Foster: Stories worth reading

Foster: Stories worth reading

February 20th, 2011 by J. Todd Foster in Opinion Columns

I guess if we had to lose a national journalism prize to someone, we could do worse than a reporter at The Washington Post.

Our staff writer Joan Garrett was named a finalist last week for the Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity.

ASNE stands for the American Society of News Editors, an organization that each year honors the best journalism in the country. Its contest is regarded as one of the premier competitions in the United States.

Joan's Sept. 19 story was on Aquarnetta Porter, an HIV-positive, former drug-addicted prostitute who is trying to turn her life around and currently attends Chattanooga State. (You can read Joan's story again at Or go to and search for "Aquarnetta.")

In addition to the immense pride we take in being a finalist for the ASNE contest, the honor validates our commitment to long-form storytelling. No media organization but a newspaper -- and in many cases, only this newspaper -- could tell Aquarnetta's story.

In addition to devoting nearly three news pages to the story, Joan shadowed Aquarnetta for more than three months.

Our readers rewarded our effort with the kind of sweeping praise that newspapers seldom see. Aquarnetta's "story of redemption -- a troubled woman with an ugly past but the passion to try and reclaim her life and her youngest son -- could not have been more warmly received by our readers," according to the cover letter we sent ASNE.

On many mornings, Joan and photographer Laura-Chase McGehee arrived at Porter's apartment before she had awakened. They waited until she let them in because they wanted to capture Porter's morning routine -- a cleansing ritual. Our team followed her to the doctor, to church, to her AIDS support group, to her college classes. Aquarnetta just completed her first semester at Chattanooga State and earned one A and one B in her two courses. We will continue to follow her story, which she has told us has played a key role in keeping her on the straight and narrow and continuing her quest to one day regain custody of her youngest child.

Joan has that rare ability to take readers where few have ever gone, to meet the people

who live beneath society's radar and in the forbidden shadows. For more than a year, she attempted to crack the subculture of homeless young people who call themselves "crusty punks," "gutter punks" and "traveling kids" -- references to their hygiene, outcast status and dangerous penchant for riding the rails. The ones she found hanging out in Chattanooga refused to be interviewed and rudely shooed her away. Then she met "Nails" at 1 in the morning at a convenience store. He allowed her to shadow him and a companion for months to learn his world. Joan even located his parents in Minnesota. (The story ran May 23 and can be accessed at, search word "Nails.")

Here's a little background on Joan: She grew up in Birmingham, Ala., as the oldest of five girls and was home-schooled by her parents until she entered the University of Alabama, where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 2006.

While attending Alabama, Joan was a reporter and editor at the student newspaper, The Crimson White. She also completed reporting internships at The Shelby County Reporter in Columbiana, Ala.; The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News; and The Hartford (Conn.) Courant while completing her degree. After graduating, she was accepted into a yearlong fellowship program funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation at The Anniston (Ala.) Star. While writing for the Star, she completed her master's degree in community journalism through the University of Alabama.

Joan was hired as a business reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covered the trucking and carpet industries. She later covered higher education and the court system and is now a general assignment writer for the paper.


Many of you know our business editor, John Vass Jr., who joined the old News-Free Press in 1965. John's still here but starting Feb. 28 will assume a new role: web editor.

"JV," as many of us call him, will be in charge of our six-member online news organization and will ensure that this newspaper remains the region's fastest, most accurate and most engaging news organization.

As part of that move, we also are moving longtime reporter Dave Flessner to the business editor's position. Dave joined the old Chattanooga Times in 1980 and held a variety of reporting and editing positions.

At one time, after the Times and Free Press merged in 1999, Dave and JV were co-business editors.

Their institutional knowledge of this region is invaluable.

J. Todd Foster is executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and can be reached at or 423-757-6472.