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From News Deserts
to Chattanooga
How two newsrooms in one newspaper created an oasis in the middle of America's news deserts
A nice residential area of Charlottes, North Carolina, I am chatting with a young couple who had moved from New York during the pandemic. Both work remotely in IT, and found it cheaper to pay for a spacious flat with a pool rather than a tiny one bedroom apartment in NYC. I am curious to what extent they follow local life in the city and state. Not really – says the wife.
The local media barely exists, the local TV channels are owned by big media groups and mainly cover national politics. And for a state of 10 million people (the same population size as European countries like Austria or Sweden), there are just a couple of papers. I couldn’t really judge how popular they are, yet local outlets went through a number of financial crises. During the last 3 years at least 10 papers from North Carolina, some of them founded in the 19th century, shifted in focus from local community news to entertainment, food, and light features, and some even shut down.
“If you watch the national news on television, you see two kinds of American places: the kind where things are happening, and the kind where things have already happened. CNN and Fox speculate about the present in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles (and during campaign season, in “battleground” or swing states like Iowa and Ohio). Everywhere else in the country, things do happen, but always without warning—and rarely with anyone to witness them”, – Timothy Snyder the US historian, political thinker and commentator, wrote in 2011.

Timothy Snyder
Photo credit: timothysnyder.org
According to the Washington Post since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers across America have closed, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.

Such places are called ‘news deserts’ where communities have limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grass-roots level, a place without a sizable newsroom that prints paper.

10 years later prior to my trip from South to North of the US I talked to Snyder, who could not stress enough the danger of news deserts.

In the post-truth world where opinions are overtaking facts and people do not agree about core issues: whether it’s vaccines efficiency or alleged election fraud, local news may provide facts which are close enough to check, reachable, feasible, one can see them with one's own eyes.

Local news can be those facts people with opposing views can agree on. Apart from complaining about the absence of relevant local media, my North Carolina friend said she doesn’t go to the national press as ‘it’s involved in a political fight she doesn’t want to be part of’.

350 miles West from Charlotte over the Tennessee river in Chattanooga, I pass a spacious museum of modern art. A few hours drive from Atlanta, on the cross-roads of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee.
Chattanooga feels like a new hipster Mecca of the American South. Cute bars, restaurants, design stores and beautiful landscapes. I stay in a modern Airbnb which overlooks the city. The first thing we see on the wall is a portrait of General Lee and “the Heroes of the South”, leaders of the Confederacy. Chattanooga was a major rail centre and a strategic vantage-point during the American Civil War.

Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy, being deeply divided between the mountainous eastern zone, including Chattanooga, that was pro-Union, and the slave-intensive western counties that voted Confederate.

We drove through a few cemeteries, including a national memorial for the military where the tombs remain of those who died in the American Civil war, as well who had lost their lives recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the 1980s Chattanooga was reeling from local recession, deteriorating schools and housing stock, and rising racial tensions. Today it’s an example of revitalisation which is praised by ‘quality placemaking, unusual anchor institutions, and a highly collaborative innovation ecosystem’, praised by experts. The former railroad junction enjoyed investments and programs for reviving the economy.

The US election results show that even in the South, Democrats win in major cities, while rural areas are a Republican stronghold. Chattanooga, which is on the cross-road of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, could be exactly such a place, with a General Lee portrait at hipsterish Airbnb, a place of a usual divides where people with opposite political views do not mingle together, live in different neighbourhoods and have no place to meet.

As everywhere on the road I buy a local paper. Though it takes time to find where to get it. 'To give the news impartially, without fear of favour’ is a slogan of the paper, which is quite unusual for a regional daily, ‘Chattanooga Free Press Times’ with an awkwardly long name.
I am intrigued both by the motto and the title. And yes, the reason is quite unique. As in many regions in the US in the end of 1990s newspaper sales were going down, and two local papers, the more libaral `Chattanooga Times’ as well Republican-leaning ‘Chattanooga Free Press’ were about to go bankrupt. It could be another news desert. Local journalists risked losing their jobs.

A new investor suggested a condition that both have to merge yet agree to co-exist in one building, in one paper. It looks like for 20 years they have shared not just the office.

If you open Op-Ed pages, you can still find old names: ‘Chattanooga Times’ run staunch liberal editorial pages, and ‘Chattanooga Free Press Times’ are staunchly conservative, reflecting the editorial leanings of the Times and Free Press, respectively.
Established in 1936, Republican-leaning Chattanooga Free Press’ editorial writes “Why democrats ignore ‘root cause’ of urban homicide” and “rebuff critical race theory”. On the cartoon, the Chattanooga bridge image is used to make a ‘progressive infrastructure’ plan. While the page ends with quotes from the Bible: ‘Bible Wisdom’.

On the next page the democrat-leaning Chattanooga Times, established in 1869, argues “Why conservatives find education scary” and criticize the GOP for questioning the integrity of the elections. And a cartoon portrays the Statue of Liberty and Abraham Lincoln being scared for the state of the US Democracy.
On the very next day, the ‘Times’ commentary criticizes Republicans for not having the courage to condemn their party’s race baiting, while the ‘Free Press’ writes that the Supreme Court’s decisions on same-sex marriages ‘slams the door on religion freedom’.

They also argue for ‘more open government’ – the piece is devoted to the demands to let parents know what is taught in Chattanooga's schools.

Opinion pages are also republishing other local media like a commentary on why catholic bishops confront Biden (written in Fort Noth, Texas) or criticism of vice-president Kamala Harris’s policies on immigration (by Chicago-based Tribune Content Agency).

Yet just to the left of that – there is an OpEd republished from the Washington Post on new Biden infrastructure plan, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution commentary which explain why more should be done to make voting accessible. A cartoon mocks the Trump organization and the central piece warns about the danger of climate change to American infrastructure.
That’s probably the first time I see such opposite views so close. It's been a while since the US 2020 presidential elections. Yet still when I switch channels between CNN to Fox, it looks like the country is on the brink of catastrophe: either because of the government or because of the opposition. Which reminds me of TV back home in Ukraine serving different political parties and business groups. Two worlds are developing in parallel and do not come into contact with each other. Yet these are celebrity commentators from CNN/FOX/MSNBC.

In ‘Chattanooga Times Free Press’, opinions are expressed not by distant guys from DC or NYC, but local reporters whose picture a reader can see near their articles. There is an email and phone number of an opinion editor who represents various views. And if one can ask what civilized debates are – that’s how they look.
Yet, it’s more than disagreement. ‘Chattanooga Free Press Times’ has its own cover page for opinions, and under this joint name they write about vaccination in the US. There are points and counterpoints, there is stress on the need for bipartisanship. While reading I can hardly guess which side the authors represent as they appeal not to their supporters but all the residents of the city.

In 2002 the outlet was recognized as the best newspaper in Tennessee by the Tennessee Press Association, and a year later, Editor and Publisher magazine named it as one of 10 newspapers in the United States "doing it right". In 2014 and 2017 the newspaper was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In the 1990s it looked like an unfortunate incident that two papers had to merge. In 2021 it turned out to be lucky for the local community which is a ‘news oasis’ not just for Chattanooga but serves communities in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

Is it enough just to be exposed to the other side’s views? In current circumstances I would say ‘yes’, as it’s the first step to humanize the opponent. Numerous research proves that real life communication is more civilized, polite. There is more empathy when people see each other and in this case work together on issues that matter for them, as is the case for this newsroom.

Another colourful example demonstrating why Chattanooga is “The most patriotic city in America” is their Armed Forces Day parade, a local tradition which survived in Chattanooga for 72 years, even during the pandemics. Leaving Chattanooga I’ll definitely remember that patriotism there is way more than a General Lee portrait.
Photos provided by Natalia Gumenyuk.
The article was prepared with the support of the Alumni Leadership Action Projects Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.