Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press — or, more specifically, one of the newspaper's predecessors, the Chattanooga Daily Times.
For the last century and a half, Chattanooga has supported several daily newspapers that have formed tributaries feeding a continuous river of local news.
Twenty years ago, the confluence of the morning Chattanooga Times and the afternoon Chattanooga Free Press, the city's dominant 20th century dailies, formed the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a morning-cycle daily newspaper and digital news platform now owned by WEHCO Media Inc. of Arkansas.
If you reverse the flow of history, the wellspring of the modern Times Free Press traces to the birth of the Chattanooga Daily Times, one of many 19th century newspapers in Chattanooga — but the only one that ultimately survived with an unbroken chain of ownership.
Remarkably, Chattanooga's daily newspapers bridge three centuries but have remained mainly under the control of three families: the Ochs, McDonalds and Hussmans.
The origin story
In a 1911 published history of the city of Chattanooga, lawyer and historian Charles D. McGuffey dates the first edition of the Daily Times as Dec. 15, 1869, and notes it was a publication with high spirits and low print quality. Its profitability was uneven, and by the late 1870s it was considered "nearly moribund," according to historians.
When the Daily Times launched, it was four years after the end of the Civil War and Chattanooga was on the cusp of a golden era of population and economic growth.
Meanwhile, changes in printing technology, including the switch from expensive rag-based newsprint to cheaper paper made from wood pulp, had made newspapers more accessible to the masses by the mid-19th century.
"This was a huge period for growth and industrialization," said Dr. David Sachsman, who holds the George R. West Jr. Chair of Excellence in Communications and Public Affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is an expert in the 19th century press.
Sachsman said Chattanooga would have been swept up in a golden era of newspaper publishing. Between 1870 and 1900, newspaper circulation jumped in the United States from 7 million to 39 million, he said. The period also was marked by mass urbanization that fed demand for consumer products and newspaper advertising.
The only known remaining front page of the 1869 Daily Times notes that it was a paper designed for "merchants, manufacturers and farmers." But also: "For the Home Circle, For Everybody."
McGuffey notes that there were dozens — perhaps more than 100 — printed publications started in Chattanooga from the city's founding in 1839 through the end of the 19th century. Early newspapers had names such as the Hamilton Gazette, the Vindicator, the Chattanooga Rebel and the American Union. But the Daily Times, later called the Chattanooga Times, was the only one to survive the century.
The Chattanooga Daily Times was founded by the firm Kirby, Gamble & Co., comprised of Editor Thomas B. Kirby, a Yale graduate and former Union Army officer, and Patton L. Gamble, a printer by trade. At points, the Daily Times had both morning and afternoon newspaper competition, and it struggled to find its business footing.
The legacy of Adolph Ochs
Most histories of Chattanooga's early newspapers focus on the improbable — almost mythical — rise of a young newspaperman named Adolph Ochs. Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ochs lived most of his formative years in the South. By the time he gained the option to purchase the Chattanooga Daily Times in 1878 at the tender age of 20, young Ochs had already worked as a printer's assistant at newspapers in Knoxville and Louisville, Kentucky.
In their 1999 book about the Ochs family's media dynasty, "The Trust," authors Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones note that young Adolph was shaped by his father's business troubles — he once had to sell most of the family's belongings — and developed an early reputation as a fair-minded, business-savvy entrepreneur.
Ochs and some Knoxville investors tried to start a newspaper called the Chattanooga Daily Dispatch here in 1877, but it failed "under a mountain of unpaid bills," according to "The Trust." Soon, Ochs set out to publish Chattanooga's first city directory. The project was modestly successful and helped him build a good reputation among Chattanooga merchants and bankers.
This reputation for integrity would help him years later with New York bankers when he purchased the financially faltering New York Times for $75,000 in 1896. Family members have reported that Ochs convinced the big city bankers to allow him to gain control of the newspaper if he could show consistent profits, which he did by 1900.
On the editorial side, Ochs insisted that the New York Times offer objective news reports, in contrast with the more sensational New York newspapers of the day.
"He was a good journalist," said Walter E. Hussman Jr., chairman and publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and chairman of the board of WEHCO Media. " Before that time the idea of objective journalism was not well-established."
Mirroring Ochs' legacy, Hussman said he wants the Times Free Press to be "objective and trusted for 150 more years."
20th century competition
The modern Times Free Press is actually the fruit of one of Chattanooga's more spirited business competitions of the 20th century.
While Ochs' heirs continued to own and operate the Chattanooga Times through most of the 20th century, a formidable competitor emerged in the 1930s when a local merchant, Roy K. McDonald, launched the Chattanooga Free Press as a free weekly tabloid and three years later began to solicit paid subscriptions. In 1939, McDonald bought out his newspaper's afternoon competitor, the Chattanooga News.
The Chattanooga News-Free Press established a reputation as a newspaper that was hyper-focused on community news and ultimately succeeded commercially. The paper's conservative editorial voice also closely mirrored the sensibilities of a significant segment of the community.
For many of the next 60 years, the Times and News-Free Press rotated in and out of joint operating agreements, an anti-trust-law exemption that allowed local newspapers to merge business and printing operations while maintaining separate news staffs.
In the 1970s, McDonald became a business mentor to a young Walter E. Hussman Jr. of Arkansas, who had become publisher of the family owned Arkansas Democrat. That paper ultimately won a fierce newspaper war against the Gannett-owned Arkansas Gazette using some of McDonald's business strategies. Hussman has said that McDonald's advice to keep a big "news hole," an industry term for the space allotted to news columns, remains one of his guiding lights today as a newspaper publisher.
After McDonald's death in 1990, Hussman acquired the Chattanooga Free Press in 1998 and soon thereafter purchased the Chattanooga Times, as well. He merged the papers, and the first edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press was published on Jan. 5, 1999.
21st century solutions
At 150, the Times Free Press is still innovating while remaining mindful of its core traditions, according to the newspaper's editor Alison Gerber.
A statement of core values is published daily on page A2 of the newspaper. The statement stresses impartiality, an echo of Ochs' views. Meanwhile, the newspaper's emphasis on community news harkens to the philosophies of Free Press founder McDonald.
Jeff DeLoach, president of the Times Free Press, said one of the goals of the newspaper is to serve the community by being the leader in local news gathering.
"Our success in that role is reflected by being one of the longest-serving businesses still in operation in our region," he said. "Our longevity is the result of our loyal readers and advertising clients. Their support also enables us to provide promotional contributions to nonprofits who improve the quality of life in our community."
The newspaper's owners and leaders are committed to providing its services far into the future.
"We take seriously our role in recording Chattanooga's story and try every day to live up to Ochs' promise 'to give the news impartially, without fear or favor,'" Gerber said. "A strong, independent newspaper is essential to a strong community, and the Times Free Press plans to be here to serve Chattanooga for another 150 years."
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Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.
TIMES FREE PRESS TIMELINE
1858 — Adolph Ochs is born to Jewish immigrant parents in Cincinnati, Ohio.
1865 — The South surrenders at Appomattox, ending the American Civil War.
1869 — The (Chattanooga) Daily Times is started by the firm of Kirby, Gamble & Co., comprised of a former Union Army officer and an expert printer.
1878 — Twenty-year-old Adolph Ochs purchases the “nearly moribund” Chattanooga Daily Times with a $250 down payment.
1896 — Ochs gains an interest in the then-failing New York Times for $75,000. By 1900 he gains control of the newspaper.
1933 — Chattanooga businessman Roy K. McDonald starts the Chattanooga Free Press as a free weekly tabloid and three years later takes the newspaper daily and begins to solicit paid subscriptions.
1935 — Ochs dies on a visit to Chattanooga, but his family continues to operate the morning Chattanooga Times for decades.
1939 — McDonald buys out his newspaper’s afternoon competitor, the Chattanooga News.
1942 — The News-Free Press and the Chattanooga Times enter into a joint-operating agreement that lasts 24 years before dissolving.
1980 — The News-Free Press and the Times enter into a second joint-operating agreement with the News-Free Press as the dominant business partner.
1990 — McDonald dies at age 88, but his newspaper, the News-Free Press, remains in his family’s hands.
1998 — Walter E. Hussman Jr. and his family’s WEHCO Media Inc. of Arkansas buy both the Chattanooga Free Press and the Chattanooga Times.
1999 — On Jan. 5, 1999, the first edition of the combined Chattanooga Times Free Press is published.
2019 — The Chattanooga Times Free Press marks its 20th anniversary as a combined, morning-edition newspaper and media company.