The Chattanooga Times Free Press is a privately-owned newspaper that serves 18 counties in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.  As editor and director of content, Alison Gerber manages a newsroom of 80 journalists, which includes political reporters at the state capitol in Nashville and sports reporters at the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia.  Her newsroom produces a daily paper, three monthly magazines, three weekly community newspapers and multiple special sections throughout the year.  They also manage mobile and tablet apps and a website. They are staffed 24/7.

Alison says “The Times Free Press is a mid-sized paper in a mid-sized city, but we like to punch outside our weight class.  The newspaper has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times in the past five years.

“As the editor, I manage the multimillion-dollar newsroom budget and oversee all major news decisions.  I set expectations for newsroom goals.  I study analytics to our apps, website and social media accounts.  I advocate on behalf of government accountability and for citizen access to public information and open government in Tennessee.

“On a daily basis, I work directly with the newsroom editors overseeing, news, business, sports, features, community news, photography and the digital report.  I am the primary editor on all of the newspaper’s major projects, which fall into the categories of investigative and/or narrative journalism.  I work hand-in-hand with the marketing department, and I share responsibility for digital subscription, circulation and audience growth.  I also sit on two professional boards, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Associated Press Media Editors.”

Alison admits that after graduating, she thought, “Well, what do I do with my useless liberal arts degree now?”

“I did a series of jobs that didn’t use the skills I developed in college, like working retail and in restaurants. So I decided to take a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia.  After I returned, I fell into a job at a small newspaper on Florida’s Gulf Coast as a page designer.  I figured I’d do that while figuring out what I really wanted to do.  But it turned out that I loved the pace and challenge of a daily newspaper, as well as the paper’s connection to its community.  I spent the next six month trying to convince the editor to make me a reporter.  She finally agreed.  After that, I moved to a reporting job at a larger paper in Naples and then a larger one in Fort Myers.  I loved working as a reporter in Florida.  It’s great place for news, and government records are more open there than anywhere else in the United States.  I didn’t want to be an editor because I loved reporting and writing so much.   I got married, and in 2002 my husband and I decided to move to northern Georgia, outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, where his family lives.  The Chattanooga Times Free Press offered me a job as an assistant editor. I was promoted several time and in 2011, I became the newspaper’s chief editor.

“The best advice I ever received was to pick a career doing something you love.  That is so cliché, but nevertheless was excellent advice.  I love being a journalist and love working in a newsroom.  Newsrooms are filled with smart, funny, cynical, driven people who are dedicated to their craft and believe the newspaper offers a public service to its community.  They’re filled with people who believe journalists have a responsibility to expose truths their community needs to know about — unethical behavior, wasted taxpayer money, abuses of power, failures of government, crime in their community.

“Yes, newsrooms are high stress, but there is no such thing as a dull or routine day in a newsroom; you rarely get bored because you rarely do the same thing from day to day.”

Alison does not have a journalism degree, but she’s convinced that her history degree prepared her adequately for journalism.  She affirms that history is, in fact, very similar to journalism, and tells reporters often that they are writing the first draft of history.

“History is about finding the truth — finding out what really happened and figuring out the causes and long-term impacts — through primary sources and using objective analysis, and so is journalism.

“History and journalism are both about studying society, it’s just that one is present day.  When you study history, you study societal shifts and transformations; intractable societal problems; how political beliefs are shaped; the influence of religion and politics on society and culture; how movements form, and how they succeed or fail; how technology shapes and changes social structures; how economies rise and fall. In journalism, we do the same sort of research on the communities we cover.

“In history classes, I learned to ask precise questions, to dissect trends, to review a story from multiple points of view, to ensure accuracy.  And I honed research and writing skills.  I used all of these when I became a reporter, and I still use them as an editor.  Many of the best, most inquisitive journalists I know have liberal arts degrees.”

Some of Alison’s favorite academic memories of Catholic University came from the history department.  She particularly values that classes were small, so students didn’t get lost.  The professors knew each student and understood their strengths and weaknesses. She recalls, “Everyone had a voice, and the conversations and debate in class were sometimes vigorous.  The professors were accessible.  At the time, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to experience that atmosphere and dynamic, but I have many friends and colleagues who spent their college days in large auditoriums where they never got to know their professors.

“I gained valuable skills in the history department, such as the ability to think critically and analyze information, that have been integral to my career. I truly believe that even in today’s job market, where STEM and tech skills are valued, a liberal arts degree provides a strong foundation.

“As Steve Jobs said: ‘Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.’”