Ghosts Of A Paper

October 15th, 2015

The Commercial Appeal has sold twice in six months.

Last week, the news broke that the giant Gannett chain – owners of USA Today and newspapers in 92 markets including Nashville and Jackson in Tennessee – is buying the Journal Media Group, a nascent group just formed in April out of the divorce of E.W. Scripps and Journal Communications newspapers and televisions properties. One of the children in that settlement was The Commercial Appeal.

They got to be wondering, who’s your daddy?

Imagine what the staff at the paper feels like. Not only do they not know what the future of print and online journalism is and their role in it, they don’t even know who they’re working for. The very few fine writers they have left do know this: they have far too much to do with far less resources to keep doing it well.

I’m taking this story personally.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, October 16, 2015, and in The Memphis News, October 17-23, 2015

CA Sign


In 1936, she was the society editor and all of 24 and he was a graphic artist for The Commercial Appeal and barely 21. A man walked up to her desk, the first one you came to off the elevator at the front of the old city room, and asked, “Could you tell me where I could find Cal Alley?” “Certainly,” she politely replied, and she was always polite, “he’s under my desk.” And he was, drawing a caricature of their dictatorial editor on her left knee. She rolled her chair back, and he climbed out and asked the amazed man, “May I help you?”

She was Elizabeth (Pud) Mahan Ballenger, later to become my mother-in-law, and he was my uncle Cal, later to become the editorial cartoonist for The Commercial Appeal, like his father before him, my grandfather J.P. Alley, whose pen was literally instrumental in the paper’s 1923 Pulitzer. The subject of that caricature was also my uncle, Frank Ahlgren, editor of the paper for 32 years. Cal’s son, Rick, was a graphics editor and illustrator for the paper, and Rick’s son, writer Richard Alley, was a CA reporter for a while.

One college summer, I drove the paper’s advertising proofs all over town for approval. A guy broadsided me at Madison and Belvedere sending the car airborne and leaving it on top of a low stone wall. I called it in on my radio and told them I thought I was okay. They said not to move until the ambulance got there. Another CA car beat the ambulance, grabbed all the proofs, and took off. Those proofs meant money.

Another summer, I subbed as an ad salesman, and what ad director Jim Cherry said in closing a letter to my dean so I could get college credit is framed on my wall today, “Furthermore, Dan attended the salesman’s summer picnic and won most of the poker money. So far as I am concerned, this adds immeasurably to his qualifications.”

Not only is CA ink in our DNA, if we cut ourselves shaving there’s a little in the sink. My family was as much a fixture as the AP wire for much of the 20th century. But like the AP wire, we’re all gone now and we have to move on.

In fact, if Frank Ahlgren were still alive he would not have survived last week’s news that USA Today bought The Commercial Appeal. Seeing every issue machine-gunned with typos and nonwords would’ve caused my mother-in-law to use words not permitted in society. I don’t want to draw you a picture of what J.P. and Cal would’ve done about eliminating the editorial cartoonist. It would not be a pretty picture.

Has the proud paper I’ve depended on all my life become a branch office, a franchise of the Gannett chain packaging the news, where decisions of who and what’s being cooked are made elsewhere?

I’m a Memphian, and whatever’s next, The Commercial Appeal I knew is yesterday’s news.


I'm a Memphian by Dan Conaway

If you don’t read it, I’ll read it to you.

The book is available in print online and all over town and now in audio online at Amazon, Audible and iTunes, read by the author – columns, comments and character references for a city filled with it and often absolutely full of it. Take a look or a listen.



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