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From the editor

Dirty little secrets of the news business

Some remarks I made to a January 15 lunch meeting of the Democrats of Greater Tucson, on the state of the news business (as prepared for delivery):

Thanks so much for having me here today — In a moment, I'll get around to talking about how TucsonSentinel.com is an authentically local, mission-driven nonprofit news organization — one that's one of the national leaders in rebuilding the local news industry.

And how real reporting is the antidote for an epidemic of fake news.

I just might mention a time or two why it's important for you to join in supporting TucsonSentinel.com's work, because as our motto reads, a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

And I'll let you know a dirty little secret about the news business.

But first... It's interesting that I'm here to talk with you today on the day we remember the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., because it raises some important questions that have a bearing on our current civic culture.

Because you may know why we remember King, and his accomplishments, and ponder the work for justice that is yet unfulfilled.

But how do we know about it?

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Dr. King is in our hearts and minds and in our classrooms and history books today, in part because smart and often courageous journalists were there to report the news of the Civil Rights struggle — creating the first draft of history.

I don't want to throw too much epistemology at you, but the theory of knowledge — how we know what we know — is important when we're talking about the press. Getting accurate, reliable, consistent reporting — news that's well-sourced and understandable, that explains not only what just happened, but what it means to our community and to your family — getting real reporting instead of alternative facts, is now more necessary than perhaps ever before.

And today, the important work of our free press, so vital to the functioning of our republic, is assailed from all sides, and threatened as we've never seen.

Threatened how, and by what?

President Trump sows distrust at every turn, calling reporters "enemies of the people" and proclaiming any story he doesn't like is "fake news." And plenty of his supporters do the same.

But, while Trump's an easy target, especially when talking to a group of Democrats, his insults and antics are actually far from our most serious problem.

Some of the others include:

The epidemic of actual fake news, whether from Russian bots, social media idiots, or the foolish hype of schlocky, cynical, manipulative partisan bloggers from the right and the left.

And, while your sharing posts by Bill Palmer and Occupy Democrats and retweeting Lousie Mensch may serve to make your friends dumber, that's not all of it.

We could blame the Internet, writ large, where blatantly plagiarized stories often gain broader reach than original journalism; where clickbait garbage crowds out real reporting, with advertising and circulation systems being completely upended; and giants like Facebook and Google sucking up all of the money.

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And, certainly not the least of the challenges facing journalism: enormous corporate chains that are far more interested in pulling profits out of hard-pressed newspapers in the short-term than paying reporters to do great work and investing in those communities for the long haul.

Many of those chains are owned by private equity and hedge funds, burdened by hundreds of millions in debt, run from headquarters thousands of miles away, and are being wrung dry for investors as quickly as possible — what the financial industry calls "burning the furniture."

Why does this matter?

I'm probably safe in guessing that you've been paying a little more attention to the news over the last year or so?

National news, maybe?

What about local government and public policy? I'm told we might have an election or two this year.

And who's paying for that news — who's paying to make sure reporters sit through endless City Council meetings? I haven't seen Rachel Maddow there.

And who's paying for someone to comb through stacks of proposed laws to find the loopholes? I'm waiting on my Soros check.

Who's paying to ensure that those stories are distributed so everyone can read them? It's not Steve Bannon, although he's out of a journalism job again, anyway.

Increasingly, across the country, the answer is: nobody.

And thus no one is doing the job.

Real journalism is in a state of crisis.

From a peak in 2000, newspaper advertising dollars have dropped far and fast, and are now below the level they were in 1950.

Think about that — there was just as much money to fund newspapers in 1950 as there is now — even though our population is twice as big.

And that means newsrooms are shrinking — in all formats, but especially at newspapers.

And that means reporters and editors are being laid off, here in Tucson and all over the country. There are now only about half the number of professional reporters in this country than there were 25 years ago.

Just half. Despite our population being larger, and our politics even more complex.

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And between 2004 and last year, America lost more than 730 newspapers, which were closed, shut down, often by out-of-town corporations.

And we've seen that right here in Tucson. The presses stopped rolling at the Tucson Citizen — where I was the online editor — and the news staff packed up their desks after 138 years when the newspaper mega-chain Gannett pulled the plug back in 2009.

Gannett still partners with national media chain Lee Enterprises in the Arizona Daily Star, and it was deemed more profitable to run just one newspaper rather than two.

That bottom-line decision may make sense on paper, but it wasn't good for this community.

And Gannett and Lee have continued to cut at the Star, and everywhere else. Here, they have fewer reporters and editors now than the underdog Citizen did the day it were shut down.

With layoffs of a dozen here and a dozen there and yet again, over and over, and quietly closing individual positions, including one just recently, the Star's led the pack in shrinking the press corps in Tucson this decade.

But other outlets — the Weekly, the Explorer, the radio and TV stations — all have far fewer reporters.

Up at the Arizona Republic, also owned by Gannett, they have to have a series of clocks on the wall — because they're editing stories for newspapers hundreds and even thousands of miles away that are no longer fully staffed, and they need to know what time it is Reno, Ft. Collins and Great Falls.

What's the common denominator, other than having smaller newsrooms?

They're all owned by out-of-town corporations.

Most of our press is, whether it's in print, on TV or radio.

TucsonSentinel.com is local, through and through, very deliberately.

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Truth be told, just here in our town, there are about a couple hundred fewer professional journalists than there were a decade ago. That's 150-200 fewer reporters digging into what's going on, so many fewer watchdogs telling the stories of what makes Tucson tick.

But we're trying to change that.

So, I'll tell you a dirty little secret about the news business - well, even better - two dirty little secrets.

Dirty little secret number one: Real reporting costs money.

It takes a lot of time, and experience in interviewing and persistence in pursuing public records. It takes professional reporters and editors doing their jobs.

That might seem like a no-brainer, but so much of what you watch and read is actually piggybacking on the work of solid reporters at the local and national levels. Whether it's commentary from Rachel Maddow or a story in the Hill, chances are that's spun off the long hard work of an underpaid reporter somewhere out there — they've picked up plenty of stories from TucsonSentinel.com, in fact.

Somebody had to be there in the first place, to be the boots on the ground doing the hard work for everyone else to play pundit about.

And TucsonSentinel.com, despite our small, scrappy size, is playing that role.

We have a very modest budget, but maintaining our computers, website, cameras, replacing worn-out shoe leather and putting gas in trucks for trips through the desert all adds up. And so does paying experienced journalists.

Our reporters are talented professionals, some with decades in investigative and community journalism.

Founded in 2009, we went live in January 2010, so we're coming up on a birthday here - next Monday, in fact — Since then we've published nearly 23,000 stories that are relevant to local readers here in Tucson.

Some of those recent stories:

TucsonSentinel.com broke the news, leading up to our city election last year, that political committees were not filing mandatory disclosures of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and expenses — and the city was letting them get away with it. No other news organization dug into that.

We published an exclusive report on a decorated Marine veteran who may be deported, despite likely being U.S. citizen — a story that was recycled by the Guardian after it got national attention.

We've been keeping an eye on how Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller repeatedly flouted public records laws and didn't tell the truth about it. The Sentinel led the way in reporting about the fake-news "Arizona Daily Herald" and the ensuing scandal in Miller's office, including the examination of more than 10,000 pages of records that showed Miller instructing her staff to avoid using government accounts to do their jobs, quote, "to be more secretive."

You read from us first that most of Arizona's GOP delegation in Congress was lobbying to rescind the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Recently, the Sentinel was the only newsroom to successfully dig into who had received a settlement negotiated by Congressman Raul Grijalva.

The deeply sourced work of our border reporter Paul Ingram, the provocative and thoughtful 'What the Devil won't tell you' columnist Blake Morlock, context from veteran business reporter Betty Beard .... they and others on the Sentinel team have become go-to sources of solid information for Tucson.

And that's just a start.

Here's one more example of why we need real local accountability journalism:

We were the only news organization anywhere — not just in Arizona, but in the country — to report that Congress was moving to exempt the Border Patrol from Freedom of Information laws. Because of our work, that provision was quickly stripped from a border bill.

That's right:

​Does it sound like a good idea for one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world to be able to essentially operate as secret police, without any public accountability?

As you're probably aware, the Border Patrol and other agencies of Customs and Border Protection have already been given sweeping powers to ignore certain constitutional rights within 100 miles of the border — including the Tucson area and most of Southern Arizona — where they can set up immigration checkpoints, conduct searches in ways that you'd think would violate the 4th Amendment, and do routinely go beyond their broad authority and violate civil rights.

At least we can keep tabs on them through freedom of information, right?

Well, Congress very nearly handed CBP a blank check to ignore FOIA. Buried deep in a bill in October was a loophole that would have exempted CBP from FOIA entirely, for anything and everything they did within that 100-mile border zone.

A single news organization in the entire country wrote about that exemption before the bill was put to a committee vote: TucsonSentinel.com.

We published an editorial the evening before the Homeland Security Committee held a markup session, after we asked questions about why CBP should be allowed to keep data and records about its border enforcement under wraps.

When our questions were met with silence and excuses, we told Southern Arizona residents that their congresswoman, Martha McSally, was a co-sponsor of a bill that would allow Border Patrol to operate in the dark.

I very rarely write editorials at all. But in this case, I said: "Whether you support or oppose Trump's wall, strongly favor more stringent immigration enforcement or are adamantly opposed, not knowing if CBP is doing its job fairly and effectively should not be an option."

The very next day, McSally quickly amended the bill to remove that provision.

Just one other news outlet in the nation even reported about the FOIA loophole being pulled — a brief notice afterward in the Dallas Morning News.

It matters that we have quality local reporting taking place, because righting wrongs and making communities work better eventually means good things for all of us.

So, it's no secret that newspaper newsrooms are shrinking and that the industry is in a financial crisis. TucsonSentinel.com was founded to address this problem — by turning that outdated newspaper model on its head.

So it's time for a second dirty little secret, and this is one that actually surprises a lot of people:

How much do you think a newspaper like the Star spends on reporters? Most of their revenues? Half?

Sorry, no.

Newspapers spend as little as they can get away with on reporting. If they can, they take twice in profits what they spend on journalism.

Daily newspapers have historically taken a 20 to 30 percent profit margin right off the top. Grocery stores, in comparison, make 2-3 percent.

Of what's left over, newspapers have spent maybe 10-15 percent on the newsroom.

Take the Star — not just to pick on them, because they have some fantastic reporters still who I would love to be able to hire away, but because they're the big dog and the Lee/Gannett partnership means more information is disclosed about their finances to the SEC.

According to recent figures, the Star is pulling in about $52 to $55 million per year.

A tidy chunk of that is shipped out of town as profit, on a weekly basis — nearly $11 million total.

In 2016, the Star spent just $5.5 million out of $53 million total on paying reporters and editors — a bit more than 10 percent. They raked in twice that in profit.

You should know those total revenue and profit figures are declining fast — a decade ago, they pulled in $120 million here in Tucson alone.

Now, we don't print at TucsonSentinel.com — printing presses and ink and paper and trucks and gas and real estate add up fast: newspapers spend 70-80 percent of what's left over after the profit gets skimmed on production and distribution.

We’d rather spend money on doing the news.

Because we’re a locally focused and operated news organization, and we're a nonprofit.

We'd love to have the $5.5 million that the Star has to spend on their newsroom. Heck, this year, we'd love to have 10 percent of that — imagine what we could do with a half-dozen more kickass reporters.

I can tell you that we flip things around and invest every penny we possibly muster into doing more deep-dive investigations, more watchdogging meetings, more figuring out what's going on and explaining it to you and your neighbors.

And you can help us do more of it.

In fact, you can pull out your phone and go to TucsonSentinel.com/donate right now, even while I'm talking, and back our reporting with a tax-deductible gift.


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TucsonSentinel.com has been at the forefront of a movement to rebuild local news from the ground up, even as print newspapers wither under the control of those hedge funds and chains.

We’re working to return local news to its roots: experienced local reporters working for local editors and a local publisher — all invested in the well-being of their community, not just seeking to ship short-term profits far away.

We were among the grassroots local news sites that helped start the national nonprofit Local Independent Online News Publishers — LION Publishers. I'm proud to be the founding chairman of that group, which serves the heads of about 200 local indie news sites like ours around the country.

Not only are we helping to tell the story of what's going on in Southern Arizona to the rest of the world, with reporters who know the territory — we're putting Tucson on the map as a place that's supporting innovation in local news.

Working on a tiny budget, we've attracted local respect and national attention for our solid work.

Unlike the talking heads on cable TV and the babbling on partisan blogs, we don't just do hot-take reactions on news reported elsewhere. It can take reporters a lot of time and expertise to track down leads and untangle complex issues.

Many newsrooms simply can't afford to take on this kind of journalism anymore.

For us, that's the reason we're here.

My family spent a good chunk of the 20th century working in local news. My great-grandfather became a reporter straight out of high school in 1900, and eventually bought his own newspaper. My grandfather later became the editor of that paper, the Wheaton Daily Journal, just outside Chicago.

As a reminder to myself of the enduring value of quality local news, every day I wear my grandfather's ring — from Sigma Delta Chi - what became the Society of Professional Journalists.

It's partly that family heritage that pushed me to start TucsonSentinel.com back in 2009. Gannett closed down the newspaper that reported the shootout at the OK Corral. After I packed up my stuff, I went home and cracked open a beer, sat down at my computer, and registered a domain name.

And got to work.

Of course, it was a lot of work, and still is. Sometimes tedious, never glamorous, often fascinating, always meaningful.

Hollywood might make movies about the Post and the Times — who's had a chance to see "The Post" already? — but it's local news that matters to you and your family every day.

As part of our nonprofit mission, we've pledged to make our work widely available. We're not setting up a paywall; we want everyone in Southern Arizona to be able to read us. When you donate, whether it's a check for $50 or $500, or a recurring monthly gift of $25, you're not just supporting your own ability to read quality local journalism — you're making it available to your friends and family, your neighbors and the folks who live on the other side of town.

We're not just a nonprofit, we're resolutely nonpartisan. We're not here to tell you what to think — but it is our task to give all of us things to think about.

We're neither liberal nor conservative, and certainly not Democratic or Republican; it's our job to hold our civic leaders responsible no matter what party they belong to, ... and credit their good work when they get things right as well. No party has a lock on good ideas, and no faction a monopoly on mistakes.

At our events and on our list of donors, you'll find elected Democrats and active Greens and a couple of Socialists along with Republicans in and out of office, and Libertarians and Tea Party leaders — all smart people who understand that real local news without the spin is important for all of us.

We're pragmatic optimists. We don't report bad things with cynicism, but because we know we can do better as a community. Real solutions don't come from dogma, but instead from creative thinking backed with grounded examples.

We will admit that we have a bias: toward the truth, and in favor of Southern Arizona. We'll call 'em as we see 'em, and show you our work as we dig into what is true, and what is false, and what the future of our city and region can and should look like.

In the words of Martin Luther King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

We shine a light on this town because we love it.

For our community to thrive, for our government to be transparent, to hold our elected officials and bureaucrats accountable, to celebrate the things we love about this place, we need sunlight streaming down.

Exposing the wrongs, and spotlighting what is right.

That comes from solid journalism.

And you can play an important role in making sure that reporting happens, and is read.

To sum up - This has been a somewhat unusual situation — I'm the reporter here, and I'm more used to asking questions than speaking at length. So I want to know from you this:

Are you happy with the news you get?

Are you and your neighbors well-informed about the issues — the actual facts of things? Or do you get more partisan spin than real reporting — more appeals to your sense of outrage and confirmation of the bias you already had?

While you ponder that, another question:

What are you going to do about that? Do you want more real reporting?

Will you partner with us to support local news, and make a gift to our nonprofit newsroom?

I know each of you is involved in this community, you care about Tucson's future, and believe in making this a better place.

I trust that you care about quality journalism being available in this town.

If you read us, support us. And read us more. Tell your friends, share our work on Facebook so more people can read it. Sign up for our free email newsletter. If you own a local small business or are running a political campaign, talk to us about effective, affordable marketing on TucsonSentinel.com.

So many of you stepped up in November and December to help us with News Match - we were fortunate to be invited to join in a national fundraising effort supporting nonprofit news sites, backed by the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the MacArthur Foundation.

And we're very grateful to those who gave during that year-end effort. It was a big boost to us.

But we've got a long ways to go. And we need your help like never before.

You can sign up for a recurring subscription to back our work each month, or give a one-time tax-deductible gift — just go to TucsonSentinel.com/donate

Your support is what allows us to drive change for the better through stories that challenge, inform, and inspire.

Without you, those stories go untold.

We believe that just as an unexamined life is not worth living, an unexamined city is not worth living in — because truly, a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

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TucsonSentinel.com publishes analysis and commentary from a variety of community members, experts, and interest groups as a catalyst for a healthy civic conversation; we welcome your comments. As an organization, we don't endorse candidates or back specific legislation. All opinions are those of the individual authors.