A little paper that often beat the big one soon will be silenced

By Nick R. Martin | November 2nd, 2009 | 10:15 pm | 2 Comments »

Brad Armstrong worked as a photographer at the East Valley Tribune for 20 years, and he was more than just a little bit upset when the newspaper laid him off in January along with about 140 other people.

So Armstrong did not expect to feel the way he did when word came down this morning that the paper was shutting down by the end of the year. The Tribune had hurt him, so why should he feel badly about its demise?

His own reaction surprised him more than the closure.

“Actually, I’m pretty damn sad about it,” said Armstrong, who rose through the Tribune’s ranks to ultimately run the photo department. “I did not anticipate feeling sad about it.”

It’s hard not to like an underdog, even one that laid you off. For all its faults and missteps – it had plenty of both – the Tribune was still the little Phoenix-area newspaper that could and often did beat the competition. It never had the money or staff to truly go story-for-story against the neighboring Arizona Republic, but it somehow found a way to best its deeper-pocketed foes on important stories pretty frequently.

That was never so obvious as earlier this year when the Tribune was able to do something the Republic never has: win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

The Mesa newspaper did so by digging deep into the powerful and controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who the paper revealed had turned his agency into a de facto immigration squad in recent years at the cost of public safety. The series, titled “Reasonable Doubt,” was unpopular with the Arpaio-favoring voters in metropolitan Phoenix. But it was the kind of risk-taking journalism that had long earned the Tribune respect in the community.

The Pulitzer committee noted that same underdog spirit earlier this year when it commended reporters Paul Giblin and Ryan Gabrielson “for their adroit use of limited resources” in going after the story.

“We always considered ourselves the lean, mean machine that got a lot more done with a lot fewer staff,” said Lawn Griffiths, who worked at the Tribune as an editor and columnist for 25 years.

This doggedness was also highlighted year after year by the Tribune’s peers here in Arizona. The newspaper industry in the state awarded the paper the title of Newspaper of the Year  six consecutive times, the most-recent award coming just three weeks ago at a ceremony held at Arizona State University.

For each of the six years, the Tribune edged out the better-known Republic and Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star for the prize, which was given out only to newspapers with 25,000 subscribers or more.

But as good as the Tribune could be, former staffers today said today the newspaper also struggled with an identity crisis that was rooted decades back.

A new identity

Cox Enterprises first bought what was known as the Mesa Tribune in 1977 from the Calvert family, which owned it at the time. Over the next 16 years, the company bought up a number of smaller daily newspapers in the Phoenix area, including the Tempe Daily News in 1980, the Chandler Arizonan in 1983 and the Scottsdale Progress in 1993. The Gilbert Tribune was also launched in 1990.

By 1998, within two years of Cox selling the papers to Thomson Newspapers, the scattered bunch was consolidated under one umbrella and renamed the East Valley Tribune, which also maintained an edition called the Scottsdale Tribune that was packaged separately for that city.

The term “East Valley” was sort of a marketing ploy to describe an inexact grouping of neighboring cities, according to former religion editor Griffiths, who watched the moniker take hold during his time at the paper.

Former executive editor Max Jennings, who died in 2005, “said he coined the term,” Griffiths said. “They worked awfully hard to create this term ‘the East Valley’ to try make this a distinctive area east of Phoenix.”

Today, the area that includes some of the fastest-growing cities in the nation is known by locals as the East Valley, but the term is largely unknown outside of the region.

Earlier this year, when the Tribune laid off 40 percent of its staff and dropped down to just three publication days a week, it also renamed itself again to reflect the diverse area. Today, readers can pick up the Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler or Queen Creek Tribunes, but the East Valley Tribune only exists in theory.

Former metro editor Patti Epler, who oversaw the Tribune’s Pulitzer-winning series last year, said the newspaper made other unusual moves in recent years that contributed to its fractured identity. Even while the newspaper was continuing its watchdog and investigative reporting, there was a push internally to move toward softer, community news, she said.

The mixed message came out in the newspaper and likely alienated and confused loyal readers, Epler said.

“I really do think they made the wrong choice in editorial product. I always thought they should have stuck with an enterprise, investigative, magazine-style format,” she said. “The people who are still willing to sit down and spend time with their newspaper want to read news.”

A tradition, where does that go?

Still, most former staffers reacted today with the kind of sadness displayed by Armstrong, the photographer. He described it as just a step below losing a loved one.

“You have experience at it, and it becomes your life, and then all of a sudden it’s over,” said Armstrong, who originally joined the Scottsdale Progress in 1989 before it merged with the Tribune.

Griffiths, who was briefly the managing editor for the Tempe Daily News in late 1980s, said he was amazed to have covered figures such as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama during more than a decade as a religion editor for the Tribune. But he also felt strong ties to the local community.

“I did everything from helping people find their lost dogs to really telling some heartwarming stories,” he said.

With the Tribune going away, Griffiths said, “it’s just lost. That whole fabric of the community is lost.”

Former executive editor Jim Ripley said he, too, was saddened by the news of the day. Ripley worked for the Tribune for more than 17 years, starting out as managing editor when it was still owned by Cox.

“I’m sad and I’m trying to digest it,” said Ripley, who retired in January amid the mass layoff. He said he had been hopeful in recent weeks that Freedom Communications, which owns the paper, would sell it. The news today caught him off guard. “It’s sinking in.”

Ripley said he worries what will happen to the East Valley, and all of the Phoenix metropolitan area, really, without the Tribune there as the scrappy underdog.

“A concern has to be what it means to the community,” he said. “The Tribune has a proud tradition of watchdog journalism, award-winning journalism.

“What happens to that? Where does that go and what happens to the community?” Ripley asked. “That’s something that has to be put into perspective.”

Indeed, it does.

[Standard disclosure: I, too, worked at the Tribune and was laid off in January along with some of those mentioned in this story.]

  • Anonymous

    Your typical kick-butt reporting. Bravo

  • johnl13

    Your typical kick-butt reporting. Bravo