Freedom Communications has failed to muster an acceptable offer from anyone interested in buying the East Valley Tribune, and it’s planning to shut down the Mesa-based newspaper at the end of the year.
It’s been a tough road for the employees, who have tried to keep afloat a paper that hasn’t turned a profit for some time. Layoffs became the norm for the past two years, but it apparently was too little, too late for a paper that only a few years ago was boasting a circulation of about 100,000.
The newspaper employees received word this morning that the paper would stop publishing entirely on Dec. 31. That means even more journalists, advertising staff, press operators, etc. will be out of work soon. The paper now employs about 140 people.
It’s a product of the economic downturn, but more precisely it’s about an inability to generate revenue as more readers turn to the Internet for their news. The paper tried desperately to provide hyper-local coverage (neighborhood-type stuff) for East Valley communities, but was constantly stretched too thin to cover adequately all of the stuff happening in the cities of Tempe, Chandler, Apache Junction, Mesa, Gilbert, Scottsdale, and beyond.
The paper also suffered from an identity crisis; it couldn’t figure out where to put its limited resources. While I worked there, executives and top-level editors would argue the merits of keeping open an office in Scottsdale, where it faced serious competition from the Arizona Republic. But it went beyond that; questions loomed whether it should cover Tempe, where it also faced territorial issues with the Republic, or focus more on the outlying eastern parts of Maricopa County and northwestern Pinal County. And what about Mesa, which had been the paper’s stronghold? Should it constrict its operations to its home city, or should it protect the territory it held in other areas?
In the end, it was down to a few core zip codes. Literally. There was a study done on which zip codes had the most readers, and which ones held the most advertisers. Then, word would come down from on high that those were the areas that should be covered by the newsroom.
Myriad practical problems arose from these edicts. It might sound like a sound strategic move, but it was difficult beyond imagination to determine how to cover news that would impact a specific zip code, while ignoring other issues that might be a big deal only a few blocks away. Not only that, but the strategy kept changing – almost weekly.
I was a mid-level editor there for almost two years, and I left in 2007 to take a job as managing editor of the Arizona Capitol Times. Things weren’t going very smoothly when I was on board, and it was clear the paper was headed for big trouble. But I had no idea it would be caput in only a few short years.
It’s ironic that some of the best journalism in the nation has come from that paper, and only a year after receiving a Pulitzer Prize, it would announce its demise. It’s also ironic that the people who were best known for their reporting acumen were laid off in the first couple of rounds of reductions. The paper got rid of many prize-winning writers, or let them slip away, while keeping journalists who were straight out of college. Cheaper, I guess.
Many talented people still work at the Tribune – a few editors who survived the cuts come to mind. And a few of the writers still on staff have considerable skill. But the bulk of the layoffs impacted the highest-paid, most tenured reporters on staff. I can’t help but think that had something to do with the lack of interest among readers during the past year, while circulation numbers and advertising revenue plummeted.
So, now what? Where will East Valley residents get their news? Will a couple of small papers crop up to replace the Tribune? Or will readers who want to know what’s happening in their neighborhood be relegated to blogs?
If the Republic wasn’t in such poor shape itself, I would say this is an opportunity for great expansion of one of the nation’s largest newspapers. But layoffs have impacted the Republic as well, and so have diminished revenues. It will be interesting to see how the behemoth will react. I suspect it will try to take some more territory. But the level of resources it devotes to the adventure will probably be limited.