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Alison Gerber is editor and director of content for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. She joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2003 and has served as assistant metro editor, metro editor and managing editor. She has been editor of the newspaper since 2011. Prior to joining the Times Free Press, Gerber was a reporter in Florida. She covered city hall, crime and education at the Naples Daily News and the Fort Myers News-Press. She is married with a 9-year-old daughter. When Gerber is not in the newsroom, she spends her time cooking, gardening and running with her dog. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com or @aligerb or 423-757-6408.

On today's front page you'll find a story about the growing influence of out-of-state organizations that spend millions of dollars to try influence public policy in Tennessee.

Over the next three days, we'll publish more stories about this issue.

The stories are the result of a partnership among the daily newspapers in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. They were reported and written by the papers' statehouse reporters as part of a Tennessee News Network project.

Andy Sher, the Times Free Press reporter covering the legislature, writes that outside groups are spending huge sums of money on political campaigns and lobbying lawmakers, yet the source of their money is often secret. And that's all legal.

Today's story, written by Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News Sentinel, tackles this important topic, one we think readers want know about. Look for these reports in coming days:

* The Tennessean's Dave Boucher focuses on organizations seeking education reform, including American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst. He also looks at the National Rifle Association.

* Sher focuses on Americans for Prosperity, the group associated with conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which spent more than $1.1 million on lobbying-related activities in the state last year.

* Rick Locker of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis focuses on the American Legislative Exchange Council, which draws many Tennessee legislators to its conferences and provides model legislation -- drafted with business interests sponsoring the gatherings -- for introduction in their home state.

The Tennessee News Network started in 2009. The first joint report of the Times Free Press, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Tennessean and The Commercial Appeal focused on gubernatorial candidates.

The idea behind the partnership is that instead of each paper doing the same story, we could use our resources more wisely by dividing the work and sharing it across the state.

At one time, journalists at different newspapers would rather have walked on hot coals than work together. Competition among newspapers was fierce. It was an us-vs.-them mentality and the state's largest newspapers were fiercely protective of their own territories, even when our circulations areas overlapped only slightly.

Over the last several years, that viewpoint has shifted dramatically, here and in other parts of the country.

Newspapers have fewer resources than they once had. We need each other to keep providing information our readers need and to maintain our watchdog function. We can do that better if we work together.

Besides, when state legislators makes laws, those don't just affect one city. They affect all four of Tennessee's big cities, and every hamlet and town in between. By joining forces, we can get a broader understanding of how the actions of the legislature affect the state as a whole, whether the results are good or bad.

In short, we have more strength together than divided, and we hope to offer better coverage.

Please read the "Outside Influence" stories and let us know what you think.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com or (423) 757-6408 and @aligerb.

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