East Valley Tribune to shut down Dec. 31 - East Valley Tribune: News

East Valley Tribune to shut down Dec. 31

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Posted: Monday, November 2, 2009 11:35 am | Updated: 12:32 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

East Valley civic leaders, readers and Tribune employees are slowly digesting the news that the Tribune will probably cease to exist after Dec. 31.

Demise saddens employees | A sense of loss for integral part of community

East Valley civic leaders, readers and Tribune employees are slowly digesting the news that the Tribune will probably cease to exist after Dec. 31.

Many believe a major vacuum will be left in the East Valley community. Other see it as a loss of prestige that media coverage of Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek will be greatly diminished.

"The Tribune and the East Valley are kind of synonymous. There's going to be a real hole there," said state Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler. He added that the closing will mean a big loss for public dialogue.

Officials from Freedom Communications, the Tribune's parent company, announced the impending closing to Tribune employees Monday morning, citing the economic recession and changes in the newspaper industry that have caused many publications to close and others to file for bankruptcy protection.

Freedom, which itself is reorganizing under Chapter 11, had been attempting to sell the Tribune, but no acceptable offers have come forward, said interim Chief Executive Burl Osborne.

"We have received a number of inquiries, but none at a level we would remotely consider," he said, adding, "This is a terrible day for the company, a terrible day for the Tribune."

Osborne said the company would consider any other offer that might be presented before Dec. 31, but the company will proceed with winding down the operation in anticipation of closing.

Severance packages will be provided to employees, but a few jobs may be available in other parts of the company for some employees, said Publisher Julie Moreno.

Two other Freedom-owned newspapers in the Valley, the Sun City Daily News-Sun and Ahwatukee Foothills News, will continue to publish, as will Freedom Interactive in Chandler, which publishes the Clipper coupon book.

About 140 employees work at the Tribune. Most are located at the company's main plant at 120 W. First Ave. in Mesa.

The Tribune publishes editions in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek. It distributes 100,000 free papers in driveways and racks three times weekly.

In addition to ceasing publication of the print edition, the company also will close its evtrib.com Web site at the end of this year, officials said.

During the transition time the Tribune will continue to publish its print and online products as usual and will continue to support customers, advertisers and the community, the company said. Employees and suppliers will be paid for the work they perform and goods they provide during the transition, officials said.

In addition to advertising cutbacks caused by the recession, the newspaper industry has been hard hit by technology changes that have altered the way many people receive their news. Many readers are using the Internet as their primary news delivery source, but news organizations have had difficulty operating Web sites profitably.

Jon Segal, vice president of Freedom Newspapers, said the company made a major effort to adjust the Tribune to the changing media landscape, including adopting a new business model that focused on free distribution of the print product and enhancing advertising revenue.

Also Freedom purchased a new press that allowed the Tribune to publish separate editions in tabloid format for each of the four communities.

In a sound economy, the business model would have worked, Segal said, but in a sharp economic downturn the task was too great.

"Readership was up, we won awards, acceptance of the product by readers was good," he said. "In a normal economy it would have been successful, but overlaying it was that perfect storm."

According to Freedom's filings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the Tribune has not been profitable in the past two years.

At the end of last year, the Tribune laid off more than 40 percent of its staff to drastically cut costs in an effort to stay alive. But that also was not sufficient.

Osborne said Freedom will retain ownership of the press and other assets of the Tribune. The company's building in downtown Mesa will be available for sale, he said.

Other East Valley civic leaders in addition to Tibshraeny reacted to the announcement with sadness.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. "The Tribune has been a part of Mesa for decades, for generations. Heck, I was a paperboy for the old Mesa Tribune when I was young, so I've had a connection with the paper, too."

Smith said losing different voices in turbulent times for the media business is troubling.

"The community needs different voices, and it's healthy when you have multiple outlets," Smith said. "Losing one is a detriment to all of us."

Losing the Tribune's presence downtown also will be "unfortunate," Smith said. "It's been a part of downtown for so many decades."

Gilbert Vice Mayor Linda Abbott, who teaches government at Mesquite High School, said the Tribune and all newspapers are essential to a functioning democracy.

"Any time there is a newspaper that is extinguished, that is something that is a sadness for all of us," she said. "It is imperative that with public policy that you have the press as the guard for our citizenry, and with the closing of the Tribune, that's one less critical oversight on public policy."

Officials in Queen Creek said the Tribune will be missed because it has been the community's primary source of local news.

"The Tribune's kind of been our go-to place to get information to people," said Queen Creek Mayor Art Sanders. "I'm without words."

Queen Creek Town Manager John Kross also said the announcement was disappointing.

"Frankly, from Queen Creek's perspective, we're not getting any coverage from the (Arizona) Republic or other traditional media services. We're doing what we can on our own on our Web site and on Facebook and Twitter," Kross said. "But to have a third party covering our community, to have that go away, is going to be challenging."

Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, a regional business group, said his first memories of the newspaper date back to 54 years ago as an 11-year-old paperboy.

The job allowed him to get a loan to buy a saxophone, which he paid off during his year as a paperboy, he recalled.

The Tribune played a significant role in the East Valley's growth, in Arnett's view, when then-publisher Chuck Wahlheim coined the term "East Valley" about three decades ago.

Wahlheim also was a founding member of the East Valley Partnership, which was a counterbalance to a group of influential business leaders dubbed the Phoenix 40. The East Valley needed a greater voice, Arnett said, because the Phoenix 40's primary interest was Phoenix.

Wahlheim, who still works in the East Valley as a marketing consultant, remembers the partnership, aggressively pushing for extension of the Superstition Freeway, starting a Sunday edition and moving from evening to morning delivery as his most important accomplishments.

He said his bosses at Cox Newspapers in Atlanta, which owned the Tribune at the time, resisted the move to morning delivery even though evening papers were disappearing across the nation.

"I had to put up some strong arguments to get their permission," he said. "Then when we did it, our circulation took a jump."

He also expressed dismay at the loss of the newspaper.

"My heart and soul has been in the Tribune," he said. "The thing that is so tragic is I don't know who is going to be the Fourth Estate."

Former managing and executive editor Jim Ripley said the loss of the Tribune's voice will hurt the communities it has served.

"What stands out ... in my mind is the hardworking watchdog journalism and the very competitive journalism we produced," he said. "This is important to every community. The loyalty of the Tribune was always to the welfare of the East Valley. ... I don't know if that will ever be replaced."

Stephen Doig, a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, said he was "appalled" by the development, citing a Pulitzer Prize won earlier this year by two Tribune reporters as an example of the paper's tradition of good investigative journalism.

"I think any time we lose a newspaper, either by a death of a thousand cuts that has been going on or the outright termination we now see, the only winners are the crooks and incompetents who won't be exposed because there will be fewer reporters watching them."

He believes journalism will survive but in a very different form.

"There will be experiments," he said. "A lot will fail, a few will be successful. Ten years from now, we will have a very different landscape where news will still be produced."

Ryan Gabrielson, one of the Tribune's Pulitzer Prize winners, called the closing "heartbreaking. ... We did excellent work on a regular basis. It has nothing to do with the quality of the work you do, but market conditions are such that this happens."

Gabrielson, who today is working on a one-year fellowship in the investigative reporting program at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, intends to remain in the newspaper field even though finding a job may be difficult after his fellowship is completed.

"I intend to stay in print reporting. I'm certainly disappointed the Tribune won't be also."

The closing of the Tribune will bring an end to nearly 120 years of newspaper publications in Mesa. The Tribune's forerunner, the Evening Weekly Free Press, began publishing in 1891.

In recent decades the newspaper has gone through several ownership changes, passing from Cox Newspapers to Thomson Newspapers to Freedom Communications, which acquired the property in 2000.

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