Roy Exum: My Heart Is Heavy

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It has been 17 years since I left the Chattanooga Times Free Press and a lot of water has gone down river since then. But because I spent half of my life there, I have a deep loyalty to the newspaper and its people. My heart was crushed Tuesday morning when I was told the owners had been forced to make another round of layoffs – I knew it was coming after I saw the dwindling circulation report, but a lot of my lifelong friends were involved and their pain is huge. For them it is like having to leave the family.

Actually I hurt for everybody because after you work beside a warm colleague for years, seeing that empty chair is awful. It as though part of you goes missing and these are people, mind you, who worked beside you every day for 37 years. The very idea of Chattanooga without a paper is unthinkable. That would be a tough blow for me especially because when I read the TFP each and every morning, it’s like I am having a conversation with Clint Cooper or Mark Weidmer or others who I brought into the business so long ago.

I started working at age 12. I made a dollar an hour but I’d been hanging around the offices for years before. We were partners with the Chattanooga Times but were anxious to break away because of growing differences. We wanted our own Sunday paper and, when my grandfather got a deal on the Davenport Hosiery Building on East 11th Street, my two brothers and I became “the loving hands of home” that helped refurbish the place.

For the next five years we were part of a rag-tag team of carpenters and laborers and there was nothing we didn’t learn to do. We destroyed brick walls with sledge hammers, installed duct work, poured concrete – you name it – and had more fun than Huck Finn. The first time Skinny Owens turned on the huge printing press we all cried, too.

The minute we moved from 10th Street to our new headquarters, that’s when the war between the two papers ramped up and I’ve got to tell you – it was an out-and-out brawl. The Times people clung to their New York pedigree and put on haughty airs while we catered to everybody else, publishing about 1,500 pictures every week of Chattanoogans who loved to see themselves in the paper.

Inch by inch we took over the market and, when I was a senior in high school, I began working in the “toy department,” which the sports section is called in a lot of towns. My first task was collecting college football scores and it wasn’t long at all before I started writing stories, which I have now done for the last 50 years.

You must remember this was before fax machines, the Internet and affordable computers. If I went to Athens to cover a Georgia game, I’d pound out my story on a portable typewriter and then race from the stadium to a drug store downtown. Then I’d run up the back steps to this tiny Western Union office and the lady would wire my story back to Chattanooga.

Back then our sports department had five guys and we had the disadvantage of being an afternoon paper because by the time our editions hit the street, everyone already knew what had happened. So we took a tip from Sports Illustrated - they do a great job just once a week - and started doing “feature stories” rather than just hard news. As it began to work, I started hiring people and soon we covered every high school team in town.

Other newspapers have a news/advertising ratio that determines how much of a “news hole” a sports section gets. Not us – “How much do you think you can fill?” was the question. Soon we had two sports sections on Sunday and we wrote about everything except rooster fights. No newspaper in the South covered as many college games as we did.

We stayed on the very borderline of bankruptcy and, just when it looked like we were doomed, my grandfather was testifying in Washington when he mentioned how unethical his competition was. His remarks were overheard by some lawmakers and that’s when we were joined by the Department of Justice against the Times. They settled on the courthouse steps for $2.1 million for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The worst moment was when the Times cut a back-room deal with the Typographical Union after assuring my grandfather they would follow our lead. What they didn’t know about was a highly-secretive room where we had a state of the art “cold type” lab set up. The union had agreed to continue producing the Times, don’t you see, striking only us.

So when the strike was called and the union members went laughing out in the street, we sprang the trap and by noon we sent each union member a copy of that day’s 36-page paper. They were whipped on the very first day in their dance with the devil, this after we had guaranteed each one of them a job for life.

We were picking up subscribers like crazy -- every new one we got the Times would lose one. We later learned the Times had spent $35 million trying to win the war. I don’t know what our family spent but we had to sell our grocery stores (called The Home Stores) and had it not been for our trust in God I don’t think we would have made it. Man, we sold a lot of cattle.

“Mr. Roy” would page me on the intercom pretty often but one afternoon about 2 o’clock he added “immediately” He told me to grab my jacket for what “could be the most important meeting of our life.”

We drove downtown where a prominent lawyer sat with an even more prominent New York Times executive. Pleasantries were exchanged, a legal paper produced, and these words were said. “It’s over. We are through. Tell us what it will take for you to take us over.”

I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My grandfather wrote for about 20 minutes and handed the pad to the lawyer. “This is very kind and very fair,” said the lawyer. He handed it to the New York Times board member who barely read it and then signed under my grandfather’s name. In 30 minutes the whole deal was struck.

Chattanooga became a one-newspaper town. Yesterday a number of co-stars in this saga were laid off as newspapers struggle all across the country. The evolution of the Internet, the lightning-quick search engines are free – who is going to pay $200 a year for a newspaper subscription or buy an ad only a few will ever see?

I fear we are nearing the end of a gilded era. I will terribly miss my morning conversations with my lifelong friends.

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