Chattanooga enjoyed the benefits of at least two competing newspapers for much of this century. The history is rich with rivalries and alliances.
The evening Chattanooga Free Press and the older morning paper, The Chattanooga Times, had different styles and traditions. But over the decades they shared the market, and had a healthy competition. "Chattanooga was blessed with having two good newspapers," said the late Frank McDonald, former Times and Free Press president. "The Times covered things on perhaps a little higher plane. The Free Press was everyman's paper."
But the trend toward single-newspaper cities has been inexorable.
Chattanooga kept two voices over the last 60 years through a framework of joint operating agreements, business partnerships that allow newspapers to share business functions while preserving two editorial voices.
One agreement lasted for 24 years, another for 18. That ended in 1998-99 when Walter Hussman Jr. separately bought and then merged both newspapers.
The current newspaper, through time, chance and determination, intertwines three notable families: Ochs, McDonald and Hussman.
The Ochs Legacy
The Chattanooga Times was founded in 1869 in a town that had played a fulcrum role in the Civil War.
Nine years later Adolph Simon Ochs arrived.
"I came to Chattanooga a penniless, ambitious youth," he once said. "And the town was in swaddling clothes, with scarcely 10,000 population."
The Cincinnati native, son of immigrants from Bavaria, had worked briefly at the Knoxville Chronicle, sweeping floors before becoming an apprentice printer.
In 1878, he borrowed money and bought half interest in the struggling Chattanooga Daily Times. The paper was first published on Dec. 15, 1869, by the firm Kirby & Gamble.
Several others owned the paper before 20-year-old Adolph Ochs took up the challenge. He borrowed $300 from First National Bank, paid $250 for half interest and an option to buy the other half.
In his first issue July 3, 1878, Mr. Ochs pledged to make The Times "the indispensable organ of the business, commercial and productive interests ... of Chattanooga, North Georgia and Alabama." He said his paper would be "primarily devoted to the material, educational and moral growth of our progressive city and the surrounding territory."
He was soon tested when a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the South and hit hard in Chattanooga. A panicked population fled and the city dwindled to 1,800.
Mr. Ochs editorially championed enforcement of sanitary laws and launched an appeal for a relief fund. The population rebounded, and his newspaper's circulation grew from 200 to 2,000 in three years.
When he exercised his option to assume full ownership in 1880, it cost him $5,500.
In 1892 he moved his staff into the Ochs Building on Georgia Avenue at East Eighth Street, now the Dome Building. It was the city's first large office building and the South's finest newspaper headquarters.
A New Frontier
Mr. Ochs began to look to new territory. In 1896, he turned over The Chattanooga Times to brother-in-law Harry C. Adler and moved to New York, buying The New York Times, circulation 20,000.
"It was a derelict floating in troubled waters -- abandoned, ignored and regarded as a worthless wreck," he would recall later.
In less than a decade, he had pushed daily circulation to more than 100,000. Today, still directed by his heirs, it is considered to be the most influential newspaper in the world.
Mr. Ochs directed his reporters at both papers to: "Avoid sensationalism. State the matter as it occurs, without comment, and in as brief a manner as possible, and yet be comprehensive." His credo was to "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect or interest involved."
It is an ethic that was handed down through his family to his granddaughter, Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg, the last of the family to serve as publisher of The Chattanooga Times.
The directive lives on today in the flag of the combined Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press.
Times and Free Press Publisher and owner Walter Hussman Jr. said, "That slogan Adolph Ochs had about ‘to give the news impartially, without fear or favor,' I think it's a great slogan and something we strive to do not only in Chattanooga, but at all our papers."
Time magazine said The Times "led the South" in a steady editorial stance for racial justice. And that type of determination supported The Times' lead Washington, D.C., reporter, Charles Bartlett, in his work. He earned the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1956 for a series of articles exposing corruption in the Department of Defense.
Though Mr. Ochs went to New York City to live after purchasing The New York Times in 1896, he remained publisher of The Chattanooga Times and said he remained in his heart a Chattanoogan. His love is evidenced by enduring results.
Roy Ketner McDonald came onto the newspaper scene in Chattanooga in 1933, at the height of the Depression.
Since 1924, he had operated The Home Stores, a chain of 70 small groceries. His new publication was a free Thursday tabloid, delivered door to door, with features, comics and ads for his stores. Soon Everett Allen, an employee of the Home Stores' dairy plant, began to sell advertising. Fowler Brothers Furniture bought ad space, and then so did Lookout Furniture.
By January 1936, the Free Press was circulating at 65,000 per week, and making some advertising revenue. Mr. McDonald bought a larger press, and started a Sunday publication that sold for 5 cents. The Easter Sunday 1936 issue came out the following Thursday. "But I had a good press, and we soon learned how to make it print," Mr. McDonald said. The paper soon went daily, putting out an evening paper with paid subscriptions on Aug. 31, 1936.
It was a folksy paper. "Roy McDonald used to have a saying," his son Frank McDonald recalled. "He felt the newspaper ought to be everybody's soapbox."
"Mr. Roy," as he came to be known to friends, employees and even family, would lead the paper for nearly 54 years.
By 1937, the Free Press had reached 33,000 daily circulation, straining its p.m. competitor, the Chattanooga News, which had a circulation of 35,000.
News owner George Fort Milton "didn't know how to scrounge maybe as well as I did," Mr. McDonald said later. Mr. McDonald bought out the News from its bondholders in December 1939.
Years later, he told a reporter that out of respect for Mr. Milton he put the News first in the merged paper's name -- the News-Free Press. It was a move disdained in a journalism school handbook, "The Elements of Style." It noted the hyphen had played a trick on the unwary, sounding "as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news."
Regardless, the afternoon paper was generally the winner in the battle for circulation. In 1941, News-Free Press daily circulation was 51,600, and Mr. McDonald's newspaper surpassed The Times, which stood at 50,078.
The morning paper started an evening competitor -- The Chattanooga Evening Times -- and competition grew heated.
But World War II brought shortages of newsprint, gasoline, tires and manpower. America pulled together, and so did Chattanooga's newspapers.
The Times and the News-Free Press set up joint business and production operations in 1942, but kept separate news and editorial departments.
Costs and profits were split 50-50. The papers published on the News-Free Press' five-unit Scott Press. The Times ceased its evening paper, and the News-Free Press dropped its Sunday newspaper. They shared offices at 117 E. 10th St.
When The Times bought a larger press, Mr. McDonald carefully stored his old Scott press. The joint operation lasted 24 years, but Mr. McDonald wanted out.
Mr. McDonald later told a U.S. Senate committee looking at newspaper competition, "I enjoy independence, and I wasn't as independent as I should like to be."
So he bought the old Davenport Hosiery Mills building at 400 E. 11th St., set up the old Scott press and in 1966 started competition anew.
The News-Free Press is the only paper in the nation to dissolve a joint operating agreement.
Mr. McDonald knew he had lower operating expenses, and he had continued to lead The Times in circulation. He resumed publishing a Sunday newspaper on Aug. 28, 1966, and years of bitter competition began.
The Times responded with an evening newspaper, the Chattanooga Post, on the day after the News-Free Press resumed Sunday publication. The Times cut advertising rates, and the papers battled for circulation and advertising dollars.
But Mr. McDonald and Editor Lee Anderson, seeing legal issues, went to the Department of Justice and launched an antitrust suit against The Times. In 1970, The Times quit publishing the Post and eventually settled out of court, paying Mr. McDonald $2.5 million.
Some of that money was used to buy a 5-year-old Goss letter press from the Houston Chronicle, equipped to give Chattanooga its first full-color newspaper photos. With bold use of color and news coverage of very local, sometimes very minor events, the News-Free Press kept fighting.
"We saw presenting local news as part of our obligation," said the publisher's son, Frank McDonald, by then president of the newspaper. "In other parts of the country, where they have not been able to get the newspaper to devote the news hole for the promotion of the civic good, those communities have been wronged."
The News-Free Press won its only Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for a feature photograph.
Photographer Robin Hood captured the image. Legless Vietnam veteran Eddie Robinson, in fatigues and a GI poncho, sat in his wheelchair with his tiny son in his lap, watching a rain-drenched Armed Forces Day parade in downtown Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, the city's newspaper war waged on. Neither paper established a huge lead in daily circulation, but the News-Free Press' Sunday edition grew.
Money was tight. "We were making $1,000 a week," Mr. Anderson said, adding that The Times was losing money.
Roy McDonald recalled later, "I had some very difficult financial days -- terrible, unbelievable days. Somehow or another, it all worked out."
When his financial situation improved, Mr. McDonald repaid 14 employees who had mortgaged their homes to help keep the newspaper afloat.
By 1976, the Sunday News-Free Press surpassed The Sunday Times in circulation.
In the late 1970s, Mr. McDonald was approached by a young publisher from Little Rock, Ark., a meeting that was to have ramifications far down the road for Chattanooga.
Walter Hussman Jr., the 31-year-old publisher of the family-owned Arkansas Democrat, was in a bitter struggle with the Arkansas Gazette.
Mr. Hussman, a University of North Carolina journalism graduate with a master's in business from Columbia University, reported for Forbes magazine after graduate school. His father then lured him home to Little Rock to help run the family businesses.
In 1974 they purchased the Democrat for $3.7 million, and Mr. Hussman Jr. took the helm at age 27. To contend with the much-larger Gazette, Mr. Hussman streamlined operations. Still losing ground, he sought a joint operating agreement. The idea was rebuffed by the Gazette.
Mr. Hussman went to war. In 1978 he sought the counsel of Roy McDonald.
"One of the things he told us was to have a large news hole, a really larger-than-normal news hole. We have followed his advice, follow it to this very day, and plan to continue it," Mr. Hussman said. "It was just a great inspiration to see someone who went up against such daunting odds and succeeded."
Back in Chattanooga, Mr. McDonald's down-to-earth approach to journalism was taking its toll on his competition. The Times' financial losses continued, despite the success of its sister paper, The New York Times.
As monetary losses mounted, The Chattanooga Times in 1980 declared itself "a failing newspaper," clearing the way for the papers to re-enter a joint operating agreement.
This time Mr. McDonald had controlling interest, with title to all equipment and property and final say on business decisions. The Times forfeited its Sunday paper.
But The Times as a newspaper was saved, and the owners got a percentage of the profits.
Though renewing the cooperative agreement, the papers remained in separate locations. Through the 1980s the papers pressed ahead, appealing largely to different audiences.
In 1990, Roy McDonald died at age 88 on a Tuesday morning, seated in his chair at home with the morning paper tucked under an arm.
Frank McDonald became chairman and president of the News-Free Press and Chattanooga Publishing Co.; son-in-law Lee Anderson became the publisher and remained editor.
In 1993, the paper returned to its original name, the Chattanooga Free Press.
The Free Press advantage in circulation dwindled. But it continued to publish the Sunday newspaper, and the joint operating agreement was renewed in 1995 to continue through 2015.
But in early 1998, Free Press stockholders voted to sell the newspaper, mainly because newspaper President Frank McDonald had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable Lou Gehrig's disease. He wanted to take care of his estate, and most of the younger members of the family had interests other than running a newspaper.
That was when Walter E. Hussman Jr. and his WEHCO Media Inc. came back to Chattanooga. With Mr. McDonald's tradition of appreciating family-owned newspapers, the stockholders virtually handpicked the new owner.
"And with the independence that we have, I think we'll be able to come up with a paper that is the finest paper in a midsize city in the entire nation," Frank McDonald said.
Mr. Hussman's move into this market gave Chattanooga another publisher with a family steeped in newspaper history.
Hussman Newspaper History
Mr. Hussman's family media interests were launched in 1909 by his grandfather, Clyde E. Palmer. He bought a newspaper in Texarkana on the Texas-Arkansas border and spent 48 years building the business.
The various media holdings of the Palmer Group were ultimately handed off to son-in-law Walter Hussman Sr., whose career spanned 50 years.
The Walter E. Hussman Co. (WEHCO) bought the Arkansas Democrat in 1974. It was founded in 1869, the same year as The Chattanooga Times.
The Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette, founded in 1819 and still the oldest continually published newspaper west of the Mississippi River, had a history of competition and struggle.
In those years, the trend toward joint operating agreements was as strong in Little Rock as anywhere. In 1923 more than 500 cities had supported at least two competing newspapers, Chattanooga and Little Rock among them.
By 1953, the number had dropped to 90 cities. In 1974, only 34 cities supported such competition. Little Rock was still there, and Chattanooga had counted itself among that number again since 1966.
Unlike in Chattanooga, where the afternoon paper was dominant, by 1974 in Little Rock the afternoon Democrat was far behind the morning Gazette.
Three years' effort could not stop declines in circulation and ad sales.
The young publisher's 1977 overture to the Gazette for a joint operating agreement was rejected. Mr. Hussman decided against selling his newspaper and buckled down for his other option, a vigorous competition. It was the start of a 13-year war.
He changed his paper to a morning publishing cycle, one of the first newspapers its size to do so, and sought the advice of Roy McDonald.
Mr. McDonald told him to increase news space -- and he did, by more than 50 percent. And he added free classified ads and doubled his news staff.
By 1980 the Democrat was the fastest growing newspaper in the United States. Mr. Hussman continued to hire more staff, and in 1982 introduced color to his pages using new offset lithography presses.
The Democrat's strides were not going unnoticed.
The Gazette filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the Democrat in 1984, claiming unfair business practices. Mr. Hussman said he was only trying to remain competitive. The case went to trial in Little Rock, and the Democrat was found not guilty of the charges.
Mr. McDonald knew family newspapers were a dying breed. It was a trend he deplored.
"When one of the large chains comes in and takes over a local newspaper, and promises it will make no changes, it is a promise they cannot keep," he said. "The hand that holds the purse is going to manage the paper."
It happened in Little Rock. The Gazette added color presses, but the bigger change was on Dec. 1, 1986, when Gannett Corp. bought the Gazette.
Mr. Hussman's WEHCO Media Inc., parent company of the Democrat, with its $60 million in annual revenues, was Arkansas' largest media company. But Gannett had $2 billion in annual revenues and was the largest newspaper chain in the nation.
Gannett came into Little Rock with a built-in lead, having the Gazette's 131,020 in daily circulation compared to the Democrat's 78,302.
In five years, Mr. Hussman closed the gap in daily sales, selling 133,753 Democrat newspapers to the Gazette's 134,027, and he took a lead on Sunday with 241,361 to 225,326 for the Gazette.
Gannett's financial losses in Little Rock grew each year, reaching $29 million in its last year of ownership alone, Mr. Hussman said.
Gannett put out its final edition of the Arkansas Gazette on Oct. 18, 1991, and closed the doors in Little Rock.
Mr. Hussman purchased the assets and the next day published the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"We survived the greatest competitive onslaught in the newspaper business," Mr. Hussman said at the time.
A good fit
In buying the Chattanooga Free Press in early 1998, Mr. Hussman stressed that the Free Press was a good fit with his company, which also owns four smaller Arkansas dailies, a Texas daily, a television station, two radio stations and some cable TV systems.
He said Chattanooga appeared to be a strong market and offered a powerful opportunity.
"We are both family-owned and treat our employees very well, as if they were family," Mr. Hussman said.
"The McDonald family contacted us ... and after coming over here and learning more about the paper and more about Chattanooga, we became very interested."
He said he was undaunted by buying into the joint operating agreement or the idea of buying an evening newspaper.
In the long run, Mr. Hussman said, "You just have to publish a quality product that becomes a must-read."
No More War
Soon, the Free Press was taking steps to buy The Chattanooga Times.
And by late 1998, steps to merge the city's two daily newspapers into a single morning newspaper --- without a costly fight -- were at a gallop.
Mr. Hussman took on the title of publisher, and brought aboard as the new managing editor Bob Lutgen, who had been managing editor of WEHCO's flagship Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.
On Jan. 5, 1999, Chattanoogans awoke to one united daily morning newspaper, the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press for the first time sharing a single nameplate.
"We expected that people would really miss the loss of diverse opinion, so we headed that off by deciding to continue to have both editorial pages," Mr. Hussman said. "I think it has been well-received, and probably exceeded the expectations we had."
Other elements of each paper also were retained, including comics and puzzles.
From the start, efforts by the combined staff, representing key members from each newspaper's editing, writing and photographic ranks, have broken new ground.
And former News-Free Press political writer Tom Griscom, whose extensive resume includes having served as White House director of communications during the Reagan administration, became the paper's executive editor.
Since the merger there have been adjustment issues, including the logistics of changing daily circulation to the morning cycle for half the subscribers. But writing and reporting efforts soon began to take on a new depth and luster.
"We have made some mistakes," said Frank McDonald, "but I have faith we are going to wind up with a crackerjack newspaper -- not a cookie-cutter newspaper."
The Times Free Press
On Jan. 5, 2001, the second anniversary of the Times and Free Press merger, the newspaper flag was changed to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.