It’s a Whole New Tune for the News Media in Music City

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In the early spring of 2018, the news publishing scene in Nashville, the fast-growing hub of Border State Tennessee, saw five entities jostling to carve out bigger slices of an expanding market pie—or to hold onto the slices they had.

These were the five:

  • The 111-year-old daily The Tennessean—owned by giant newspaper chain Gannett since 1979—which was trying to reinvent itself digitally in the face of a steadily shrinking legacy footprint in a metro Nashville it used to own news-wise, and with a much smaller newsroom that was scheduled to move with other offices from the paper’s spacious landmark headquarters on Broadway to a mere two-and-a-half-floor slice of a new Midtown tower.
  • SouthComm, the media holding company that was the longtime owner of the alt-print weekly-digital Nashville Scene, the monthly society-philanthropic magazine Nfocus and the print-quarterly, digital all-business Nashville Post, which were collectively being dragged down by SouthComm’s money-losing alt-weeklies elsewhere in the South and Eastern U.S.
  • GCA Publishing, the 25-year-old independent that owned eight weekly newspapers serving the Nashville suburbs and six local magazines, all of which were capitalizing on the shrinking local reach of The Tennessean.
  • Entrepreneurial digital news pure-play Home Page Media Group, founded in 2009 and centered in growing and prosperous suburban Williamson County, where it helped to fill a local news vacuum created by The Tennessean’s editorial cutbacks, which included ending its separate “Williamson A.M.” publication, along with three other niche products in metro Nashville.
  • BIGR Media, with 12 hyperlocal and affinity news sites in Nashville and elsewhere in Middle Tennessee—beneficiaries of brisk metro growth and The Tennessean’s smaller footprint.

By the late spring of this year, bold new notes began to burst from the news scene of Music City.

The boldest notes were sounded by brand new FW Publishing, which acquired financially beleaguered SouthComm’s three Nashville properties last May and then bought Home Page Media last month.

About the same time, American Hometown Publishing Inc., also new to the local publishing scene, launched its editorially innovative monthly print-digital Rover in one of GCA’s communities, Green Hills. and later announced plans to launch a second Rover in the City of Franklin in Williamson in January 2019, while keeping its eye on expanding through Middle Tennessee.

BIGR Media produced some lively notes when it morphed into EmpowerLocal, which added digital upgrades for established media sites to its existing services.

FW Publishing is an intriguing publishing player in Nashville because it is the recently created offshoot of the Freeman Webb Co., whose primary business is its 16,000 apartments and 1 million square feet of commercial space in Tennessee and other Southern states. One of its two owners is Bill Freeman, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Nashville in 2015. His publishing partner is longtime business associate Jimmy Webb.

To make FWP a commanding presence in Nashville, Freeman and Webb recruited Frank Daniels III, who led the pioneering digital transformation of the Raleigh News & Observer in 1993 and, two years later, after his family sold the paper to McClatchy, joined the newspaper chain to head up its interactive division.

In this Q & A, Kelly Gilfillan, who co-founded Home Page Media, talks about the significance of her company’s purchase by FWP and her role in the new concern, which has disrupted the publishing landscape in Music City.

The sale of your company has to be the biggest milestone for you as an entrepreneurial publisher who started from scratch. What does it mean for you?

With the sale, we achieved a long-term goal—which was “Build it to sell it.” What it means for me and the employees is increased resources and we are now part of a larger, stronger locally focused company. But the fact we are still local, local, local is huge. I believe in hyperlocal news and it is my passion to serve my community through daily news.

FW Publishing, new as it is, is substantially rearranging local media in metro Nashville. What’s there about your new owners that makes you optimistic about the future of Home Page Media?

Bill Freeman and Jimmy Webb, co-owners of Freeman Webb Co., are long-time business partners and are very invested in the Nashville area. Local ownership is important in this constantly changing media landscape and their steady hands and work ethic are very respected here

I’m excited that FW Publishing has invested in Nashville’s longtime successful media: alt-weekly Nashville Scene (30 years), society mag NFocus Magazine (25 years) and business-focused Nashville Post (10 years). It’s a pretty cool story really that two very successful real estate developers create a new arm in their company to invest in media.

So many people at the Nashville Scene have been there for years and you can tell they really love what they do. Some sales people have been with the company 30 and 17 years – pretty amazing these days. It’s a testament to the product and the new owners that they have invested in these legacy media products.

FW Publishing’s president, Frank Daniels III, is new to Nashville but not local news. What’s important about his background for Home Page Media?

Frank Daniels is one big reason we came on board. Home Page Media is a pure digital company, so it was important to me that the FW Publishing leadership understand and respect digital products.

Frank was an early adopter of online news. While serving as editor at the Raleigh News & Observer, his team launched the first internet daily newspaper, the NandO Times.

In 1994 as part of the creation of a comprehensive digital newsroom. He was inducted in to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 2012 and his news team won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1995.

For Frank, the goal here is to be the best media company in middle Tennessee and I believe we already aren’t far off from that goal. I’m right there with him to make that happen.

What is your main role with Home Page Media under its new ownership?

My title is Associate Publisher. I’m leading the sales effort in Williamson County and the other Home Pages. Our team will be able to cross-sell any of FW Publishing’s Nashville products if that is beneficial to our customers, but our team will be focused on continuing the success we’ve had in our flagship Home Page Media sites like Brentwood and Franklin.

News publishers in Nashville are becoming a source of news all by themselves. All the change looks like a major remapping of metro Nashville’s news publishing. How do you assess it, and what does it mean to the possible future expansion of Home Page Media?

I agree this is a lot of change overall, but our basic job at Home Page Media hasn’t changed, and that is to deliver daily online news to our readers and leverage our readership so our advertisers can be successful.

Knowing that Bill Freeman and Jimmy Webb are investing in Nashville by providing resources to our growing operation is so uplifting when you look around and see what is happening in other news markets.

They understand “local” because that is what they have been investing in for nearly 40 years. If you look at all of the FW Publishing products, we maintain a hyperlocal focus. The legacy print is focused on Nashville and the Home Pages focus is on the suburbs.

We are working diligently now planning for the future and the strategy going forward could include expansion of Home Page. But there are no decisions yet.

Home Page Media is in several counties of metro Nashville. What will be your focus going forward, and why?

All of the Home Pages will be my overall focus, but I am particularly invested in Williamson County. So that is where FWP wants my focus.

Williamson It is my home and I’m very involved in the business arena and in nonprofit leadership. I serve on the board of Williamson Inc., the county chamber as well as several non-profit boards such as Battle of Franklin Trust, Davis House Child Advocacy Center and Franklin’s Charge.

I grew up in Brentwood and presently live in Franklin. I raised my children here and my whole family is here. I am deeply invested in the success of these communities and helping businesses thrive through our products.

Professionally, I serve on the board of Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), where we are helping indie publishers get established and thrive, hoping to fill those news deserts left by the decline of legacy print media. Both on the LION board and at FW Publishing, we are passionate about the news and serving our communities. I was just named to chairman of the LION board at a meeting where we broadened membership criteria to extend our reach to independent publishers throughout the U.S.

What does Home Page Media do editorially to stand out, especially in competition with a long-established daily newspaper like Gannett’s The Tennessean? What’s your model for community news coverage?

We work daily to be competitive in a market where it is important to be quick and first with the story. Our editorial staff is motivated to do our best, led by Mark Cook, a former editor and general manager of the Williamson product of The Tennessean. I know Frank shares my faith in Mark and appreciates his wealth of knowledge about the county.

You were involved in the pilot of the Facebook Journalism Project. Did that produce long-term benefits in Home Page Media’s coverage?

I don’t think it really had direct effect on our coverage but we learned a lot about how to promote our news and also how to help our advertisers best utilize Facebook as a marketing tool.

Who will make the major decisions about Home Page Media—you or Frank Daniels and the rest of the F. W. Publishing ownership or both?

Frank Daniels leads our strategic planning efforts, but we all work together in making go-forward decisions. Our Publisher, Amy Mularski, has amazing experience with events and alt-weeklies and I’m excited to learn from her. Our whole sales team is excited to learn more about print in hopes we can contribute to the success of the Nashville products.

Basically it comes down to this. I spent nine years building Home Page Media Group and I had a lot of help. Many friends and family supported me, worked by my side, helped me get through the hard times and celebrate the good times. I probably took it as far as I could without investment.

I’m proud of what we built and I’m very excited about where FW Publishing is going to take the company, the employees and the media market in Nashville and Williamson County. We are poised for great success together with the support of Bill Freeman and Jimmy Webb.

Your 2016 merger with another local independent, BIGR Media, didn’t work out. What did you learn from that experience that makes you so confident about your arrangement with FW Publishing?

I believe we all learned a lot by working together for a year. They learned from the processes I had developed and I gained technological savvy. It was such a collaborative atmosphere. The guys at BIGR Media, now Empower Local, are very innovative and are earnestly seeking answers to the question of how is local media going to thrive. We are seeking to get the independent hyperlocal publisher past the mindset of survival and into the mindset of success. I think this industry is going to thrive through local and is having and will have the greatest impact on our communities.

For me personally, I needed resources and mentorship to fulfill my dreams. Although I was doing my very best and had taken the company far beyond my earliest dreams, Home Page Media Group could reach the next level through greater resources and experienced leadership. Bill Freeman’s and Jimmy Webb’s faith in HPMG and their subsequent acquisition is providing me and the staff an excellent opportunity to grow and be even more successful. I am like a sponge right now soaking up all the new information, strategy and energy at FW Publishing. It feels good.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.