Getting the Scoop: An Interview with Mark Kennedy

By Amanda Ellis and Natalia Perez

Mark Kennedy is a columnist whose work appears in several sections of the Times Free Press. He is the contributing editor of the EDGE business magazine and his human interest column, "Life Stories", appears each Thursday in the Region section.

Kennedy has won the Tennessee Press Association's first-place awards for column writing 10 times, and is also a five-time winner of the newspaper's Best of the Best contest in the columnist/reporter category. He has also been the newspaper's features editor, Sunday editor and opinion editor. Before the merger of Chattanooga's two newspapers in 1998, he was the coordinating editor of the Chattanooga Times. Kennedy lives on Signal Mountain with his wife and two sons.

Photo credit: Times Free Press

Trend: What stories come to mind as the most impactful you have written about?

Kennedy: About 30 years ago, I pitched a column called “Life Stories” to my editors at the then Chattanooga Times. The concept was to feature ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Over the years I’ve interviewed several thousand folks for this column, which continues today. I’ve been humbled to tell their stories. As a human being, it’s been a wonderful learning experience. When our fist son was born (now a freshman at Samford University) I wrote a column ticking off some of the memorable people I’d interviewed to that point: a man who found his long-lost high school class ring in the middle of Chickamauga Lake, a woman in Dunlap who was so lonely that she fell in love with a stranger at a diner, a woman who saved an old horse and turned him into a world-ranked race horse, a man whose obsession was to score a million points at Pac Man. People like this, experiencing the simple wonders of real life, have always interested me more than quote-unquote newsmakers. I’ve been blessed to tell their stories.

Trend: You studied journalism and have made it your career. Were there any other career paths you pursued or almost pursued?

Kennedy: I was the editor of my junior high newspaper, the Junior High Jots at Whitthorne Junior High School in Columbia, Tenn. I was a bookish kid who could write pretty well so journalism was sort of a natural career path. Still, I was also very shy, so being a pushy reporter wasn’t a natural fit. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to human interest stories as a specialty. I had a music scholarship in college at MTSU but I never really wanted to be a band director. I flirted with being a pharmacist, which would have been a more lucrative career. But now when I go into CVS and see the pharmacists counting pills, bless them, I’m glad for my career choice. My job seems more fun.

Trend: You've spent a lot of your career at the Times Free Press. What's special about working there? 

Kennedy: My first 17 years in Chattanooga, I worked for the Chattanooga Times. It was one of the best mid-sized newspapers in the country. A lot of my peers in the 1980s went on to climb the career ladder and moved to bigger markets. My bosses at the Times always gave me a chance to reinvent myself in a new role every few years so I never felt stuck. When Chattanooga’s newspapers merged and became the Times Free Press in the late 1990s, I was initially editor of the Sunday edition and later became Features Editor for over a decade, responsible for the daily Life sections of the newspaper. Even though I’ve had several management positions over time, the consistent tread in my career has been writing. I’ve always had a writing role. The Times Free Press today is considered one of the best mid-sized newspapers in America, with a robust newsroom and a commitment to local journalism. It’s indeed a special place to work.

Trend: Your work as a columnist is a little different than being a reporter who mainly covers news. Do you ever have trouble coming up with ideas?

Kennedy: I guess I’m lucky. I’ve never had a problem with writer’s block or finding ideas. It sounds crazy, but stories seem to find me. I get a lot of ideas from readers. Editors at the paper also bounce-pass ideas in my direction. Once you get into the rhythm of daily journalism, deadlines don’t seem so dire. You just do the best in the time you have allotted. You realize that all columnists have good days and bad days, so every column doesn’t have to be a prize winner. I’ve found, over time, that the best columns are ones that I don’t fret over.

Trend: You often mention your two sons in your columns - how do they feel about that?

Kennedy: The honest answer is that kids don’t read the newspaper much, so they rarely get peer feedback. My 14-year-old son has a substitute teacher who sometimes brings up my columns to him, and he’s like, 'What are you talking about, lady?' I did notice our 19-year-old son recently reading a collection of my columns that were published in book form several years ago. That made me feel good. I made the decision years ago not to use our sons’ first names in my columns. It gives them some anonymity online. Looking back, that was a good choice. I think it also makes the columns more relatable to not be full of proper names. Many of my readers are parents who compare family events in the column to things going on in their own lives.

Trend: As an automotive journalist who has test driven tons of vehicles, what is your dream car, if money were no object? What do you currently drive?

Kennedy: If money were no object I would probably choose a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It’s M-B’s flagship sedan and the most comfortable automobile I’ve ever driven – it even has an aromatherapy option. I’m also a big fan of the Tesla Model S sedan. People don’t believe me when I tell them gas-powered cars and trucks will be phased out in favor of electric vehicles in the next decade. But just watch. My current daily driver is a Ford Fusion Hybrid. My wife drives a Toyota Highlander SUV and our older son a Toyota FJ Cruiser. With a few exceptions we have been a Toyota family over the years.

Trend: What's a topic that interested readers more than you thought it would and/or vice versa--something you thought would resonate more than it did?

Kennedy: I recently started writing a weekly feature called “Remember When, Chattanooga?” For it, I select a vintage photo of the city, like a downtown shot of the 1950s, and try to tell the story behind the buildings using archive searches of old newspaper articles. I wasn’t sure how it would work but it’s been popular with readers. On the other hand, I tried making a weekly list of the top movies playing in Chattanooga theaters each week using crowdsourced online ratings, but that never really took off.

Trend: You're an adjunct professor at UTC; what about working with college students makes you feel like our future is in good hands?

Kennedy: Interacting with college students is one of my favorite things to do these days. I think having a son in college now makes me a more empathetic teacher. I find today’s young adults to be smart, and just as importantly, nice. Those might sound like kindergarten adjectives, but I think they are the most predictive qualities for adult success. Think of the people you know who you consider truly successful. Aren’t they usually smart and nice? They may succeed for a time with just one of those virtues but they won’t succeed forever without both. I’d take “he was smart and nice” as my epitaph.