Though the fate of the struggling East Valley Tribune remains uncertain, one thing became clear on Thursday: Any future the Mesa newspaper has will be without its head editor, Chris Coppola.
The longtime Tribune newsman announced he will step down Jan. 8 to take a job as a suburban editor at the Arizona Republic.
The New Year’s Eve announcement marked the end of an especially turbulent year for the newspaper, one in which it laid off half its staff, brought home a Pulitzer Prize and narrowly staved off closure.
Coppola, who would have celebrated his 20th year with the paper in March, says the chance to move to the state’s largest daily was just too good to pass up.
“This was a very good opportunity that came at the right time for me,” Coppola said in an email. “It wasn’t easy letting folks here know I was leaving. But this staff is a talented group of professionals who work extremely well together and I’m confident they will continue to put out a great local paper.”
Coppola signed on with the Mesa Tribune in 1990 before it became known as the East Valley Tribune. Over the years he had numerous roles there, including as business editor, metro editor and managing editor.
After spending two years as the newsroom’s second in command, Coppola was elevated in January to the top editing post when his predecessor, Jim Ripley, retired.
Coppola has since guided the newsroom amid the most rocky time in its history.
When he took over from Ripley, the paper’s California owners had just slashed 40 percent of the Mesa staff and ordered the publication to reduce its number of days in print from seven a week to four. Later, the company ordered even more layoffs and dropped the print edition to just three days a week.
But in April, the Tribune’s fortune changed for a brief time. Coppola helped the newspaper accept its highest honor when two journalists were given the Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series they wrote for the Tribune the year before.
The prize was a “shot in the arm,” he wrote in a column following the announcement. But Coppola also acknowledged “it was lost on nobody here that this award…had arrived at a challenging time for us.”
In September, those challenges got steeper. The California owners, Freedom Communications, filed for bankruptcy. Less than three weeks later, the company announced it would be trying to sell the newspaper to help it pay down more than $1 billion in debt.
But when no buyer stepped forward by November, Freedom announced something no one in Mesa wanted to hear: It planned to shut down the newspaper on New Year’s Eve.
Throughout it all, Coppola’s newsroom kept going. It even managed to publish a investigation called “Rigged Privilege,” which showed that a state education program meant to help the poor was being used to benefit the wealthy instead.
Since Freedom’s announcement of the closure, a Colorado company called Thirteenth Street Media has come forward saying it would like to buy the Tribune, and the shut down has been delayed indefinately while a possible deal is negotiated.
Coppola, though, will not be on the team. Still, he said he hopes he’ll have competition at the Arizona Republic, where he will be Scottsdale/Phoenix community editor based out of the paper’s Scottsdale bureau.
“I remain hopeful that Freedom and Thirteenth Street Media will reach an agreement soon that brings clarity to the future for everyone here,” Coppola said in an email on Thursday.
Meantime, it’s unclear who will lead the Tribune’s newsroom. Coppola said it’s a decision for Publisher Julie Moreno to make.
“It likely will involve several editors co-managing things by committee until the sale issue is resolved,” he said.
Coppola’s first day at the Republic is scheduled for Jan. 11.
[Full disclosure: I am a former staff reporter for the East Valley Tribune.]