A Newspaper Publisher Finds New Home in New Media

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By: Steve Outing

When the Nashville Banner closed its doors earlier this year — after 122 years in business — publisher and co-owner Irby Simpkins was already eyeing what he believed to be interesting new business opportunities on the Internet. Today, the 54-year-old Tennessee newspaperman has moved entirely into the world of new media.

“Some of my old friends (in newspaper circles) are calling and saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?'” says Simpkins, who is now chairman of EdgeNet Media, a Nashville-based Internet service provider and interactive media company. He describes his new role as that of “senior statesman” in a company where the oldest employee besides him is not yet 40. “I’m having fun.”

Simpkins does not profess to be a new media or technology guru, and he emphasizes that he is not running EdgeNet; that role falls on president Tim Choate, who comes from a programming background. What Simpkins is offering the Internet solutions and software company is some solid business advice. “I can be kind of a fly on the wall in EdgeNet’s meetings,” he says, advising them on business deals and infusing a different perspective into an otherwise technology-focused company. Simpkins also comes with an impressive number of contacts in the Nashville civic community and country music industry from his years at the helm of the Banner.

Part of a trend

Simpkins’ Banner folded in February, following in the footsteps of many other American afternoon dailies. The Banner was part of a joint operating agreement (JOA) with the Gannett-owned Tennessean, the dominant morning daily, but the Banner’s circulation had fallen to only 40,000 — and projections were that it would fall to 25,000 within two years. Advertisers were increasingly deserting the Banner. Gannett bought out Simpkins and his partner, Brownlee Currey Jr., for an undisclosed sum. The Banner’s 90-plus employees were given severance packages, and Simpkins says that while he hated to shut down the newspaper “it was not a hard decision to come to” from a business perspective — and he felt that he was unleashing his employees into a healthy job market. It also gave Simpkins and Currey a chance to realize a decent return on their investment.

The Banner already was working with EdgeNet on some modest online newspaper experiments prior to the sale to Gannett. Former Banner new media editor Lyle Graves, who has since taken a job as editor with CitySearch (the online city guide company) in Nashville, has blamed the JOA for restricting what the afternoon newspaper could do in terms of setting up cyberspace businesses that would have properly leveraged the Banner’s content.

EdgeNet approached Simpkins about taking a role in the company just after the shutdown was announced. He says a couple of newspaper industry opportunities came his way, “and they were flattering,” but would have required moving from Nashville, which wasn’t in the cards. “Going forward, I decided to cast my lot with the new media,” he says. In addition to taking the chairman role, Simpkins also made a small investment in EdgeNet.

Simpkins’ role in the company already seems to have paid dividends. Earlier this week, country music conglomerate Gaylord Entertainment bought 10% of EdgeNet and made the Internet company its preferred Internet services provider. Gaylord is a $1.7 billion company that sits at the center of the country music business. It owns the venerable Grand Old Opry, the mecca of country music, and the Opryland Hotel, Opryland Music Group, Wildhorse Saloon and the Ryman Auditorium. A diversified entertainment and communications company, Gaylord owns a mix of hospitality and attractions businesses, television stations and cable networks.

That investment could prove to be a windfall for EdgeNet, although it does not have an exclusive Internet arrangement with the country music giant. Part of what attracted Gaylord to EdgeNet was a “BMI MusicBot” program developed by EdgeNet that tracks music usage on the Internet. EdgeNet also provides Internet services to several entertainment and music businesses.

View of the industry

Simpkins says he is not abandoning the newspaper business, and he remains optimistic that the industry can profit from the Internet. He says, “The newspaper business owns what the Internet needs” — quality content. He thinks that fellow newspaper publishers “are doing all they think they can” to figure out how to make it online, but “some of my friends are not really conscious yet of what they need to do to protect their classified advertising base” from Internet competition. He gives out highest praise to newspaper companies like Morris Communications of Georgia, which has embraced the Internet as an integral part of its corporate mission.

Simpkins still owns stock in newspaper companies, and professes to remain optimistic about the industry’s future. But 15 years from now, he says, the newspaper business will be very different than it looks today — in large part because of the growth of the Internet and new media.

The Internet had nothing to do with the Banner’s demise, he says; that was strictly due to lifestyle factors that have doomed dozens of afternoon newspapers in the U.S. Restructuring the JOA with Gannett to allow the Banner to survive and perhaps prosper would have required several million dollars in investment, an idea which was rejected. Simpkins does admit that during the Banner’s final months, the Internet and the opportunities it portends diverted some of his attention. Faced with dismal prospects for print-side gains, the publisher hoped to find new growth opportunities in the cyber economy.

A late-career change to new media suits Simpkins just fine, yet he admits that if he had his druthers, he’d keep the Banner publishing and simultaneously devote more time to developing new media ventures.

Contact: Irby Simpkins, isimpkins@edge.net

(Note: In the interest of complete disclosure about topics and people I write about in this column, I feel that it’s important to let readers know if I have had or have relationships with companies that I write about. In the past, I have done a small amount of new media consulting/research work for the Nashville Banner.)

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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