Columnists > From the Publisher

Triumph of the hyphen

But journalistic compromise is no time for jubilation

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

Whenever I see a hyphen in the name of a newspaper, it makes me a little sad.

The Times-Picayune, for example, is a reminder that there used to be a Times and there also used to be a Picayune. Only rarely have such journalistic marriages come about because both partners were strong; most times, at least one of them was facing up to its own weaknesses and found itself needing the strength of the other.

I am saddened when I see a hyphenated newspaper name because the implication is very strong that where there used to be a robust debate between at least two points of view, that debate has now been muted. Even in a small city like WORLD magazine's home here in Asheville, N.C., the perspectives of at least half a dozen daily newspapers once competed for their readers' attention and allegiance. Now we're down to just one-and nobody knows quite what that newspaper believes or what its soul looks like.

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All this raced through my mind last week when word came that the venerable Chattanooga Times is soon to be merged with the less historic but more prosperous Chattanooga Free Press. The announcement of the merger, sparing me the pain of any mention of a hyphen, simply said no name for the new paper has been finally determined, but that "the combined paper will include both the Free Press and The Times in its name."

My fascination with the Chattanooga development is both personal and professional. I lived in the Chattanooga area for 13 years, and several times almost every week visited the two newspapers with press releases I hoped they would print. I only partly recognized it at the time, but every week I walked into the two offices on 10th Street and 11th Street, I was marching through one of the great battlefields in American journalism history.

The Chattanooga Times, you see, was first published in 1869, but was such an iffy proposition that it changed hands three times in the next nine years. But when Adolph S. Ochs bought the paper on July 1, 1878, a notable name in American newspaper publishing appeared. His almost immediate success with the Chattanooga paper made it possible just 18 years later for him to buy still another troubled newspaper-The New York Times-a purchase that allowed him to become a pacemaker for the industry.

For years, when Chattanoogans were told how much their morning paper looked like the much better known New York Times, they had a hard time persuading folks that it was actually the other way around-that the New York paper had borrowed its looks from Chattanooga. The Ochs formula also included a streak of adventuresome liberalism. Early in his career, he directed that his Chattanooga paper would do what only one other Southern paper had done before: It would publish a Monday edition, even though that meant some of the staff would have to work on Sunday.

But if the morning Times was a symbol of Southern liberalism, the afternoon Chattanooga Free Press was even more staunchly conservative. It was a blue-collar paper, with an editorial position rooted in common sense and unabashed loyalty to the Bible. The Free Press had started in 1933 as a simple grocery store flier, and then merged with the local News in 1939 to gain one of the all-time worst hyphenated names for a newspaper: the News-Free Press. But news-full or news-free, the paper did what few afternoon papers in America have done. It prospered.

Although World War II forced the two papers into a joint operating agreement, with shared offices and shared printing equipment, the Free Press ended that relationship in 1966 and started its own Sunday edition. The Times countered briskly with its own afternoon paper, the Post, giving Chattanooga three dailies for a brief time. But reality set in, and after a short but spirited run, the Post was canceled.

Reality set in again last week, and ended a generations-long circulation battle. As has happened in all but about 40 cities across the country, there will now be just one daily newspaper in Chattanooga. The hyphen, whether literal or symbolic, triumphed again.

Yet all is not lost. At least for now-and to their great credit-the new owners of the whole new enterprise (the Free Press had been sold earlier this year to an Arkansas publisher) have determined that the new newspaper will every morning include two different editorial pages representing the typically opposite points of view of the Times and the Free Press. For that, contrived though the arrangement may be, Chattanooga will be richer than if only one editorial viewpoint had survived. (In this particular situation, there's further irony. The opposing editorial pages are directed by two men, Lee Anderson and Michael Loftin, who have been elders in congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America.)


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