AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Back to Chattanooga   

Two months after the paper he edited in Virginia won a Pulitzer, J. Todd Foster returns to the town where his career began, this time as executive editor.

By Abby Brownback
Abby Brownback is an AJR editorial assistant.     

On the heels of a Pulitzer, J. Todd Foster is going home--or close to it.

The editor of Virginia's Bristol Herald Courier, which won a Pulitzer Prize for public service this year, began his career at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee in 1985 and privately vowed to return to lead the newsroom when he left in 1989. Twenty-one years later, Foster is making good on that promise. In doing so, he returns to a city he loves, and one that's just 80 miles from his hometown of Tullahoma, Tennessee. He also moves to a paper with much larger readership: Bristol's circulation is 30,000 daily and 33,000 Sunday, while Chattanooga's is 75,000 daily and 100,000 Sunday.

On July 1, Walter E. Hussman Jr.--the owner of WEHCO Media, which owns the Times Free Press--introduced Foster as the paper's executive editor to a standing ovation from his new staff. Three minutes prior, Foster had e-mailed the Herald Courier's staff to announce his resignation after nearly four years as editor.

It will be hard to leave Bristol on July 19, Foster says; he'll be saying good-bye to "a very fine staff, a cohesive team.. and a top-notch publisher, one who has supported me for four years."

That publisher, Carl Esposito, says the staff at the Herald Courier is "happy for Todd and proud of the opportunity he has."

"We've gained organizationally in the past four years from Todd's contributions to our success," Esposito says. "We certainly wish him well in building the same kind of success in Chattanooga. [But] Todd's departure will not represent a change in our strategy or staffing."

Times Free Press President Jason Taylor couldn't be happier, describing the hire as a home run. "We found someone who had a decorated career, was passionate about journalism at its highest level, and had a love for Chattanooga," Taylor says of Foster, who replaces outgoing Tom Griscom, the former executive editor and publisher.

Foster--an investigative reporter since his early days at the Chattanooga Free Press, before it merged with the Chattanooga Times in 1999--says he intends to bring a commitment to hard-news reporting to the Times Free Press, which includes a willingness to revamp page one late in the evening when news breaks.

Carl Esposito J. Todd Foster

"We're going to shift the entire focus from a softer focus to a really hard edge, one that is less preplanned and prepackaged, and one that involves watchdog and investigative reporting," he says.

Taylor says his new hire "has a track record for developing a staff to go out and sink their teeth into true news..for covering breaking news in community crisis and community victory."

It is essential that newsroom leaders understand, like Foster does, the significance of investigative journalism, says Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Foster placed a premium on that kind of reporting in Bristol. "One of the keys to having a strong watchdog newsroom is having an editor who understands the value of doing that work and is committed to giving his or her staff the resources necessary," Horvit says. "They understand that even with fewer resources that is a vitally important service and something that maintains their crucial role in the community."

And Foster is so committed to watchdog reporting that he has crisscrossed the country--from Chattanooga to the Pensacola News Journal in Florida; to Spokane, Washington's Spokesman-Review; to Portland's Oregonian; to People magazine in Washington, D.C.--as an investigative journalist. He uncovered stories about the misdeeds of the then-longest-serving police chief in Oregon, cruelty at a greyhound racetrack in Idaho and animal abuse at a Florida animal shelter. Foster was one of the first reporters on the scene at the violent confrontation between a white separatist and federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992; the coverage made the Spokesman-Review a Pulitzer finalist.

Investigative reporting "is the hardest discipline in journalism and the most rewarding, because you can get justice," Foster says. "We're the last bastion between corruption and justice. If we don't do this, no one's going to."

After worrying about his family's safety throughout his coverage of the 2002 sniper shootings for People in Washington, D.C., Foster moved first to Waynesboro, Virginia, to be the editor of The News Virginian, then to Bristol to manage the Herald Courier.

The 49-year-old Foster says he intends to retire at the Times Free Press--in about 25 years and with more awards under his belt. "It's my destination job," he says. "If I get to spend the next 25 years in Chattanooga, I would hope that my paper wins more than one Pulitzer."