For Mark Jones, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, news is second nature. We sat down with Jones to talk about the future of local journalism, his favorite hangout spots and working remotely.
TREND: Where’s your favorite breakfast, lunch or dinner spot and what type of restaurant is Chattanooga missing that you’d like to see open here?
Mark: Easy Bistro is one of the first restaurants I remember going to when I moved here 15 years ago and I continue to enjoy it when I get the chance. Southern Star is hands down the lunch place I go to most often and it’s always good.
The dining scene has grown so much since I’ve been here and l really like all types of food, so it’s been great to see the changes. Personally, I’d like to see a few more Mediterranean and Middle Eastern options, but there are a couple so it’s not like they are missing entirely.
TREND: Do you have a favorite (local or other) team?
Mark: Lifelong Vols and Cubs fan. My family enjoys going to Lookouts games and it’s nice that UTC is a SoCon member so I get to see my alma mater, Wofford, in town too.
TREND: Do you have favorite reporters you read and what do you read for creative inspiration or for business strategy insights? What are the trade publications (digital or print) for newspapers that your readers might not know about?
Mark: I know it seems biased, but for a market our size, the Times Free Press has an exceptional staff. I try to read a few Axios newsletters every day and several other newspapers online fairly regularly. I like Wired Inc. for some creative business insight and Garden & Gun is another favorite that fits closely with many of my personal interests. I read email newsletters on the media industry daily from Poynter Institute, American Press Institute, Neiman Journalism Lab and Editor & Publisher — it’s often a lot of troubling news and it usually makes me glad I’m at the Times Free Press.
TREND: When were you first interested in journalism?
Mark: Growing up, two of my best friends were part of the family that owned my local paper, the Greeneville Sun. That kind of introduced me to newspapers. My parents have always read multiple newspapers my entire life. But in college one of my English professors caught my attention once talking about sports writers. I did that for awhile, covering mostly high schools, but you’ve got to give up every weekend and lots of other nights to cover sports.
TREND: You’re originally from South Carolina, and graduated from Wofford College in Spartanburg. What do you like about the Chattanooga region and what drew you here?
Mark: I grew up in Greeneville, Tennessee, then went to Wofford and stayed mostly in upstate South Carolina for the next 20 years or so. My wife, Victoria, is from there and my sister ended up in Greenville, too. Everyone says Greenville and Chattanooga are very similar, maybe now even more with VW and BMW. They are both really great mid-sized cities surrounded by beautiful natural areas just minutes from downtown. We love the outdoors and living in a place with a strong sense of community, so moving to Chattanooga was an easy decision.
TREND: A number of community and business initiatives were underway to promote internships in Hamilton County to help students plan their transition from school to work. Does the TFP offer internships and if yes, how have you managed these given the pandemic?
Mark: We’ve had several interns work in the newsroom (and throughout the business) over the years and many of them returned as full-time reporters. Recently we’ve also been part of the Step-Up program with high school students — some in the newsroom and I’ve had two designers intern on my team. I think that program is important for our community and I hope it can return once we get back closer to normal. There is a “feel good” aspect to the Step Up program, but we’ve really gotten good work and made good relationships with our interns and I know many local businesses have benefitted as well.
TREND: Your LinkedIn job description sounds you like you might do everything from lining up advertisers to designing strategic business plans. What’s the most intriguing or satisfying aspect of your work?
Mark: Without a doubt the wide variety of projects and the cross-departmental teams I get to collaborate with on a daily basis. I’m really fortunate that when I first came here, we were kind of building some new pieces from the ground up. That allowed me to ask more questions and work with more people, which is always the best way to figure out how things work. Luckily as we’ve continued to evolve, I’ve had the chance to be part of the discussion.
TREND: Early in the #stayhome time period of the pandemic this year, you worked with the Chattanooga Chamber and The Johnson Group as we launched a buy-local campaign called #ChattanoogaToGo, encouraging people to order locally online and pick up their items. At that time, you mentioned online traffic to TFP pages had skyrocketed. Has that trend continued or did it slack off with warmer weather and loosening of #stayhome restrictions? Has this translated into additional ad revenue or have businesses shrunk their ad budgets due to changing revenues? Who do you see as your biggest challenger for ad revenue?
Mark: Much like everyone, for a moment our advertising side of the business basically just shut down. The business community here is part of our business so even though people weren’t able to keep spending ad dollars with us we tried to find ways to support them. The Chamber effort for “ChattanoogaToGo” is a perfect example. We also worked with the CVB for its buy local auction and partnered with several other businesses we have longstanding relationships with to help them. We worked with the United Way’s Restore the Hope fund and even created our own portal to support more than 100 local nonprofits by providing complimentary ad space in print and online.
As far as traffic and readership, we continue to see encouraging growth. Many news organizations had a COVID bump and engagement dropped back off, but we are growing traffic and, more importantly, paid readership still — and we continue to keep almost all of our coronavirus coverage outside the meter and accessible to the community in the interest of health and safety.
TREND: We’ve been working from home for so long that when I dropped into the office the other day to pick up mail, I’d forgotten the security code to the door. When was the last time you were in the actual TFP office?
Mark: I’ve only been in the office a few times since we went remote back in March. Actually the last time I did go in, the entire time of my commute I felt like I was wasting time that I would (new normal) be getting so much more work done. I realize I’m extremely fortunate, but outside the live events portion of my job, I really can do practically everything else remotely and now we’ve converted our live events to virtual, as well. We all need to be exceptionally grateful to everyone who has continued to work all those essential jobs that keep us going every day.
TREND: How many employees report directly to you and what type of interesting challenges have come up through the work-at-home transition?
Mark: Currently, there are only seven people who have to report to me. That includes our local software and IT folks, who have done an excellent job helping us keep as many employees remote as possible. We literally got the entire newsroom, advertising and circulation departments out of the building and running efficiently from home within a week. Obviously, we have several people on press and production crews, plus distribution and carriers who have continued working like normal to make sure the newspaper gets delivered every day and we haven’t missed a day yet, even when we got the double whammy tornado during a pandemic.
TREND: How are reporters, editors and colleagues communicating now? Do you still hold daily staff meetings, only online now?
Mark: Zoom, constantly! We also have several Slack channels, many that predated the pandemic, but have become much more important now. Reporters and photographers are accustomed to working remotely in the field. It’s different for the editors and designers, but we have a pretty nimble group of people and they have been able to pivot quickly and make it work.
TREND: What does ‘brainstorming’ look like these days for story ideas? How do you get ideas for Get Out Chattanooga? (And, I really enjoyed reading the Summer Edition 2020 – read it cover to cover and learned many new things about an area I thought I knew fairly well.)
Mark: Again, Zoom constantly! One thing about a newsroom — and it’s true for our ad and marketing teams, too — there is never a shortage of ideas. Channeling the ideas and creativity is the bigger challenge, especially now. We have several cross-departmental creative teams that normally meet in-person but now are meeting online. As a daily product, the newspaper has always shifted constantly as the day changes, but the magazines are planned and crafted months out so a lot of work has gone into reshaping those to keep them timely during this crazy time. Our Edge editor, Mary Fortune, has invented a new verb for what’s become the new monthly routine for the magazines — “We start with a theme, then we coronify it.” Luckily being outdoors and remote is one safer thing, so Get Out still works perfectly.
TREND: Why is local news important?
Mark: When you are in this industry now and you look around at papers our size and even larger it’s discouraging to see the loss of truly local content that I believe is essential to the wellbeing of a strong and successful community. Our owner, fortunately, believes content is the lifeblood of our business and remains committed to producing a quality and sizeable news product. I try to be totally apolitical in my profession, but regardless of which side of a topic you are on, you must have a set of reliable facts to help you understand the topic and guide you. I like to think there are more than just two sides to most issues. These days I’m afraid too many people already think they know which side they are on for everything before they even bother to understand the issues. But even outside of those political and policy news topics, I believe the paper provides a living history of our community — good and bad — to keep us posted about new businesses, interesting people and ideas, things to do and see. I learn something new every day simply by reading the newspaper.
TREND: How do local newspapers engage and support the community through services, fun activities, etc.? (i.e. Neediest Cases Fund, holiday gift wrap contest encouraging aspiring artists, etc.)
Mark: One part of my job in recent years has been overseeing our community outreach efforts with local nonprofit sponsorships and it’s very far removed from the news side, but something I’m proud that we continue to do. We provide more than $1 million of in-kind support to a range of nonprofits that are working to make our community better. In addition we work closely with the United Way annually on the Neediest Cases fund, which the paper has maintained for decades. The holiday gift wrap contest, 20 Under 40, Champions of Healthcare, Best of the Best, Best of Preps and last year we did our first Best Places to Work … are all ways we connect with the community and try to shine a light on many of the things that make Chattanooga such a great place to be.
TREND: What are the top business concerns for the Times Free Press in the next six to nine months?
Mark: Right now I think it’s the same as most businesses — what’s the next step we can take to move toward normal as safely as possible. The advertising side of our business relies almost completely on the health of our local business community, so our concerns are the same concerns all of our local businesses face. On the news side, our readership continues to grow at a greater rate than pre-pandemic, but will everyone still value the local news as we hopefully move away from the current health crises? We hope we’ve proven to be a valuable resource to readers and they will stay with us.
TREND: The TFP often runs ‘power polls.’ Could you explain what these are and how people are chosen to participate?
Mark: We were the first newspaper in Tennessee to partner with the Power Poll, which is based in Nashville. It’s been very popular and they have grown the concept into several other markets since we started doing them. Chattanooga continues to be one of the best markets for response rate. I think one of the best attributes about it is the fact that people have a chance to see who makes up the polling cohort. The polls are a good barometer on the general thinking of topical issues — mostly local or state issues that affect us locally. The participants are chosen by the newsroom, led by our Public Editor Chris Vass. The list is fluid as people move in or out of the community or careers, etc.