It could be said, as Chattanooga Times Free Press President Jason Taylor said recently, that the paper hit a home run in hiring Chattanooga native and former News-Free Press reporter J. Todd Foster as its new executive editor.
Foster, who replaced the recently retired Tom Griscom, says that hes loved everywhere hes ever worked, but not like he loves Chattanooga. He says he wants to spend the next 25 years at the Times Free Press and win more Pulitzers, like the one his last paper, Virginias Bristol Herald Courier, won this year under his editorship.
Tennessee was where I was born and lived the first 29 years of my life, he told readers in his first column in his new role. Chattanooga is where I want to spend however many years I have left.
And while Foster says he cant make any promises about how his tenure will turn out, he will strive to fulfill a recent pledge he made to former Chattanooga Times owner Ruth Holmberg to follow her motto to give the news impartially, without fear or favor.
In an interview with Chattarati, Foster explained his plans to give readers the newspaper they want while giving the city the newspaper it needs.
Chattarati: Why did you take this job? Have you always wanted to come back here?
J. Todd Foster: The job is a tremendous opportunity at a solid, small metropolitan newspaper. When I left Chattanooga 21 years ago, I vowed to myself that one day I would return and hoped it would be in a leadership role. Once I saw Chattanooga’s downtown revitalization, I wanted to return even more.
Chattarati: What can readers expect to see more of — and less of — with you at the helm?
Foster: There will be more watchdog/investigative reporting and more long-form narrative writing. There will be less fluffy front-page stories.
Chattarati: How would you describe your responsibilities at the Times Free Press?
Foster: My job is to oversee a 100-staff newsroom, to exercise long-term vision and to help the journalists here reach their potential. If I do that, the byproducts will be increased and engaged readership and recognition from our industry peers.
Chattarati: How much will you be writing?
Foster: I will write occasional weekly columns and possibly some investigative or feature pieces as time permits. Much of my time will be spent coaching reporters and writers.
Chattarati: How do you think your style will differ from your predecessors?
Foster: I can only address my management style, which is collaborative. I demand excellence but reward prudent risk-taking. I use humor to lighten the newsroom atmosphere and to foster creativity.
Chattarati: When/how will you know if your approach is successful here?
Foster: It seems to be showing results already; newsroom morale is up.
Chattarati: How has the transition gone so far?
Chattarati: Describe the ideal reporter.
Foster: It’s someone with the tenacity of a pit bull and a velvet writing touch.
Chattarati: Describe the ideal editor.
Foster: It’s someone who checks his or her ego at the door and relishes helping journalists improve and, along the way, allows them to fail occasionally.
Chattarati: What do you think of your new team? Do they match those descriptions?
Foster: Some are there, some will get there. There is a tremendous nucleus of talent here, some of it untapped.
Chattarati: How do you plan to embrace the Web at the Times Free Press?
Foster: We’ll break news online, but spend less time with audio and video add-ons and more time compiling searchable online databases with information readers can use.
Chattarati: Whats more important to you: Having the Times Free Press available on every conceivable electronic gadget, or getting the stories no one else does? Or can you do both?
Foster: Both. We must meet readers where they are. The days of us being an appointment medium — every morning on your doorstep — are over. The news cycle is now 24 hours a day. That said, we also must not forget that online advertising still lags far behind that of the printed edition. We as an industry must stop shoveling dirt on our grave, particularly since we’re not even close to being dead yet.
Chattarati: Newspapers have changed a great deal in recent years. What other changes do you envision seeing in newspapers over, say, the next 10 years?
Foster: The biggest change will be the death of some big-city dailies and the advent of a wireless device that looks like a newspaper but is composed not of newsprint but some high-tech, lightweight material. It will look like a newspaper but will be a handheld digital device.
Chattarati: What challenges do you expect to face?
Foster: Challenges will come from all corners, too numerous to list or foresee.
Chattarati: What does Chattanooga need from its daily newspaper?
Foster: Chattanooga needs a newspaper that holds its public officials accountable, one that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. We also need to be a reliable information source in all areas that readers care about.
Chattarati: What is your ultimate goal for this paper?
Foster: To be considered by readers as the ultimate authority on issues that matter to them and to be the last line of defense against oppression and corruption.