreement, leaving its rival with what would become a valuable monopoly.
The journalists of that era were typically hard-edged and passionate. Journalism was a trade, not a profession. Most of the Bannerites at the Gerst Haus had university degrees, but many took comfort in the working-class rituals of their forebears.
There were cigarettes. There were shots and beers. There were fists in the air and hearty jeers as the enemy, television news, reported on the paper's closing. There was a smoky air of defiance as a political reporter stood on a chair and raised a toast:
"Here's to never having to say you're sorry to Peaches again!"
On Friday, February 20, the last issue of the Nashville Banner rolled off the presses. On the front page was a photo of the entire newsroom staff. By necessity, when she came in from maternity leave to clean off her desk on the day the picture was to be taken, food writer and restaurant reviewer Nicki Pendleton Wood (this writer's wife) had to bring three-week-old baby Eloise. In the photo, Wood stands front-and-center, holding the baby.
Banner alumni from years gone by turned out in the newsroom as copies of the final issue were handed out Friday morning. A steady stream of former and current staffers approached sports editor emeritus Fred Russell to offer condolences. Russell, then 91 years of age, had become one of the best-known sporting scribes in America during his 68 years at the Banner. During the final week, he had declined to share his feelings in a farewell column.
Two former Banner reporters present that day would go on to reflect deeply on their experiences in columns for Nashville Life magazine. Both pieces deserve to see the light of day again in this anniversary week. Kay West's memories of her time as society columnist "Betty Banner" are available at this link. Beverly Keel wrote about how the Banner was part of her family for two generations — and about the combo-platter of emotions unleashed by its demise. Her reminiscence is here.
The final issue carried the voices of dozens of people from the Banner family. One of them was longtime sportswriter Joe Caldwell. He wrote of the fun times during his years on the stock-car racing and golf beats. Connections made on the job, he noted, had brought him together with the woman who had become his wife three and a half years earlier. Caldwell concluded his farewell column as follows:
During the past 28 years at the Banner, I have said goodbye to friends at the door and at graveside. Now it's time to say goodbye again, this time at the graveside of the Banner. As it has in the past, it hurts. But this one seems to hurt a little more.
Seventy-eight days after the paper shut down, Caldwell died of a heart attack.
Birthdays of note this week:
- Former Country Music Association chief Jo Walker-Meador — February 16
- Walker-Meador's successor at the CMA, Ed Benson — February 18
- Attorney Larry Levine — February 19
- Attorney Ames Davis — February 20
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- ALEX B FRUIN INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDACE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDANCE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; FRUIN, ALEX B TRUSTEE; FRUIN ALEX B INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC, CANDACE F TRUSTEE; STEFANSIC CANDACE F INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC CANDANCE F INHERITANCE TRUST
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- COOKE, ETHEN LANYARD TRUSTEE; COOKE, ETHEN LEWIS ESTATE
- JACOBS, JESSICA ALEXANDRA; JACOBS, ERIKA BESS