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When daily newspapers merge—as they have for decades and at a faster pace during the past 20 years—readers might expect the best elements of both to form the new paper. But those expectations are simply that—high hopes sometimes quickly vanquished by the bottom-line interests of the victor with little or no sentiment for legacy.
Take San Antonio, for example. The Hearst-owned Light battled the Murdoch-owned Express-News for years. The former was the better paper, but the latter’s “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra made it the favorite in a largely blue-collar town with no shortage of violence and the sort voodoo weirdness that hovers over South Texas. In the end, Hearst purchased the Express-News then killed its own paper. Today, it retains little of the flavor of either paper. Remove “San Antonio” from the flag and it could be a newspaper from Anywhere, USA.
In the much smaller Chattanooga market, the merger of The Chattanooga Times and The Chattanooga Free Press met a similar fate. The Times, whose storied history was linked with Adolph Ochs, founder of the modern The New York Times, was clearly the better paper. The Free Press, like San Antonio’s old Express-News, appealed to a “broader” audience, shall we say, led circulation and, thus, advertising dollars.
Launched as a free tabloid in 1933, the Free Press sought to undermine the more serious Times with its lighter fare—and did. When publisher Roy McDonald purchased the Chattanooga News, an evening paper, he paid respect to the News by combining the names into the News-Free Press, giving birth to its comically misleading reputation “as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news,” to quote Strunk & White.
By 1941, the News-Free Press eclipsed the Times in circulation and as the newspaper wars grew heated, the two found common ground in a joint-operating agreement that lasted 24 years. When McDonald soured on that deal in 1965, his paper became the first in the U.S. to dissolve a JOA. The battle began anew and raged until 1980, when the two papers again began operating jointly, though with separate news and advertising units.
McDonald died in 1990 and the paper reverted to its original Free Press name. In 1999, Walter Hussman, owner of WEHCO Media, Inc., in Little Rock, Ark., purchased both papers and merged them. Early on, the new Times Free Press performed admirably. The Tennessee Press Association named it the best newspaper in the state in 2002 and Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine, named the new, merged paper as one of 10 newspapers in the United States “doing it right.”
So much for history’s peaks and valleys. All that truly remains of both papers’ former incarnations are the staunchly liberal and conservative editorial pages. While some call this double take novel, they do not qualify that term as either useful or in the best interests of the readers the merged papers serve.
For better or worse, the editorial pages of daily newspapers are the Lone Rangers of unfettered opinion and unabashed partisan politics, free to criticize and laud, suggest and demand, recommend and endorse, without any intrusion from the news or advertising functions of the rest of the paper. Sophisticated readers recognize this and, despite their personal politics, enjoy the fact that at their core the pages serve as a watchdog, an essential element of the Fourth Estate.
While the TFP’s dueling editorial pages are indeed unique—we know of no other—they cancel each other out with arguments designed to appease readers on both the left and right. Providing a viewpoint from Column A and Column B may have seemed like a brilliant way to retain some of the individual flavor of the former papers, but in the end it fails readers and dilutes any remaining influence the paper has.
Without a unified editorial voice, a newspaper is more vulnerable, less influential and increasingly more irrelevant. At no time has this been more evident than with the hiring of the strident conservative Drew Johnson to lead the right-side Free Press editorial page. His Twitter-fueled, flame-throwing edicts and “editorials” read like op-ed columns from the fringe that inflame even local conservatives. But perhaps that was the idea. The left-leaning Times side is more sober and balanced, but the competing voices drown out any coherent opinion.
As the March 5 elections draw near, each side has, well, taken sides—again. Last Sunday, the Times endorsed Andy Berke; Johnson’s Free Press page backed Guy Satterfield. The merits of either candidate aside, who then does the paper truly endorse?
The answer: no one, really. These conflicting opinions exterminate the true voice of our daily newspaper. If the paper’s twin editorial pages support two candidates for a single office, no one “wins.” It’s like backing both teams at the Super Bowl, to put it in simple terms. And if subscribers face rising rates, they might also expect their paper to stand for something. The TFP is not two papers, but one—and it needs one strong voice.