Calkins: Help us ‘crazy’ Memphians save local journalism

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 25, 2020 4:49 PM CT | Published: March 24, 2020 3:25 PM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

I was sitting at my desk, more than two decades ago, when I first learned that a group of Memphians was trying to bring an NBA team to the city.

It seemed nutty at the time. Memphis was just getting over its decades-long, failed pursuit of an NFL team. 

The NBA wasn’t coming to Memphis. What kind of lunatics would think they could pull that off?

Memphis lunatics, as it turned out. 

And here we are, all these years later, waiting for Ja Morant and the Grizzlies to return and entertain us once again.

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Memphis lunatics are my favorite kind. 

I wrote the first draft of this column a couple weeks ago, before the coronavirus pandemic shut us all down. But the essential point is even more true today. This is a town that is just crazy enough to see possibilities that other people don’t necessarily see, to see solutions that can change a city — and the world.

Clarence Saunders had the crazy idea of letting people shop for their own groceries. He opened the first self-serve Piggly Wiggly at 79 Jefferson Ave. in 1916. Before long, that was the way everyone shopped.

Kemmons Wilson had the crazy idea that he could build a national chain of comfortable, roadside hotels, to serve Americans as they hit the highways. He opened the first Holiday Inn at 4925 Summer Ave. in 1952. Before long, there were Holiday Inns everywhere.

Fred Smith had the crazy idea that he could deliver letters and packages overnight. He founded Federal Express in 1971 and moved it to Memphis in 1973. I’m going to assume you know the rest.

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The point is, Memphians are just audacious enough to think they can find solutions. That’s what defines us as much as anything else. We roll up our sleeves. We innovate. It’s what links Robert Church to Danny Thomas to B.B. King to Scott Morris to Saunders to Wilson to Smith. 

It’s why I wasn’t surprised to discover that Opera Memphis had immediately decided to bring joy to those in quarantine by serenading them from a flat-bed truck. It’s why I wasn’t surprised to learn that teachers at multiple elementary schools in the area had decided to reach out to their students by driving through their neighborhoods in impromptu coronavirus parades.

And it’s why I joined The Daily Memphian when it launched a year and a half ago.

We need a new model for local journalism. The old one doesn’t work. It’s not that people don’t want to read news any longer. It’s that the monopoly on advertising — for cars, for real estate, for job listings — that once supported robust newspapers in every city in the country is gone for good. 

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I loved those newspapers. I delivered The Buffalo News as a kid. When I misbehaved as a teenager, my parents used to punish me by taking away my paper-reading privileges. After going to law school and spending an unfortunate few years as an attorney in Washington, D.C., I junked the law for a newspaper career.

It’s been a blast. Especially the last 24 years in Memphis. When I came to the city to interview for a job at The Commercial Appeal, I could tell that people really cared about the paper. They didn’t always love everything about it — and they would tell me that, in colorful terms — but even their criticisms proved how much they cared. The paper mattered. It made a difference. My proudest moment as a sports columnist may have been the morning of the vote on FedExForum, when a county commissioner said he made up his mind to vote to build the arena — and bring the Grizzlies to town — when he read my column the day before.

Memphis needs local journalism as much as ever. Just look at what has been happening the last couple weeks. You can find national stories about the coronavirus everywhere. You can find stories about New York and Washington. But national outlets aren’t going to tell you about what is happening here, about what local hospitals are doing to work together in this time of crisis, about how many tests there have been administered in Memphis so far, about what restaurants are still serving take-out orders, about how those wonderful coronavirus parades came to be. 

Which is where The Daily Memphian comes in. It’s a new, non-profit model that has the potential to do for local journalism across the country what Saunders did for grocery shopping.

It’s not just me saying that, either. Ken Doctor of recently called The Daily Memphian a “one-of-a-kind play in U.S. replacement journalism.” There are other non-profit news organizations out there, certainly, all trying to fill the yawning void that cost-cutting newspapers chains are leaving behind. But there’s no other non-profit news organization that covers all the things your local newspaper once did. If we succeed — and so far, we’re well ahead of our most optimistic projections — we really could become the model for other cities to follow.

And this is where I’m going to draw upon the skills I learned as a kid delivering newspapers in Buffalo and ask you to subscribe. Not out of some sense of civic duty. That would never work. And not because you have to subscribe to read our coverage of the current pandemic. We’re giving all that important coverage away for free.

No, you should subscribe to The Daily Memphian because Chris Herrington is the best Grizzlies writer in the universe (by a wide margin), because Jennifer Biggs loves Memphis food even more than you do, because Bill Dries is indispensable on City Hall and Wayne Risher is indispensable on FedEx, because our photographers capture images that will stay with you the rest of your life, because these last two weeks have demonstrated just how vital local journalism is to each of our daily lives. 

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You should subscribe to The Daily Memphian because you want to read a paper that has the same audacious spirit as the city it covers. Because you can’t enjoy, understand, appreciate or do business in your city without the information and insight The Daily Memphian provides every day.

It’s sort of crazy, when you think about it. Who would try and create a new news organization when the old ones are so obviously dying? What kind of lunatics would think they could pull that off?

Memphis lunatics, as it turned out.

The kind that change the world.


Geoff Calkins The Daily Memphian

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