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Dueling editorial pages in Chattanooga

February 24, 2010

The Washington Post Writers Group‘s Roundtable has an interview this week with Harry Austin, an editorial page editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, in the first of its “An Editor Explains His Craft” series.

The newspaper has an interesting editorial page arrangement that reflects the union of two papers – the Times and the Free Press – in 1999 that brought together two papers with editorial perspectives on either end of the perspective. The Times, the morning paper, was more progressive and liberal in its editorial stances while the Free Press, an afternoon daily, was “arch-conservative,” according to Austin.

To continue the editorial traditions of the two papers after the merger, the newspaper publishes two editorial pages each day – with the Times editorial page fittingly on the left of the two-page spread and the Free Press on the right. The editorial staffs for each page operate separately, and sometimes come down on separate sides of the same issue, according to Austin.

From the interview by Alan Shearer and James Hill with the Washington Post Writers Group –

The Chattanooga Times editorial page has always been progressive. That’s the legacy of our heritage from Adolph Ochs, who kept our paper — he bought it in 1869 — in The New York Times family after he moved to New York and began the NYT dynasty in 1896.  We’re appropriately on the left side of the double-truck editorial pages. And the old Chattanooga News Free Press, formerly an afternoon paper and always arch-conservative, is happily on the right side.

Since our merger under a new owner in 1999, we have continued to do what we always did, and readers of both pages have remained interested and loyal. Many have said that if the paper drops “their” page, they’ll drop the paper.

We each carry our traditional syndicated columnists and cartoonists, and we swap days carrying letters in the hole for columnists six days a week (on Sunday we have a four-page Perspective section). If we both agree on publishing a letter, it may run on either page. If we disagree, it runs on the page that approves it.

We do not collaborate on editorial topics, but we frequently run opposing editorials by happenstance in commenting on top-of-the-news events and local issues. Our opposing pages fit particularly well in East Tennessee, which has harbored virulent partisanship since East Tennesseans divided bitterly over seceding from the union in the Civil War era. That vehement split survives today, and is amply evident in partisan politics.

Quite and interesting and unique arrangement. So many newspapers, including the Messenger-Inquirer, are the result of combining two newspapers, typically morning and afternoon papers, but few have retained the dual perspectives when the separate editorial pages were ideologically opposed.

On a separate topic, I thought Austin also had some good comments about the best training for new journalists, and whether that comes in the classroom or on the beat.

From Austin –

I was an English major who learned reporting the old-fashioned way, from the ground up, and from grouchy, demanding old pros who gave advice when you earned it. I went from sports to the copy desk to the newsroom, and then to entrench beats: police, courthouse, politics, government and education. Building beats requires nurturing relationships at all levels, sustaining trust, doing diligent research and providing honest reporting that gives the broad perspective as well as the details. I think it’s hard to teach all those skills in a classroom, so it takes more than J-school to learn the business. If young reporters don’t get good mentoring, the most valuable part of the craft can be lost.

As an English major that didn’t have my first journalism class until after I had already been a reporter for two years, I have to concur.

One Comment
  1. Ann Thomas Moore permalink
    March 13, 2010 5:25 pm

    The finest thing about Chattanooga, Tennessee, after its incomparable geographical beauty, is the existence of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

    I cannot forget the first time, shortly after my husband and I moved to the city, that I picked up The Chattanooga Times, as it was known before its merger with The Free Press. I was stunned with its broad outlook and a roster of writers that included the likes of James Reston, Max Lerner, and Stuart Alsop, among others. To find such an incredibly distinguished newspaper in a small southern town in the early 1960’s took my breath away.

    I am sorry that, over time, the politics and the economy of the city have not been able to sustain support of the Times as a freestanding publication. But I am happy that Harry Austin, the current editor of the Times component, was once an outstanding student in a freshman English class that I taught at the University of Chattanooga (now UTChattanooga). Way to go, Harry!

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