Memphis Paper Juggling Final Four and King Assassination Anniversary

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By: Joe Strupp

The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn., has been preparing for months to cover the 40th anniversary on Friday of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

But then, last Sunday, another major story broke: the University of Memphis Tigers won a spot in the NCAA’s men’s basketball championship Final Four, which will be played this weekend.

With two of the city’s biggest stories hitting during the same week, it has made for both challenges and excitement, editors and business-side executives said.

“It is almost the perfect storm,” said Lou Lambert, consumer sales and marketing manager, who added that the paper has increased single-copy press runs by 3,000 each day and plans to add 5,000 on Sunday, the day after the first Final Four game. “It is just going to continue as this week goes on.”

Managing Editor Scott Sines said the paper has had to juggle coverage carefully so as not to diminish one story in favor of the other.

“It has been pretty evenly split on Page One,” he said. “I think it is tilted toward the Tigers throughout the paper and you have the sports section churning out stuff. But don’t think we have given short shrift to Martin Luther King. We have been building to things for him since [his birthday] in January.”

Editor Chris Peck points out that the King anniversary also has allowed the paper to take a deep look at racial issues in Memphis dating back to the King assassination and today. He admits that the paper is still living with fallout from some neglect on racial issues by past editors of decades ago.

“There is residual distrust of the paper that goes back 100 years, when it was a confederate newspaper in the Civil War and we weren?t as quick to recognize civil rights in the 60s,” says Peck. “The fastest growing readership in the Commercial Appeal is middle class black households and that is a very important thing to us. The paper takes seriously this anniversary to talk about it.”

Peck said the paper has stopped short of offering the kind of apology some papers, such as the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, have published about past civil rights coverage. But he cites a recent column on March 16 by Editorial Page Editor Otis Sanford that made clear the Commercial Appeal at least regrets its past practice in that area, particularly coverage of the city sanitation strike that drew King to Memphis in April 1968.

“This newspaper, along with other media outlets in town, devoted plenty of resources to covering the story,” Sanford wrote. “So no apology is forthcoming for having missed it. But was the coverage fair?”

Sanford later added that, “? editorials published during, and after, the strike and King’s assassination erred by failing to see the walkout as a civil rights issue. Editorial board members in 1968, none of whom are still alive, failed to understand the frustration from decades of unequal treatment, lack of job opportunities and second-class citizenship that most African-Americans in Memphis, particularly young people, felt. We simply did not see the link between that frustration and the strike.”

Noted Peck: “You can?t un-ring the bell, but it is important to acknowledge it.”

Numerous Page One stories on the basketball team have run, with other inside stories, according to Sines, who added that King-related coverage has averaged three to five stories each day throughout the paper this week. He noted that last Sunday saw 10 King stories.

“Most of it is event coverage,” Sines said of King articles. “We are covering those things that have got to be done.”

On Friday, Sines said, the paper has decided to purposely push Final Four coverage back inside the paper and devote the entire front page to King, with a commemorative Page One and four to six pages of stories devoted to him in the first part of the paper.

A teaser to inside NCAA coverage will be at the bottom of the front page, but all Final Four stories that day will be further back, Sines said. “As a newspaper, we are taking a time out on Friday from the NCAA, a low-key approach,” Sines stressed. “We are intentionally turning down the volume on the Tigers that day.”

On Saturday, the juggling continues with plans for a rare “above the nameplate” King-related headline on Page One, with Final Four coverage below the name, Sines said. That day’s paper also will include a Final Four special section that could top 20 pages. King coverage will likely span six pages and feature reports on a massive march expected to draw up to 10,000 people.

“If the Tigers win on Saturday, that is the big [Sunday] story,” he added. “But we will have a wrap-up of King coverage on Sunday, too.”

The paper plans to send six reporters and photographers to San Antonio, Texas, for the Final Four, which begins with first-round games on Saturday and ends with the championship game Monday night.

Another Tigers special section also is planned for Tuesday, possibly 24 pages, according to Lambert. “I think we are managing to handle it all,” said Sines. “We are managing a lot of it with our existing space budget.”

Sines added that staffers are having to be turned away who want to write about one or both stories: “We’ve got volunteers waiting to work.”

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