published Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Kennedy, Vass: Editors recall first year of new paper

Note: Mark Kennedy and Chris Vass were editors on the front lines of the newspaper consolidation here in 1999. Mr. Kennedy was Sunday editor then, and Ms. Vass was the Metro editor.

MARK KENNEDY: When I think back on January 1999, Chris, my most vivid memory is exhaustion.

After one 16-hour workday, I remember lifting a fork full of spaghetti to my mouth. It was about midnight. “Even money, I don’t get this past my teeth,” I remember thinking.

Sure enough, my arm started to tremble, and the spaghetti wiggled off the fork. I was literally too tired to eat.

CHRIS VASS: Those were some long days, Mark. I know there’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise and set from the expansive plate glass windows overlooking 11th Street.

I recall living off adrenaline — the excitement of creating a new newspaper for our readers, one that we hoped would combine the best of both “parents.” We were doing something unusual — blending two papers, not closing one or the other down.

If that adrenaline wasn’t enough to keep us all going from dawn to way-after dark, then the phones did. Remember the thousands of phone calls we fielded from readers whose papers never showed up?

MARK: Yep, my ears are still burning.

Yet, I’m thankful for the patience most readers had with us in those first few months of 1999. Now, we fret over a misplaced comma in the print edition. The first week after the merger, I remember a whole page in the newspaper that was blank. BLANK! NADA!

We were working as hard as we could, but we had a new press, a new (for some) news cycle, new circulation routes and a new, blended newsroom. We also had an ice storm the first week. It’s a wonder we even got a paper out the door.

Thankfully, though, the culture clash that people expected when the newsroom staffs were combined never really materialized. People forget that the reporters of the Times and the Free Press were competitive in those days. Most of us were just glad to still have jobs, though, and we were too busy to dwell on the past. There was a good deal of honest heartache in 1999 about friends who lost their livelihoods in the merger.

CHRIS: Like you said, we weren’t thrown into a newsroom with our competitors; we were thrown together with other survivors. I think the “us vs. them” mentality vanished immediately.

I saw a renewed sense of purpose replacing decades-old institutional competitiveness. One of the best examples of the teamwork that emerged was the partnership between John Vass and Dave Flessner, who used to duke it out on their respective business pages. Once the papers merged, they put their skills together to create a great business news team.

Still, there were adjustments — for us and our readers. The old Free Pressers had to get used to dead-quiet mornings in the newsroom and what seemed like interminable afternoons as evening deadlines approached.

And no matter what we did, some readers just didn’t like what we were doing. Two reader comments kept in my desk for 10 years: “It’s the most terrible paper I’ve every read,” and “It’s like you’re trying to cram two papers into one.” Wow.

MARK: In some ways we did cram two newspapers into one; although I think the end product is more than the sum of its parts, Chris.

I think the one word that sums up today’s Times Free Press is value. We may not always be the most perfectly nuanced news product in America, but I’d be glad to have a debate with anyone who thinks they’re not getting their money’s worth when they put 50 cents into the box. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.

E-mail Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com. E-mail Chris Vass at cvass@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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