Newspaper marks 10 years since sales, merger

Newspaper marks 10 years since sales, merger

January 4th, 2009 in Anniversary

IN TODAY'S PAPER

* Perspective. Opinion writers weigh-in on the 10-year milestone.

* Sports. Top prep football players 1999-2008.

* Life. Two editors remember 1999.

* Online. Video of readers' views. Blog: Newsroom memories.

COMING THIS WEEK

Monday

* News. Souvenir cover of top front pages.

* Sports. Notable athletes: 1999-2008.

* Online. Slide show of top front pages. Video of reader memories.

Tuesday

* Business. Building a 21st century media company.

* Sports. Notable athletes: 1999-2008.

* Online. Video interviews with company executives.

Wednesday

* Metro. A year-by-year look at the top stories of the decade.

* Sports. Notable athletes: 1999-2008.

* Online. Archive links of big stories.

Thursday

* Life. Photos of the decade.

* Online. Video of top photographs.

* Sports. Notable athletes: 1999-2008.

Friday

* Sports. Read about notable athletes of the decade in sports.

Wehco Media

The Little Rock, Ark.-based company, an acronym for the Walter E. Hussman Co., operates 12 daily newspapers, 12 weekly newspapers, and 13 cable television companies in six states. Wehco bought the Chattanooga Free Press in April 1998 and acquired The Chattanooga Times in January 1999. Like both of the Chattanooga papers it acquired, Wehco is a family-owned business. The company dates to 1909 when Clyde E. Palmer, the grandfather of current Wehco Chairman Walter E. Hussman Jr., bought the Texarkana Courier for $900.

The Chattanooga Times

Adolph Ochs bought the morning publication, which was established in 1869, in 1878 at the age of 19 with $250 of borrowed money.

In 1896, Mr. Ochs again borrowed money to purchase The New York Times, a then money-losing newspaper which he converted into one of the world's most respected newspapers.

The Chattanooga Times remained in Mr. Ochs' family until it was sold to Wehco in January 1999 and merged with the afternoon Free Press. The paper also published the Chattanooga Evening Times before World War II and The Chattanooga Post during the late 1960s.

The Times and Free Press shared business operations under joint operating agreements from 1942 to 1966 and from 1980 to 1999.

The Chattanooga Free Press

Started as a free newspaper to promote Roy McDonald's Home Stores, the Chattanooga Free Press began as a daily newspaper in 1936 and bought a rival afternoon paper, The Chattanooga News, in 1939 to become the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

Founder and publisher Roy McDonald, known as "Mr. Roy" to friends and employees, operated the Free Press until his death in 1990. He became the first newspaper owner to break apart a joint operating agreement and resume independent operations in 1966. By 1980 when the Times and Free Press entered into a second joint operating agreement, the Free Press had gained the dominant position.

Frank McDonald, Mr. Roy's son, served as president of the newspaper until his death in 2000, and Lee Anderson, formerly publisher and editor of the Chattanooga Free Press, remains as associate publisher and editorial page editor for the Free Press where he has worked for 66 years.

Ruth Holmberg said selling her family's newspaper 10 years ago was one of the most difficult business decisions she ever had to make.

"Realistically, it was the right thing, but it felt like I was losing a child, to give up a newspaper that had been in our family for more than a century," the former chairman of The Chattanooga Times said.

The sale of The Times to the Chattanooga Free Press came shortly after the family owners of the afternoon paper also sold their 66-year-old paper to Arkansas publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr.

Lee Anderson, the associate publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press who formerly served as publisher and editor of the Chattanooga Free Press, said selling the business started by his father-in-law also was a tough choice for the McDonald family.

Mr. Anderson, who at age 83 still is writing daily editorials, said his family was impressed by Mr. Hussman's track record and the conservative views on the editorial page of his flagship newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In battling the owners of a rival Little Rock paper through the 1980s, Mr. Hussman previously had come to Free Press founder Roy McDonald for advice and struck up a friendship with the family.

"We liked him because we had known him and knew he was interested in keeping the Free Press a Chattanooga brand," Mr. Anderson said of Mr. Hussman. "It's been a very satisfactory situation."

Although both of Chattanooga's family-owned newspapers vied for supremacy over more than six decades of competition, Mr. Hussman ultimately prevailed as the owner of the two publications after he completed his acquisition of the Free Press in April 1998 and closed on the purchase of the Times in January 1999.

The Arkansas publisher said he has tried to make Chattanooga's readers the real winners over the past decade.

"We realized that if we could consolidate the two newspapers, probably Chattanooga could have a better single newspaper by eliminating a lot of the duplication and being able to devote more resources to more news gathering," Mr. Hussman said. "I think Chattanooga has a strong newspaper as a result of that."

UTC journalism professor Kit Rushing agrees.

"In my opinion, all things considered, Chattanooga is getting a huge bang for its buck," he said. "Instead of two newspapers, we now have only one. But that one has combined, apparently, the best of its predecessors, and the current ownership has attempted to meet the communication needs and desires of its audiences."

The merger of the two papers left Chattanooga without competitive dailies or without an afternoon daily for the first time since before the Civil War. But over the past decade, the combined newspaper has added editions, news bureaus, other publications and a growing Internet presence that Mr. Hussman said two separate newspapers probably couldn't afford to do.

Combinations and additions

Mr. Hussman, a third-generation newspaper owner who is chairman of Wehco Media Inc., in Little Rock, Ark., came to the Chattanooga market with considerable experience with newspaper wars and mergers.

As the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat at the young age of 27, Mr. Hussman battled the Arkansas Gazette through two owners, including the largest newspaper chain in the country. By 1991, Mr. Hussman successfully beat the Gannett-owned Arkansas Gazette and bought the rival paper to create the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Similar combinations also came in the 1980s and 1990s among Tennessee's other major rival dailies in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.

In those other mergers across Tennessee, the dominant partner in the joint operating agreement bought the weaker paper and took over most of the combined newspaper.

But in Chattanooga - the last Tennessee city to maintain competitive daily papers - the Times Free Press includes elements of both of its predecessors, plus many new elements added in the past decade.

Ten years ago, the newly combined paper immediately added a news bureau in Washington D.C., a sports bureau in Knoxville and a daily business section.

Over the past decade, the Times Free Press also has added nine community weekly publications, two more regional daily editions, a free weekly HomeFinder magazine, an upscale monthly magazine known as Chatter and a Spanish language weekly paper - Noticias Libres.

The Times Free Press Web site (www.timesfreepress.com) also expanded to include video, audio and interactive Web features to supplement news stories with more information and the chance to hear and see stories and advertisements.

Jason Taylor, president and general manager of the Times Free Press, said the newspaper has evolved into a multimedia company offering Chattanoogans news and ads across several delivery platforms.

"Our goal is to provide information to the entire community in whatever way they want to receive it," he said.

Growing competition from other Web news and information sources has given consumers far more choices for how and where they get information - even with the loss of daily competition among print versions of the newspaper. Such competition, combined with the sagging U.S. economy, has led America's newspapers to cut more than 120,000 jobs over the past year. Most newspapers have trimmed their print editions in response to declining advertising and circulation income, according to the Newspaper Industry Association.

Despite widespread cutbacks in staff and news space at other papers, however, the Times Free Press has maintained most of its staff and news pages.

Mr. Hussman, who turns 62 on Monday, said the current newspaper market is as challenging as any in his 38 years in the business. He said he is trying to avoid the layoffs common at other papers this year and will sacrifice some of his profits to do so.

Mr. Hussman's approach was shaped by his father whose motto was to put readers first, advertisers second, employees third, creditors fourth and shareholders last in priority. Such a philosophy, he said, works out best for shareholders over the long run.

startup challenges

The merger of The Times and Free Press was not without its problems.

The combined Times and Free Press debuted on Jan. 5, 1999, the day after the University of Tennessee football team won the Fiesta Bowl to become the national champion.

But some subscribers didn't get the news. In the first week after the two papers consolidated into a single morning edition, delivery to thousands of subscribers was inadvertently cut off because of a computer mix-up in delivery routes and changes in carriers. An ice storm also complicated delivery of the newly combined paper in its first few days.

Updating the newspaper's four-story headquarters - the former Davenport Hosiery Mill on 11th Street - also was challenging during 1999. While construction crews removed dropped ceilings, tile floors and glass block windows, workers struggled to put out a newspaper every day over the whirring of saws and pounding of hammers.

"It was a baptism by fire," said Bob Lutgen, a former Little Rock editor who oversaw the merger in the newsroom as the first managing editor of the combined paper.

The renovated building and a new Flexographic press installed in 1999 improved the look of the newspaper building and the quality of the printing. The next year, the combined paper altered its masthead to reflect its new name, the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

By 2002, the Tennessee Press Association recognized the Times Free Press as the best newspaper in Tennessee and a year later Editor and Publisher magazine named the Times Free Press as one of 10 newspapers in the United States "doing it right."

Despite cutbacks at most U.S. newspapers in recent years, the Chattanooga Times Free Press now boasts the most space for news among Tennessee's daily newspapers to provide more stories, photographs and information. Such a big news hole reflects Mr. Hussman's journalistic approach, similar to what he has done in Little Rock.

Paul Neely, a former publisher of The Chattanooga Times who worked at several newspapers over a quarter century, said Mr. Hussman has enjoyed a better balance sheet than most newspaper businesses that are paying off debt from costly purchases in the past. The two dozen newspapers owned by Wehco Media have been started or acquired by the company over the past century and the privately held company has less debt and shareholder pressure than publicly traded newspaper chains.

Nonetheless, Mr. Neely said the combined paper hasn't always lived up to its potential.

"The paper tends to devote a lot of space to local news, but in recent years the paper has sometimes seemed to be a mile wide and an inch deep," he said. "Most papers are not as good as they once were and that's probably also true of the Times Free Press."

Given the cuts being made at most newspapers in the past couple of years, however, Mr. Neely said it's harder to find fault today with the Times Free Press.

Two editorial voices

While the Times and the Free Press came together a decade ago, the daily paper still boasts quite different editorial pages. Appropriately on the left each morning is The Chattanooga Times editorial page with its more liberal voice. On the right of the two-page opinion section, the Free Press editorials voice a more conservative view.

Chattanooga is the only metropolitan daily newspaper in America to offer two different and separate editorial pages every day, according to the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

"It is unique and assures that people who were used to reading one viewpoint or another before the merger of the papers continue to get that viewpoint," said David Holwerk, the editorial page writer for The Sacramento Bee in California and president of NCEW. "The problem with it, and the reason I would be loath to do it, is that it pretty much removes the possibility of the newspaper speaking as a unified institution in the community."

But Mr. Hussman said he is proud of the differing views offered each day from the two editorial pages, even though he had to keep separate staffs for each editorial page.

"We think that commitment of spending more money on the product has paid off because it's given the paper a unique identity by having both editorial pages," he said.

Offering both a conservative and liberal editorial voice also has enhanced the credibility of the overall newspaper by ensuring readers don't claim a partisan or ideological bias, he said.

Mr. Hussman's commitment to maintain the newspaper staff also has helped attract newspaper veterans like Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Clay Bennett.

The 50-year-old cartoonist left the globally acclaimed Christian Science Monitor in Boston to join the Times Free Press because he said he was eager to return to the South and a metropolitan newspaper "where there was stability and freedom" for his work.

Still, some readers lament the loss of an afternoon printed edition and the long-time news rivalry of the Times and the Free Press.

"I do miss my evening paper, but I've gotten used to just one paper," said Vicki Daniel White, an artist at the Studio 2 Arts Center and regular reader of the Times Free Press.

Curtis Adams, a Hamilton County commissioner who worked at the Chattanooga Free Press for 40 years - and briefly for about six months at The Chattanooga Times - said the competition among the rival dailies in Chattanooga "was intense and fun."

"I think we had two good newspapers in Chattanooga, and Walter (Hussman) has taken those two traditions and built a fine paper," he said. "Looking back at it 10 years later, I think it has turned out well."