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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   December 1999  issue

Jumping the Fence   

Tom Griscom, former political editor at the Chattanooga News-Free Press, returns to the city as executive editor of the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press.


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


When Tom Griscom left his first job as a Chattanooga News-Free Press staffer after seven years, he knew he'd be back.
In 1978, the then-political editor departed "with the hope at some point that I would be able to come back here to Chattanooga to the newspaper and get involved in journalism again," says Griscom, 50.
Sure enough, 21 years later, Griscom becomes executive editor of the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, a new position that Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. says will help the paper progress faster and "with more certainty."
Managing Editor Bob Lutgen, formerly ME of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, will report to Griscom, who was in large part sought out because he is a native and a well-respected Chattanoogan.
"I think that a newspaper can do a better job of producing a quality product if you have someone as an editor who has a real sense of place for the community," says Hussman. And he makes it clear he wanted Tom Griscom.
A White House communications director under Ronald Reagan and press secretary for former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), Griscom a year ago had accepted, but then declined, the ME job at the afternoon Free Press. Hussman's WEHCO Media Inc., which also owns the Democrat-Gazette, bought the Free Press in 1998 and, shortly thereafter, the morning Times, and merged the papers. (See "The Death of the JOA," September.)
Griscom says it was best for someone of Hussman's thinking to come in and orchestrate initial changes. "A lot of those kinds of early issues have been laid out," he says. "Now is an opportunity to come inÉand help shape the overall identity and image of these two papers as one."
Ken Hays, chief of staff for Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, says Griscom's appointment was very well received. "Tom is a local boy who made good and has come back home," Hays says.
He adds that the city watched its two family-owned papers disappear in the last year, and Griscom's hire has "brought some good local stability back to the newspaper."
Griscom may seem an unusual choice for the top editor slot, with journalism experience limited to reporting for his hometown paper and two years teaching journalism and public affairs in the late '80s at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. Before taking this job, he held executive posts at Powell Tate, a D.C. public relations/public affairs firm; Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.; and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.
Mike Walker, a partner in the recruiting firm Youngs Walker & Co., says choosing someone who's worked mostly on the other side of the fence typically is "not the way the newspaper industry goes." But, he adds, it depends on what the paper needs. He has been involved in searches where the primary mission of the editor is "being a spokesperson for the newspaper, while they had maybe a good No. 2 person on the news side who was Mr. or Ms. Inside."
Hussman says Griscom had a reputation for being a fair and good writer, and that his nonjournalism experience was a secondary factor in the hire. Griscom points out that his other news managers are "good editors" with strong journalism backgrounds.
What Griscom hopes to bring, he says, is a "broader business sense" and "a different understanding, a different perspective in having seen a lot of issues."