published Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Griscom: Ten years, and still going strong


by Tom Griscom

Jan. 5, 1999.

The University of Tennessee Volunteers won the national championship, defeating Florida State. It was the high-water mark for the UT football program, whose fortunes waned over the first decade of the new millennium.

For residents of Chattanooga, that cold winter morning was the dawning of a one-newspaper town as the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga Free Press merged.

The day before, an even number of subscribers received either a morning edition of the Times or the afternoon copy of the Free Press. Business as usual in a city that saw a daily battle between two print newspapers for more than 60 years. The Chattanooga dailies shifted leadership of a joint operating agreement (JOA), or the so-called failing newspaper act, that preserved separate editorial voices in cities and towns across America by allowing back-room or business and production services to be combined while maintaining separate editorial staffs.

Throughout the JOA, the newspapers — one with a liberal bent and the other leaning in the conservative direction — battled for the hearts and minds of readers.

The Free Press took a picture and printed anything and everything that walked, talked or chewed gum. There were more sports writers on the Free Press staff than at most major metropolitan dailies in large Eastern cities. But that was its choice in reaching readers.

For the Times, there was more of a planned, feature approach.

Then the two newspapers merged.

The first day and for many months, there were struggles with ending sentences with periods and locating the continuation of a story from one page to another. Readers asked what happened from one day to the next other than the merger. In other words, the day before the merger in both newspapers, stories had the correct punctuation and jumps actually could be traced to the specified page.

The newspaper, which for two years carried a massive, two-name banner that made the front-page designers cringe, bore a single name — the Chattanooga Times Free Press — and the date was Jan. 5, 2001.

With a name and a new design came the push to be a voice for the people of Chattanooga and Hamilton County,

but also for those who reside in cities and counties across the state line in Georgia and up the road on I-75 and I-24 in Tennessee. There are even corners in Alabama and North Carolina that look to the Times Free Press for news and information.

Bureaus were set up in Knoxville to cover the University of Tennessee athletic programs; in Washington to follow the actions of lawmakers from our multistate area; and in Nashville, where the Times had a daily reporter, to provide more information on state government. With the push into North Georgia, reporting on the actions of the Georgia General Assembly became part of the Times Free Press, and a bureau was set up in Dalton.

When the Iraq war began, the Times Free Press dispatched a reporter, who was embedded with the area National Guard unit and offered readers back

home insights into troops’ daily lives in a war zone.

Two special sections and one online extension from a print story occurred.

Sept. 11, 2001, as airplanes struck the twin towers in New York and crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the Times Free Press printed a midday edition. As Volkswagen chose Chattanooga over a competitor in Alabama as the location for its North American manufacturing facility, a banner headline proclaiming “It’s Chattanooga” was held aloft at the VW news conference.

As the 2000 presidential election between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore stretched over several weeks, three front pages and one online kept readers abreast of the latest developments.

Another Jan. 5 is on the horizon, and this one marks the 10th anniversary of the merger of the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga Free Press into the Chattanooga Times Free Press. You will find a week’s worth of the “best of” from 10 years and a look at how technology has shifted our product offerings during this first decade. Ink on paper is still the standard, but now the multi-dimensional approach brings audio, video, e-mail, podcasts, RSS feeds, mobile phones and other digital platforms into the equation. Multiple audiences being reached over multiple channels at multiple times.

An interesting 10 years since that first Jan. 5, which happens to be the birthday of the owner, Walter Hussman.

To reach Tom Griscom, call (423) 757-6472 or e-mail tgriscom@timesfreepress.com.

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