The Times Free Press: Telling Chattanooga's story for the past 150 years

Alison Gerber

In the year following the devastation of the Civil War, many Chattanoogans struggled to rebuild and recapture their former success. Old financial empires, many built on slave labor, were decimated. Money to invest in labor and new equipment was in short supply. Times were so desperate the city's business community published in northern newspapers appeals to investors to come South to build their fortunes.

"Wanted Immediately Any Number of Carpet-Baggers to Come to Chattanooga and Settle," one such ad proclaimed.

photo Alison Gerber

As difficult as those times were, there were people who saw Chattanooga's potential.

The seeds of the town's birth as an industrial power were planted by Roane Iron Works. The company sought to take advantage of the rich mineral deposits found in the nearby mountains.

In 1869, the firm of Kirby & Gamble was optimistic enough to open a small newspaper, the Chattanooga Daily Times.

The paper was only four pages, but it was crammed with a pleasing mix of news, advertisements - many for land rich in minerals or equipment such as blowing engines, blast furnaces and mining machinery - and practical community announcements. Take this one from Dec. 30, 1869: "A stray hog is at my house near the Vulcan Iron Works. It is a large fat sow, with a crop of the right ear." The author asked that the owner "prove property and pay expenses."

Nine years after that first edition of the Times appeared, a 20-year-old from Knoxville - the son of German immigrants who had worked briefly as a printer's devil (apprentice) - borrowed $250 to buy the newspaper.

"Chattanooga had only some 12,000 people and was still in spirit a small town. Yet there were a few persons, including Adolph Ochs, who realized its possibilities," stated his obituary, published in The New York Times in 1935.

Ochs "assumed the paper's $1,500 debt in addition to the $250 he had borrowed to buy it; and with his own private fortune of $37.50 as working capital he became publisher of The Chattanooga Times on July 2, 1878," the obit stated.

Ochs' goals was for The Times to become "the indispensable organ of the business, commercial and productive, of Chattanooga, and of the mineral and agricultural districts" surrounding the town. He wanted his newspaper to be known as a trustworthy source of news.

Ochs built the paper into a successful and influential publication.

In 1999, 121 years later, the Times merged with its longtime rival, the Chattanooga Free Press, under the ownership of Walter E. Hussman Jr., a third-generation newspaper publisher from Little Rock, Arkansas.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press will turn 150 in December 2019.

Only two other businesses in Chattanooga have been operating longer than the paper - T. H. Payne Company, which opened in 1865, and the Miller & Martin law firm, which was founded in 1867.

Over the last 15 decades, the business of gathering and disseminating news has changed dramatically.

Over those 150 years, the newspaper tackled many challenges, faced seismic shifts in technology and reinvented its business model. But through all of those changes, the mission of the paper has remained true to the goals of Adolph Ochs.

At its core, every day, the paper tells the story of Chattanooga.

But the way we tell that story has changed enormously.

As recently as two decades ago, the daily newspaper was pieced together by hand then printed on a hulking press before being handed off to small army of people who delivered it to news racks and doorsteps all over the region.

While that still happens, the newspaper also is delivered in ways that take full advantage of modern technology.

With a few taps on a screen, news is shipped to readers' phones. The Chattanooga Times Free Press can be read on apps and a website. Push notifications and social media are used to alert readers to breaking stories. Videos, audio sound slides and podcasts entertain and inform. Interactive graphics add depth to stories.

Thanks to these new techniques and platforms, we reach more readers than ever before.

But those same technology shifts that allow us to better serve readers also have greatly challenged our industry's business model and made it harder for newspapers to thrive. Claims of "fake news" have discredited legitimate media organizations.

"The decline in trust in the media is as much a threat as the erosion of the business model," A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times and the great-great grandson of Ochs, told a group of editors in October.

We should see them as twin threats, he warned.

Still, journalists go out every day to document the important events in our community. Often the work is fast-paced and exciting; other times it's tedious and requires painstaking labor. Either way, it's important work.

Who else is going to sit through zoning and planning meetings and wade through pages of position papers detailing why a new sewer plant is proposed, as Judy Walton did in her recent coverage of the WWTA sewer expansion plan?

Who will travel to places such as Tupelo, Mississippi, sit through a meeting of the Tennessee Valley Authority board and question those board members about the utility's business strategy or practices, as Dave Flessner did this fall?

Who else will look into the past of a police officer accused of rapes that were never investigated, as Mark Pace did this year?

Who else will examine the economic forces shaping Chattanooga as the city competes with other cities for capital, as Joan Garrett McClane did in a recent story?

And who will tell the extraordinary stories and chronicle the everyday life of Chattanoogans, like the two D-Day survivors who connected after one read a story by Mark Kennedy in the paper about the other. The men enlisted in the same unit, were in basic training together, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on the same ship and landed on Omaha Beach on the same day. But they didn't meet until November 2017 - 74 years later - brought together by Kennedy's story.

Throughout 2019, the newspaper will look back at the events that shaped Chattanooga over the last 150 years, as well as the newspaper's role in telling that story.

Our job is to be here to record it all, good and bad.

Every day, Ochs' promise is still printed at the top of the paper: "To give the news impartially, without fear or favor."

We try every day to live up to that.

Alison Gerber is the editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at or @aligerb.