Gerber: Coronavirus empties Times Free Press newsroom, but our mission remains the same

Staff Photo by Alison Gerber / The newsroom of the Times Free Press is empty, Wednesday morning, as most of the staff has been asked to work from home during the Coronavirus outbreak.

On Wednesday, March 11, a group of Times Free Press staff members hosted a gathering called Brews & News. We mingled with readers, ate pimento cheese and drank the fine, frosty malt beverages of Naked River Brewing.

Barry Courter, our food and entertainment reporter, discussed his work and how we cover the food and dining landscape in Chattanooga. Readers gave us their feedback and talked about how the food scene in Chattanooga had improved. They suggested foodie stories we could cover. It was a fun, light, enjoyable evening.

I suspect that years into the future, when I look back on this time, that Brews & News event will be the last normal thing I remember.

It ended around 7:30 p.m. Ninety minutes later, it felt like the world had flipped and the bewildering new reality ruled by coronavirus had started. President Donald Trump addressed the nation at 9 p.m. and announced a travel ban from Europe to the U.S. Within the hour, beloved actor Tom Hanks said he and wife, Rita Wilson, had COVID-19, and the NBA had suspended its season.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Desks sit empty in the Times Free Press newsroom on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Few people were in the newsroom on March 18 as they transitioned to working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And the bad news has been rolling in ever since - Hamilton County's first case of COVID-19; more cases across Tennessee; dramatic increases in Georgia; school and business closings; confusion about testing.

Like many other businesses, the Times Free Press has restricted access to our building and sent our employees home. Our journalists are working remotely - reporting the news from out in the community and at their kitchen tables. Our large, beautiful, normally lively newsroom feels very lonely. It's the first time in the paper's 150-year history that the newsroom has been shut. It hurts. But we don't have to be together to cover our community, and I assure you, we will be on this job every minute.

For me, the one bright spot in this global emergency has been seeing how the Times Free Press newsroom rallied and acted with urgency and a grave sense of responsibility to cover this crisis.

Our journalists instinctively know our readers and our community rely on the newspaper to deliver a steady stream of current, accurate information. As the coronavirus crisis unfolded this week, our reporters filed story after story, chased tip after tip. And as we adjust to this new way of working, we have not missed a step.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A small bottle of hand sanitizer is seen on the desk of Sports Editor Stephen Hargis at the Times Free Press newsroom on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Due to the coronavirus pandemic editorial staff was forced to work from home.

Our reporters and photographers are out in the community, even though they might feel safer inside. Not one of them has suggested to me that they don't want to do this work. Some of them have asked about ways we can help disseminate information to vulnerable populations who don't have access to information about the virus. Reporter Rosana Hughes translated information from the health department into Spanish to serve the immigrant community; reporters Sarah Grace Taylor and Wyatt Massey are taking papers to members of the homeless community.

They're all working with the public service mentality that drew them to this business and keeps them here.

The paper has opened access to our coronavirus content, so anyone can read it, not just subscribers. We did this because more than ever, the community - the whole community, not just our subscribers - needs fact-based information. And our website metrics show that readers are devouring the content. After the coronavirus got real in America on March 11, our story pageviews increased 385% week over week. People want and need this information.

While we take with extreme seriousness our responsibility to provide this public service, it underscores a massive challenge our whole industry faces. Too often, people don't feel like they should have to pay for news. They say it should be free. But our work - the work to produce reliable, credible, deeply reported news - is as expensive as it is essential. We have to pay reporters, photographers, editors, page designers and web producers, and spend money on paper and ink and gas to deliver your paper.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Editor Alison Gerber works in her office in the Times Free Press newsroom on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Due to the coronavirus pandemic editorial staff was forced to work from home.

Expecting us to offer the news for free is a bit like not wanting to spend tax money on a police department but expecting an officer to show up when your house gets burgled.

When the coronavirus crisis is over, we'll still be here covering the Chattanooga region. No one else can cover this community the way the Times Free Press can; no one else has a staff to bring the breadth of coverage that we provide. But for this type of coverage to continue, we need your support. We need it now, and we need it when there is not a public health crisis.

A little over a week ago, we were chatting with readers at the brewery about the local restaurant scene. Now, many restaurants are shut, in financial trouble and laying off staff. The world changes fast. I promise your newspaper will be here to document the change, to help you navigate it, to bring you essential information as the world shifts under your feet. Help us keep it that way. Support local journalism.

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