The sale of Tucson’s main alternative and business newspapers comes just two weeks before an important and grim anniversary that fundamentally changed the print media landscape in town: five years ago, the last edition of the Tucson Citizen rolled off the printing press.
All leading to the questions: how is print journalism in Tucson faring today? And what will the sale of the Weekly mean for the local media landscape?
David Cuillier, head of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said print journalism in Tucson took a worse hit than most places in the country.
"We had two daily newspapers, now we have one," he said. "It is a problem for the...people who live in this community."
The large media conglomerate Gannett owned the Tucson Citizen, which was run under a joint operating agreement with the owners of the Arizona Daily Star, Lee Enterprises, Inc. The papers shared a printing press and back room operations like human resources and advertising, but had completely separate newsrooms and were effectively competitors.
“Well competition is always a great thing, and we were all very sad to see the Citizen go," said Jill Jorden Spitz, a senior editor at the Star. "That was a wonderful thing for Tucson to have, two newspapers. For us to know that we had to jump on something right now or we would get beat. So I think we all hated to see that go away.”
The Citizen collapsed at a time when newsrooms around the country were either folding or making large cuts to staff. And the Star was by no means immune: the paper’s newsroom was slashed, as both advertising revenue and circulation plunged. But over the past few years, Jorden Spitz said the paper has regrouped based on reader survey results.
"What our readers value the most is the investigative and watchdog journalism," Jorden Spitz said. "While we continue to be a general newspaper we cover Tucson, I think we are increasingly going to focus on investigative and watchdog journalism. We feel like this is something we can do, we have the resources, the people and the time."
Cuillier said the Star plays a vital role in the community, but pointed out that the Citizen’s collapse made its owner, Gannett, a silent partner in the Star because the two companies split all profits.
"We still have all these revenues going from Tucson business to this company, half goes to Gannet for no value to our community," he said. "I think that is a huge disservice to Tucsonans. I think that’s unfortunate. I'd rather see that money go back to the Arizona (Daily) Star to produce even more good work than what they are doing now."
Doug Biggers, who co-founded the Tucson Weekly in 1984, said the need for a local – and alternative - news source were drivers behind his first foray into publishing.
“We felt that being locally owned and truly independent, we could bring to the conversation a point of view or points of view that you weren’t going to get in a large corporate-owned daily," he said.
Biggers sold the Tucson Weekly to Sierra Vista-based Wick Communications in 2000, and he said he’s been disappointed by, what he called, benign neglect of the paper he started.
“I think in general there’s been a decline in the last decade in terms of the breadth and probably the quality in journalism and editorial coverage at the Weekly,” he said.
Biggers said, although he worries that the Weekly’s new owner, 10/13 Communications, may be even more focused on the bottom line, Tucson needs a publication providing an alternative viewpoint to mainstream news sources.
In addition to acquiring the Weekly and Inside Tucson Business, 10/13 Communications also purchased the suburban papers Marana News, Foothills News and Desert Times.
Randy Miller, president of 10/13 Communications, said he is overt about his advertising-based strategy.
“Combining the ownership of all those papers together allows us to present options to all of our costumers," Miller said. "So that they can buy that whole group if they’d like, and together the reach of that group...of those papers is really significant, well over 100,000 circulation midweek, which is as large as any option that advertisers have...it's a real plus.”
Miller said he plans to maintain the Weekly’s place as the town’s source of alternative and cultural news.
“We don’t plan any changes for its mission or for what it’s been doing...We certainly will continue to invest in all of our newspapers," he said. "We’re obviously spending a lot of money to acquire them, so we don’t do that in order to try to make them worse. Obviously we’re going to do everything we can to improve the products and grow them.”