Chris Sherrill Vass, Chattanooga Times Free Press public editor, has been named president of the Tennessee Press Association.
Vass becomes president of the 129-member TPA (which includes 23 daily newspapers) at a crucial time for the newspaper industry. Among her challenges at TPA, Vass said, is to be an effective advocate for the newspaper industry in the Volunteer State while also promoting transparency in government at all levels.
"Newspapers are fair game now," said Vass, who is the fifth woman to be named TPA president. "We have to fend off attempts to close public access to records, to meetings, to what the law says we have access to."
Vass said Tennessee's newspaper leaders should seize the industry narrative from naysayers and emphasize the essential watchdog role that newspapers provide.
"There needs to be better salesmanship about the value of newspapers, the mission we fulfill," she said.
"TPA is the voice for journalists across the state and a longtime advocate of open government at all levels,"
Vass succeeds Knoxville developer Doug Horne, owner of Republic Newspapers, as TPA president. Former Times Free Press Editor Tom Griscom served as president of the statewide trade group in 2008.
In her current position as public editor at the Times Free Press, Vass leads an opinion staff which produces the only dueling liberal-conservative editorial pages in the United States. The opposing pages are vestiges of Chattanooga's two legacy newspapers, The Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which were purchased by Arkansas media company owner Walter E. Hussman Jr. and merged in 1999.
The oldest of five siblings, Vass grew up hopping from city to city as the daughter of a Westinghouse Electric Corp. sales executive. Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, she also lived in Texas, California and Ohio before her family settled in Chattanooga. She graduated from Chattanooga's Girls Preparatory School and Ohio Wesleyan University.
A few months after she returned to Chattanooga in the fall of 1981, she interviewed at the Chattanooga News-Free Press, where she met Editor and Publisher Lee Anderson, who coincidentally had a daughter who had also attended GPS and the Ohio college. Anderson, who died in 2016, offered Vass a job on the spot.
Her first job at the newspaper was on the copy desk. After about four months she moved to obits, the traditional proving grounds for a young reporters. She later became a general assignment reporter for a couple of years before leaving the paper to work in public relations at Erlanger Medical Center, Chattanooga's largest public hospital. She left Erlanger to take a marketing job at The Crossroads, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility owned by Hospital Corporation of America.
In 1991 Vass returned to the News-Free Press to cover the health care beat full time.
In 1998, when Walter Hussman Jr. purchased the Chattanooga Free Press and then, in short order, the Chattanooga Times, Vass was tapped to be city editor of the new combined newsroom. At the point of the merger she managed 22 cityside reporters and a team of assistant city desk editors.
"It was a big staff with a wide talent spectrum," she recalled. " What I learned from the experience was how to mentor young reporters."
Alison Gerber, now editor and director of content for the Times Free Press, remembers being recruited to the newspaper by Vass, among others, who told her that the newspaper was a "scrappy paper in Southeast Tennessee that punches above its weight class."
"I knew right away that she was someone I'd enjoy working with and that I wanted to be part of that fight," Gerber said.
In the mid-2000s, Vass stepped back from the city editor role while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but returned to the city editor's chair after a stint as editor of the Sunday edition.
In 2015, Vass took over as editor of the newspaper's opinion pages and also has served as the newspaper's public editor, fielding complaints and concerns from readers.
She is married to John Vass Jr., former business editor of the Times Free Press. They have one son, Jay.
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