Did a quarter-million Tucson Citizen newspaper stories go up in digital smoke?
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Did a quarter-million Tucson Citizen newspaper stories go up in digital smoke?

The bare-bones remnants of the Tucson Citizen's online archive vanished from public view weeks ago, and corporate staff have given conflicting accounts about whether hundreds of thousands of news stories will ever be accessible again.

More than 200,000 reports, mostly local news and sports stories dating from 1993 until the Citizen laid off nearly its entire staff and ceased printing in 2009, had been included in a basic Wordpress website set up by the Citizen's corporate owners in 2014. That website disappeared from the Internet sometime before January 17.

Staff at the Arizona Daily Star said that all of the data for the website was gone, but the newspaper's publisher said "we're trying to get it back up."

Journalists for TucsonSentinel.com as well as AllSportsTucson.com reporter Anthony Gimino — a longtime Citizen veteran — noticed that the website had gone down more than two weeks ago. TucsonSentinel.com first asked questions about the status of the archive on January 17. Star and corporate staff didn't respond to questions about how long the site had been down.

Former Citizen journalists and an industry expert decried the latest shortfall in what they've previously described as the cavalier treatment of the archive, both physical and digital, with one calling the disappearance of the online stories "devastating."

The South Park operation under which the Citizen fell, along with the Arizona Daily Star, is a partnership between massive national newspaper chains Gannett Inc. and Lee Enterprises, with each holding a 50 percent share. Lee is the publisher of the Star, while the Citizen was published by Gannett. A decade after the newspaper ceased publishing, and five years after a community blogging site set up on the Citizen's URL was closed, Gannett still reaps half of the profits from the venture here — about $10 million in total split between the two media chains in the last year that figure was publicly released.

Several Gannett corporate executives were asked to comment by TucsonSentinel.com last week, but none responded.

"Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, it looks like all data pertaining to that site is gone," a Star staffer told Gimino, who was the last administrator of Tucson Citizen blogging site. "Corporate policies prohibit us from providing any further details at this time."

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At the time of the newspaper's closing, in May 2009, Gannett executives pledged to allow public access to the archive, and to maintain the online presence of the reporting by the newspaper's staff.

"That would be a tragedy if such an enormous living piece of Tucson history were lost. I tried for months to work out a way for the Arizona Historical Society to preserve the archives, including the vast number of truly historic photos taken by Tucson Citizen photographers for more than 100 years," said Jennifer Boice, who was the final editor of the Citizen, after working in that newsroom for 25 years. "Corporate executives saw the archived material only in terms of value to them and the company. Future generations are infinitely poorer without access to the historical perspective provided by the Tucson Citizen."

"It's a lengthy, and odd, story as to why but we're trying to get it back up," said John D'Orlando, publisher of the Arizona Daily Star, who said last Tuesday that "no less than five minutes ago I found out about this."

"Hopefully it'll be up and running in the next two weeks," D'Orlando said in an email, but did not provide any details about the archive's status.

Mark Evans, a former assistant editor for the Citizen newspaper who was the administrator of the blogging site set up after the newspaper was closed, described the online archive as "an important record of the people and events of this county dating back to 1993. To not properly maintain it or have something as simple as a backup server shows a cavalier attitude toward the history of this community by Lee and Gannett that I fear is also reflected in their attitude toward telling today's stories."

"The archive cost Gannett or Lee next to nothing. It was a few dozen gigabytes in a server room full of terabytes," he said.

"I wish I could say I'm surprised and shocked, but after watching how those two great papers have been bled for decades, shipping local dollars out of state to fuel the insatiable demand for 20-percent profit margins, it seems rather inevitable that 29 years of news gathering by Citizen journalists would go up in smoke for want of a few hundred bucks for a backup server and a little bit of monthly attention," said Evans, now the chief spokesman for Pima County.

Gimino said that "Losing more than 20 years of easily accessible Tucson history is devastating. As someone who likes to dig around in the archives to write about Arizona Wildcats athletic history, I've leaned on unique content from sportswriting stalwarts such as Corky Simpson and Steve Rivera, spanning championship teams and Hall of Fame athletes. And now ... it's gone, without explanation."

Staff at Tucson's remaining daily newspaper said that "Tucsoncitizen.com was a Gannett, Inc site.  Neither the Star nor its parent company Lee Enterprises hosted it."

Domain registration records show that the tucsoncitizen.com URL is owned by Tucson Newspapers, one of the alternate names for TNI Partners, the combined agency for the Lee/Gannett partnership here. Both tucson.com and azstarnet.com, the websites for the Daily Star, are listed as owned by Tucson Newspapers. Despite the newspaper being published by Lee, both Star websites are run through Gannett nameservers.

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Plug pulled previously

The Citizen's website has had information lost several times since the paper's newsroom was shut down. Gannett closed the Citizen newspaper in May 2009, but kept on a shoestring staff who administered an open-to-all blogging site to keep the U.S. Justice Department off the company's back.

When the Citizen newspaper was publishing, the partnership was supervised by the Justice Department under a joint operating agreement — an exemption from anti-trust laws allowed by the Newspaper Preservation Act.

The Citizen's press made its final run for the Saturday, May 16, 2009, edition. The paper printed its first page for Saturday, Oct. 15, 1870.

Evans and Gimino have both said the Citizen received little support during its existence as a blogging website. After the newspaper closed, few resources were put toward maintaining the Citizen's digital and physical archives.

The system that handled the newspaper's posted archive was switched over to another in 2010, but links between photos and stories were lost, as was an archive of news videos, due to a power surge.

From 2009 to early 2014, the Citizen hosted blogs by dozens of local writers. That content was all removed from the archive in January 2014, five years after Gannett ended a probe by the Justice Department by agreeing to maintain an alternate "editorial voice" in the community.

From 2014 until this January, the site existed as a text-centric repository of thousands of news reports published in the Citizen from 1993 through the day of the last print run.

Two slightly different versions of the archive appeared, one with stories that were published in print between December 1993 and the end of the print paper (tucsoncitizen.com/morgue2), and one with stories that were posted online between March 2006 and shortly after the newspaper was closed in May 2009 (tucsoncitizen.com/morgue).

A notice on the larger archive said it included more than 230,000 stories. That archive had 1,795 pages in its listings of published reports, with links to about 150 stories on each page — meaning as many as 269,000 stories were linked. None of the associated photos were included in that archive. The 2006-2009 archive included some photos, and had 755 pages of links to stories.

The website was blocked from inclusion in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Leading up to the 2009 shutdown of the newspaper, Gannett went through the motions of putting the Citizen up for sale, but declined at least two offers to purchase the paper. The company justified its closing of the paper to the Justice Department by claiming it would be more profitable to remain a partner in the Star portion of the operation, without the expense of staffing a newsroom and printing and distributing a paper. The company said in a 2009 federal court filing that it had licensed the archive for more money than the highest bid it received for the paper. The licensee was only disclosed in a document that remains sealed, but sources within the combined Lee/Gannett operation have said they suspect that Gannett licensed the Citizen archive to TNI Partners — with the Tucson operation essentially paying itself to make outside bids appear too low.

The Star has frequently published photo retrospectives that rely heavily on Citizen photos from the 1960s, early '70s, and decades before. The Citizen had a much more extensive photo archive preserved in its library.

Gannett and Lee have followed a practice of splitting "all available cash" from the Tucson operation between the two companies on a weekly basis.

'Digital dark age'

"The demise of the Tucson Citizen web archive could be the poster child for the difficulties we face when trying to archive web-based news," said Edward McCain, an industry expert on preserving digital journalism.

"The days of libraries collecting papers and keeping them in bound volumes are long gone, but we have not developed the laws and technology needed to keep digital content from disappearing," said McCain, head of the Journalism Digital News Archive at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, and a staff photographer for the Citizen in the 1980s.

"It is sad to see the 'first rough draft of history' from Southern Arizona disappearing, but unless we take this urgent situation seriously, we stand to lose much more of the history of the early 21st century — a kind of 'digital dark age,'" McCain said.

Editor’s note: Dylan Smith was the online editor of the Tucson Citizen through the shutdown of the newspaper in May 2009.


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photo illustration by Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

A current view of the Tucson Citizen website, superimposed over a list of stories posted from its final print edition, May 16, 2009.