As anniversaries go, 15 years is no biggie.
Still, some of us old timers at the Times Free Press can't help but reminisce about the fall and winter of 1998-1999 -- 15 years ago -- when Chattanooga became a one-newspaper town.
Thinking back, it was the year the University of Tennessee was driving toward a national championship in football. President Bill Clinton was embroiled in the sex scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky. And the federal budget -- believe it or not -- was balanced.
But for those of us in the print journalism business in Chattanooga, the big news of 1998 was the sale and subsequent merger of the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga Free Press. Because of my planning role at the Times, I found out before many of my co-workers that our newspaper was being sold to Walter E. Hussman, Jr., of Little Rock, Ark. For me, the fog of uncertainty about the future was intensified by the vow of secrecy that I was bound to keep for weeks. I remember coming home one day and telling my wife, "My newspaper has been sold, baby ...," and then slumping onto the couch to grieve.
The first months of the merger were chaotic but not, as some expected, acrimonious. By 1998, Chattanooga was one of the few mid-size towns in America that had continued to have two family-owned newspapers. It had been just a matter of time until a merger of some sort occurred because of generational issues in the ownership families and the financial imperatives of the newspaper business.
I remember Hussman saying on numerous occasions in 1998 that he wanted the Times Free Press to become the best newspaper its size in America, and that he wanted to preserve the separate editorial page voices of the liberal Times and the conservative Free Press. As it turns out, it was more than an idle promise, it was darn near a covenant. The two editorial pages remain, and recent investments in a new printing press and a larger-than-industry-average news staff shows that the newspaper's out-of-state owners are still holding up their end of the deal.
As years go by, there are fewer of us left who worked either for the morning Times or the afternoon Free Press -- now less than one-third of the newsroom, in fact. Interestingly, not a single news reporter remains, although there are many with Times and Free Press pedigrees in the life, business, sports, editorial and page-design departments. Some of the middle editors are holdovers, too.
The beating heart of both newspapers -- the opinion pages -- have helped preserve the DNA of the Times and the Free Press, but there are things that will never be the same for me.
I still miss the daily contact with people such as Ruth Holmberg, former publisher of the Times, and Lee Anderson, former publisher of the Free Press, who both embody the courtliness and wisdom of the Greatest Generation.
As a young reporter 30 years ago, I grew up listening to the late Col. John Popham, a former editor of the Chattanooga Times who covered the civil rights era for the New York Times and served in the U.S. Marines in World War II. He would hold court about the carnage of war, and when Pops talked about war, it was worth listening.
I remember being treated with courtesy and kindness by veteran News-Free Press reporter J.B. Collins, who covered city hall and the city school board for decades.
I miss the pulse-quickening seconds when a competitive newspaper arrives on your desk -- and the small victories and defeats that define a reporter's life in a two-newspaper town.
In recent months, it has been my lot to help in restaffing the Times and Free Press opinion pages. I find myself, again and again, talking about preserving "the traditions of the pages." After all, a newspaper is a living thing, with a bloodline to all those who have taken up a pencil and notepad in its name. It must change, yes, but it also must respect its past.
As a political centrist, it helps me to balance two images: an inner-city child curled up on a dirty mattress with no food to eat, and a rural widow opening her yearly property tax bill, which, coincidentally, is equal to her monthly Social Security check.
As long as the Times Free Press serves the interests of the child and the widow in equal measure, the traditions of the Times and the Free Press will be served.
And as Col. Popham might have said, in his soaring Tidewater accent, the "great tapestry of Western Civilization shall endure."
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.
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 ...