Echoes from the past shape editorial future

Echoes from the past shape editorial future

May 3rd, 2013 by By Harry Austin in Opinion Times

Harry Austin

Harry Austin

It's not been the custom for editorial writers to write in the first person. Our work is traditionally seen as the collective opinion of an institution that works in the interest of the community and the common good. Opinions were reached by editorial writers in adherence to the social policies we believed were most fair for all. When big things were on the table, the publisher and executive editor weighed in.

It's only recently that either editorial page in this newspaper has had just one editorial writer, and was called to upon to represent the policies of a newspaper that, consumed in a merger, no longer existed. That's been my job. But I'm shifting gears from that tradition today, my last day as editor of The Chattanooga Times editorial page. Before my retirement begins tomorrow and Pam Sohn takes charge, I'd like to recall the more recent history of The Times editorial page, and say goodbye.

I began to meet the editorial editors and writers who set the standards I've tried to follow while I was working my way through college at The Chattanooga Times. Martin Ochs, Gene Roberts, Norman Bradley, Michael Loftin and Pat Wilcox were my immediate predecessors and colleagues on this page before the merger in 1999 of The Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga Free Press. Wes Hasden came aboard and served as associate editor on this page until last fall.

The Chattanooga Times' longtime local publisher, Ruth Holmberg, and the prior editors of this page always advocated large goals for the community. Though considered liberal, they didn't see issues through partisan lens; they were advocates of social justice and progressive policies that fairly helped all. That's been my standard.

In the march to civil rights, for example, The Times page argued vigorously for an end to school segregation, and for collaborative community partnerships in the throes of desegregation to dampen racial violence, promote inclusion, and find understanding and common ground.

The editors always argued for the protection of constitutional rights, and for support for equal rights in voting, political representation, education, and strengthened public schools. We've sought equity in myriad other ways: tax fairness, workers' rights and safe workplaces, environmental integrity and resource protection, health care, public safety and socio-economic reforms that advanced all income groups.

We've vigorously advocated downtown renaissance and redevelopment. That sounds easy now, but just a few decades ago, factories had closed, downtown was dead and frightening after office hours, and our air was rated by the EPA as the dirtiest in the nation. The path to urban and economic renewal and a higher quality of life for everyone wasn't clear to many.

In accord with many civic activists, we promoted preservation of the buildings that gave character to the city and kept its history alive. We pushed the rescue of the closed Walnut Street Bridge, slated for demolition, as the pedestrian bridge to creation of new parks and river walks. When philanthropist Jack Lupton proposed to build the Tennessee Aquarium, we countered the naysayers who lampooned both "Jack's fishtank" and the bold idea of bringing commercial life and pedestrians back to a dead downtown.

Before the Army surrendered the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant, some negative political leaders couldn't comprehend the vision of an Enterprise South industrial park, much less the notion of landing an auto plant and attendant new industry. They were proved wrong, and again so on revitalization of the Southside, downtown schools, a resuscitated foundry shell which now hosts the Chattanooga Market and festivals.

Bold, forward-looking city and neighborhood leaders, civic revivalists and generous donors and foundations nurtured all that has flowed from their collaboration and wise investments. But there yet is much to be debated, and protected, in the manner of growth that lies ahead.

I've been privileged to have a job, and a voice, in the public debates that attended such progress and the continuing community development that has been part and parcel of it. Along the way I've come to understand that our editorial pages are a public commons, akin to the debating places of our predecessors' village greens. We don't own them, really. We share them with readers and their letters, informing, affirming, learning from or challenging their views. Our work has been to put the news and civic issues in context, to give it relevance, and to expand on that by providing a place for columnists, guests, analyses and letters.

I won't miss the daily deadlines. But I do thank our readers. I will miss the share I've had in the public debate, and the loyalty of readers who look to The Times editorial page for our views, and who by doing so sustain this work. Pam Sohn will ably carry it on.