June 28, 2002

JOSH MARSHALL LOOKS AT CHRIS WHITTLE’S — AND EDISON’S — FINANCES and doesn’t like what he sees. Whittle, of course, is a Knoxvillian. He built a big publishing empire here (he once owned Esquire, among a bunch of other magazines, the Channel One TV network, and a bunch of cheesy efforts to advertise in places like doctors’ offices). Whittle’s grandiose Colonial-style headquarters building (known as “Historic Whittlesburg” around these parts) is now a magnificent Federal Courthouse whose over-appointed chambers — it was bought by the Feds when Whittle went belly-up, at firesale prices complete with real oriental rugs, pink marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, etc. — are the envy of federal judges everywhere.

Unfortunately, Whittle seems to be better at buying things and borrowing money than at running things and making money. I’d like to see Edison succeed, but I’ve always doubted its financial soundness. Even expensive private schools depend on a surprisingly large amount of volunteer labor and financial donation that it’s not at all clear a for-profit school can attract. Marshall’s got an axe to grind, of course, “and plenty of fury to turn the wheel.” But I think he’s right to be doubtful about Edison’s future.

The good news is that a bunch of the people who came to Knoxville to work for Whittle stayed after it went belly up. Many of them started their own smaller ventures, or became freelance writers, thus enriching the area substantially.