MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - For the first time in its 176-year history, the Commercial Appeal Newspaper has hired an African American to run its Memphis news operation.
Amid recent staff cuts, relocation of its printing press, and controversy over racial insensitivity, Executive Editor Mark Russell sat down with WMC Action News 5's Kontji Anthony to talk about big changes coming to the hometown newspaper.
"This is my dream job right now," Russell proclaimed from the paper's 3rd floor newsroom.
The historical significance of Russell's new role was not lost on him, when the promotion was announced June 28, 2017. The community also made sure
Russell knew his relevance.
"I got calls from folks who were probably in their 70s, particularly African American women, who literally were on the phone near tears because they never thought they'd see the day where the Commercial Appeal would have an African American executive editor," he recalled.
Russell is part of a new breed of news leaders transforming newspapers into digital publications, as the internet now dominates news consumption.
"It means we have to be smarter about how we cover stories, smarter about how we bring information to people, we are literally now a digital company," he explained. "Digital first, that also produces a newspaper on a daily basis."
The graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism has worked for the Wall Street Journal, and won a nod as a Pulitzer Prize Finalist as Managing Editor of the Orlando Sentinel, when an unarmed Trayvon Martin was killed by a self-professed neighborhood watch volunteer.
"I thought having been through that in Orlando as the editor for the Sentinel gave me a really good background understanding the kind of issues I might face in Memphis," Russell said about accepting a managing editor position at the CA back in 2013.
Tensions with the Commercial Appeal date as far back as the 1968 sanitation worker strike, when some blamed the paper for reporting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Lorraine Motel room number 306, shortly before King was assassinated on his balcony.
Just one month before Russell took over, readers voiced concern over a "lack of sensitivity," when the newspaper pictured an African American woman on the front page to depict a fight between two white families inside Bellevue Baptist Church at the 2017 Arlington High School graduation.
He said it was a learning experience for the whole newsroom.
"We were merely trying to show someone who was shocked, but I had to acknowledge, given our history and given where we are in 2017, that was not the right photo to pick. It gave the wrong impression," he admitted.
He said subsequent changes are coming.
"We just created a new beat. We created a demographics beat. You might think we had a demographics beat earlier, but we didn't. I think with 66 percent African Americans in the city--and 52 percent in Shelby County--that's a must to have a beat like that. We also have someone who covers faith and values. That's an important beat," Russell said.
He said food, music, entertainment, and sports will also get ample attention.
"We've become a much more sensitive operation. I would say we have a way to go and it can be even better. I fully understand the history. I accept the challenge of making sure we reverse that perception. I know it's still out there in the community and I know my presence alone won't do it. Actions have to do it," he said.
WMC Action News 5 took the first camera inside the printing press, since the paper announced earlier this year that operation would move to Jackson,
Russell recalled the day the printing presses were turned off.
"Toward the very end, one of the things that kind of stood out for me was the nostalgia of it. You take for gr anted you can come in the building and
you can smell ink, you can see the paper turning, a very visible form of what we do," he reminisced.
Russell and his vastly downsized newsroom staff are preparing for the sale of the 28,000 square-foot building at 495 Union Avenue.
Russell said he doesn't know where they're relocating, but he believes the smaller location will likely remain in Memphis.
With a digital first vision, Russell says, though the paper lost some longtime veterans in recent layoffs, his staff is dedicated and he says the
goal is to use solid journalistic principals.
"My news philosophy is to continue to do good, local community journalism and to also be very vigilant and to be aggressive about watchdog reporting," he explained.
Russell said 2017 is a big news year for Memphis.
"We've got MLK50 coming up next year. We've got Elvis Week coming up, the 40th anniversary of his death. We've also got a whole bunch of stories that happen in Memphis on an ordinary basis that are great stories. We've also got these two major stories as well. I'm excited about it," Russell pointed out.
Looking forward, he sees hope on the horizon.
"We still have the biggest newsroom in this market and we have a level of sophistication in our reporting staff that allows us to do the kind of stories
no one else can touch," he concluded.