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Updated Apr 18, 2014, 2:24 pm Originally posted Apr 17, 2014, 3:43 pm
A pair of Tucson publications — the Tucson Weekly and Inside Tucson Business — is being sold to a national publishing chain that also operates the Explorer, 10/13 Communications.
Sources said all employees will be laid off, with the opportunity to apply for an unknown number of positions with the new owners.
"Terms of the transaction were not announced," a release from the Colorado-based company said, describing the deal as a "preliminary agreement."
The Weekly had been owned by Wick Communications, a newspaper chain headquartered in Sierra Vista, since 2000. The company had owned ITB since 1992.
Wick also operated a legal ad vehicle, the Daily Territorial, and Inside Tucson Business, along with the Weekly, as part of its Territorial Newspapers division. The company will maintain ownership of the Territorial, sources with knowledge of the transaction indicated.
Employees of the newspapers were informed of the sale at a meeting at 3 p.m. Rumors of an ownership change have been rampant in recent weeks.
Wick CEO Tom Yunt told employees the deal is expected to be finalized before the end of the month.
All of the staff of the two publications will be laid off and "everybody has to apply for an as-yet undetermined number of jobs," a source with knowledge of the meeting's discussions said.
About 25 staffers work for both newspapers.
10/13 will conduct interviews for those new positions next week, the source said. Those who choose to reapply and are not hired will be paid an unknown amount of severance.
The sale was discussed by Mark Evans, editor of ITB, and Weekly writer Mari Herreras on Friday, as the pair appeared on the Buckmaster Show on Friday.
"We don't know what's going to happen," Herreras said when asked about what direction the new owner might take the newspapers. Herreras confirmed that employees were informed of the layoffs.
The sale "was the worst-kept secret in town," Evans said, calling Thursday's announcement "anti-climactic."
"It was something we all knew was being discussed," Herreras said.
Evans and Herreras declined to discuss the reasons Wick sold the publications.
Staff were "admonished not to talk about" what was discussed during the meeting in which employees were informed, Evans said.
Staff were instructed not to bring recording devices to that meeting.
During the meeting, Yunt claimed that the two papers have been unprofitable for a decade, sources said. Insiders with knowledge of Wick's balance sheet have told TucsonSentinel.com that the Weekly has been "marginally profitable," while ITB has lost money in recent years. The publication being retained by Wick, the Territorial, has been highly profitable with its stream of legal ads, although less so in the past couple of years. Ironically, that paper is more lucrative in a down economy, because of increases in the number of foreclosure notices and other legally required advertising.
"The addition of Tucson Weekly and Inside Tucson Business is great for our company and for increasing our reach and effectiveness for advertisers in the Tucson market," the president of 10/13 Communications, Randy Miller, said in the press release.
The founder of the Weekly, Doug Biggers, said he is "disappointed to hear that Wick Communications has sold the Tucson Weekly. After 30 years of publication, it's obvious to me that the brand is incredibly valuable. It's depressing to see how they've completely squandered the opportunity as a result of mediocre leadership."
10/13 purchased three other small publications in the Tucson area earlier this month: Marana News, Foothills News and the Desert Times.
The chain also owns the East Valley Tribune. Newspaper insiders have criticized the company for its drastic cuts to newsrooms at its papers, including the Explorer and the Tribune. Formerly known as 13th Street Media, the company purchased the Explorer in 2007, and the Tribune in 2010.
The Explorer, which a decade ago had a newsroom of about a dozen, has one editor and three reporters on the newspaper's staff list. The EV Tribune, which had already cut its staff from about 75 to 14 under former owners Freedom Communications (including journalists who contributed to the paper's 2009 Pulitzer Prize), has seen its reporting staff whittled to three editors, two reporters, a photographer and a calendar clerk.
The revenue-generating sides of those operations have also seen cuts.
Biggers, who founded the Weekly in 1984 and ran the alt-weekly until selling to Wick in 2000, said he's concerned about the new owner's plans.
"From all I've heard, 10/13 Communications has a record of decimating publications they acquire and are not champions of quality journalism, despite their rhetoric," Biggers said. "I guess we'll find out soon enough if that's the case with Tucson Weekly."
Ryan Gabrielson, a reporter who worked on the Trib's 2008 reporting on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio that was recognized with a Pulitzer, also expressed concerns.
"I hope 10/13 maintains the excellent journalists at these publications, though that appears far from certain," he said Thursday. Gabrielson left the Tribune in 2009.
The company's statement did not address any layoffs at the newspapers.
10/13 bills itself as "A New Kind of Media Company" and touts a "innovative distribution model." In addition to its Arizona holdings, Miller's company publishes a string of 40 small newspapers in Texas.
Prior to founding 13th Street, Miller was an executive with Lee Enterprises, the company that owns the Arizona Daily Star.