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What the Devil won't tell you

No one safe from our Devilish year-end major awards

Saguaros, senators & school board members just some of the winners this year

Year-end pieces are harder than they should be but editors love them for two reasons about this time of year: They are long and news stops happening.

For the about 355 days, editors of what is somewhat pejoratively referred to as “local journalism” (as opposed to the real Journalism for smart people in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Runway 2-3-R Chicago O'Hare) work to squeeze as many stories as possible into their shrinking newspapers. Also, big newsholes cost money and, well, what business can afford to survive on less than a 20 percent profit margin like they run at the Arizona Daily Star?

For 10 days, when nothing happens but community businesses buy a craptonne of ads, the papers are bigger when newsmakers take a holiday. So "look aheads" and "look backs" eat up a lot of space to fill papers that are jam-packed with the latest Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Yule and College Game Day ads.

Here at TucsonSentinel.com, there's not a ton going on, so I'm going to cop to the charge that I'm pandering to my base journalistic instincts and hand out awards for dubious distinction to local leaders and yours truly.

While I'm at it, because I started explaining how these year-end pieces come about, I might as well infuse some insight into the opaque nature of newsroom life.

So here's what the Devil will award you:

The Paul L. Allen Look Busy or Else Award

Sun Corridor, Inc.

Reporters don't spend their days worrying about keeping Republicans out of office. They spend their days avoiding eye contact with editors standing in the middle of the newsroom holding a sticky note and sweeping their gaze across the reporting staff. It's a sure sign of a stupid story that's hard to track down that absolutely must be done by the next day whether it's news or not.

Paul Allen, a seriously old-school reporter at the Citizen, would tell the story of the Carter-era reporter who would keep a mat under his desk. When an editor would approach with the '70s version sticky, this reporter would unfurl a busy mat, with any manner of papers, budgets, reports and pica poles glued to it. Look like you are knee deep in something otherwise you may be heading to Vail to figure out what just made that noise some reader heard.

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More than 200 cities are courting Amazon's $5 billion investment to create as many as 50,000 jobs at it's HQ2 expansion. Why would the online empire choose to come to a low-wage city with a middling airport feeding an economy driven by call centers and a dormant homebuilding industry? Exactly.

Some collective community hallucination has evolved regarding Sun Corridor's team sending a saguaro to Amazon, which roundly rejected it. The cactus never left Tucson. Amazon got word one was headed their way and said "Stop. Just stop."  I might argue is worse than having it slapped down in Seattle. If economic development officials are going to officially send an aged symbol of the Sonoran Desert, it had best get there even if it drowns in the Puget Sound sogginess.

Truly developing the local economy is hard – harder than just wooing the occasional company to come to town. Austin, Seattle, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle didn't just happen. Even Atlanta needed Hartsfield. It's hard work and a long slog to do it right.

So why not throw the occasional hail Mary and make some headlines? Works as well as a busy mat.

The Gannettified Killer-Graphic Award

The City of Tucson comms staff

Gannett, the omnivorous news empire that consumes news and dumbs down the consumer's experience, has indoctrinated journalists around the country with a bias toward "alternative presentation." Give people news without forcing readers to, well, read. By that I mean, not prose. It's called alternative presentation. These forms include the linguistic atrocity that goes by the name “charticle.” I used to require it be called a “dolphin” because the world “charticle” would never come out of my lungs.

Still, a snappy graphic can give readers a lot of information fast, something not lost on city staff ahead of the May sales tax vote.

The city wanted voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for public safety and road repair. Fine. I want a puppy who can win me a lot of money at poker. The city outlined every nickel they intended to spend and what they would spend it on – car-by-car, laptop-by-laptop -- in an easy to decipher chart and map.

Sounds obvious? One would think. Having handy information and the whole plan easy to read means there's nothing to hide. It's all there. It's figured out. See for yourself.

That's how you win the people's confidence. Sure, only a handful of voters read the graphic or knew it existed but it makes a difference in how sales tax advocates campaign for a yes. It adds swagger and confidence.

I write this as the former Democratic Party communications director who called the city to ask where their one-sheet progress report on Rio Nuevo. They had no idea what I meant. The downtown redevelopment team sent me over hundreds of pages of budget line items.

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No wonder Rio Nuevo was so unpopular for so much of its life. The leaders assigned to redevelop downtown didn't have a handle on what they had done and what was left to do. That makes for a defensive posture.

Just having facts at the ready and in detail can change the terms of the argument. I mention this because …

The Pray It Doesn't Go to Jim Wyckoff for Copy Editing Award

Strong Start Tucson

Journalists don't get notes from White Men in Black Suits from on high. They do get calls after work because the copy desk has questions. They can be fantastically stupid questions asked just to piss off the reporter.

“When you say seven, do you mean the number between six and eight?” I got that question once.

But sometimes you write a story that has a hole in the reporting. There's just a bit of information that you know you should have gotten but didn't, so you write around it. That was fine unless it goes to that one particular copy editor. At the Citizen it was Jim Wyckoff, who caught everything.

It didn't take much of a Wyckoff to unearth the problems with Strong Start Tucson, who seemed to think they could propose a $50 million annual gift of city money to private preschools and hope no one would ask questions. Providing affordable pre-kindergarten options to low-income families was a good idea that deserved more fleshing out than Proposition 204's demand for cash with details to follow.

"Trust us. We run nursery schools." It didn't work.

In November, voters spiked the idea.

I like the local community taking initiative to help improve education in cash-starved Arizona. Do it right and it would be a model for other communities. Do it wrong and it's another boondoggle that sets the call for more money for schools back years.

The Nameless Editor Lack of Planning Award

H.T. Sanchez and the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

News clearly can't be planned ahead of time. It's not like a perp sends out a press release announcing ahead of time he intends to commit a triple murder. However, editors know monsoons come in summer and the summer monsoon story is the same year after year but somehow still required. So why does it get assigned at 4 p.m., the day before the meteorologists predict the first heavy deluge?

Because news rooms are dysfunctional – far too dysfunctional to hatch conspiracies. If Gannett decided in 2016 that U.S. Rep. Martha McSally must win or that former Sheriff Chris Nanos needed to be propped up, they wouldn't assign the story until three days before the election. Meetings and corporate revisioning would, no doubt, undermine the plot.

Sanchez lost his governing majority in 2016 and to maintain his position required him making nice with new board member Rachael Sedgwick. He chose not to do that or make any real willingness to chart a new course, figuring he was doing a bang-up job. The board's new majority wanted him gone.

None of this was hard. Part ways and live up to Sanchez's contract. Instead the school board made the typical newsroom look like it was run by Six Sigma black belts. It took four months post-election, multiple stops and starts with closed-door meetings and a general sense of domestic disturbance.

They saved a couple hundred thousand dollars but did at least as much damage to the board's reputation and public standing.

A school district bleeding enrollment and constantly wrestling with bad public relations just added one more chapter to their history of bureaucratic breakdown. 

CEO Award for Missing Whole Cause and Effect Thing

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich

When the news industry is run for the benefit of a daily stock price, costs get cut at all costs and that eventually takes a toll on the product. Today's Arizona Daily Star is often no thicker than the Arizona Daily Sun pages my team of five reporters pounded out 20 years ago.

So the product is sacrificed as corporate managers scratch their heads over the downward slide in revenues. My old company, Gannett, pioneered this practice and made it industry standard.

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Today, Gannett exists as two companies. Gannett runs the print operation. Tegna oversees broadcast. Their stocks trade around $12 and $14 a share. When I arrived in 1998, the company stock sold at $60.

Brnovich took ignorance of cause and effect further than that, when he filed a lawsuit this year claiming the state's universities charged tuition far pricier than their constitutional mandate to provide education nearly free as possible.

Here's why Bronvich showed the juevos of the year. Conservatives have for years been moving away from general subsidies and toward "user pays" models for services. That's a legitimate policy decision to be duked out through elections. The courts have agreed and declared "nearly free as possible" to be a political decision (I find that a dubious finding because constitutional protections exist to avoid political exposure, but whatever).

So Brnovich is suing the Arizona Board of Regents for accommodating the change in policy. It would be like a liberal government imposing a regulation and the AG suing the company for complying.

The general public isn't going to pay for universities. Now Brnovich says students shouldn't make up the difference. Are we supposed to tax the lizard species scurrying across Arizona's desert floors? Or are we just supposed to barter?

Points for rank political opportunism on a level not often seen this side of Mar-A-Lago, Fla. If we're governing like mom taught, then someone needs to put Brnovich in timeout.

Cause and effect, Mr. Attorney General. Cause and effect.

The Public Service Reporting Award for Ignored Civic-Mindedness

Sen. Jeff Flake

Every once in a while, a reporter gets a all First Amendment-y and decides to really dig into an issue so readers can understand a challenge facing the community in all its aspects. These projects take time, and therefor money, to secure the interviews, craft the stories and illustrate the information. I spent as many as long as a month doing one of these on the Sonoran Desert Conservation plan with the Star's Joyesha Chesnick.

Together, we won the Associate Press Managing Editor's Award for Enterprise Reporting of the Year. Big-time award. I'm not sure six people read the story.

These stories are largely ignored by readers. Whip up a six-inch bright on a dog who does Stoli shots and it will go national, setting social media ablaze.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stood on the floor of the Senate chamber and announced his retirement from the august body by declaring a president in his party threatened the underpinnings of civil society. He urged his Republican colleagues to stand up to Trump.

Crickets.

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In fact, the GOP seems to be hatching a plan to assure President Donald Trump escapes Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, whatever it uncovers. Nice try, Jeff.

The Public Service Reporting Award for Nuclear Civic-Mindedness

U.S. Sen. John McCain

If McCain were any more a creature of drama, he'd speak in iambic pentameter. The guy who lost to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and spent eight years pouting over it, stood up with the Thumbs Down Watched 'Round the World and sunk the repeal of his nemesis' signature achievement.

Obamacare lives because of McCain. C'mon. Someone's making this stuff up.

Maybe it's because Trump makes Obama look like Marcus Aurelius. Maybe it's because Trump attacked surviving prisoners of war. Perhaps he was looking at his own mortality and thinking about his legacy. McCain said the Senate needed to legislate like Schoolhouse Rock said it did. Through committee hearings and with a public process. Y'know ... democracy.

Whatever the case, it was the most consequential move by an Arizona senator since Barry Goldwater told Richard Nixon it was time for him to get out of Dodge. And the next day, Nixon did just that.

The Corky Simpson Prognostication Gone Bad Award

That would be me.

Was it 20 years ago that I touted Sedgwick's prospects to bring about a half-decade of peace to cranky school board as a deal-making swing vote?

Back in the early 1990s, Tucson Citizen columnist Corky Simpson was among the voters who ranked the college football teams. There were only two options in 1992: Washington and Miami of Florida. Everyone knew this. Every week, though, one voter – Corky, it turned out – was voting for Alabama. He got outed and the world lost its collective mind that anyone could possibly pick the Crimson Tide right up until 'Bama beat the holy snot out of the Hurricanes during the Sugar Bowl. Corky became an honorary Alabaman.

The opposite of that was being cowed by Sedgwick. I interviewed her after her surprise victory last year and was really impressed because she knew her stuff and was an unknown factor coming in with a swing vote.

I stand by my assertion that she had the chance and I did warn that her ability to be peacemaker between the board's factions would require, patience, cunning and guile. She's been mostly severe in her alignment with the Michael Hicks-Mark Stegemen team against Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster to the point where she got a harassment claim filed against her by a TUSD staffer.

She's been good with the back-hand but not so good with the deft hand.

Sedgwick may run hot but so, too, could former Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll and Sharon Bronson, when they started. Both took chill pills. Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham didn't get off to a distinguished start with his drunken antics in San Diego but has settled into an able city leader (don't screw me on this, Paul).

There's still time but Sedgwick has hardly been an instrument of good feeling. Oops.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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2 comments on this story

2
536 comments
Dec 28, 2017, 11:34 am
-0 +1

It’s a for-profit business, with Gannett and Lee Enterprises splitting profits of about $10 million annually (about twice as much as the total spent on reporters, editors and other journalism costs at the Star) on revenues of a bit more than $50 million. Production and distribution amount to most of the costs putting ink on paper and driving it around has long amounted to a huge chunk of the post-profit margin expenses of a daily newspaper.

1
Dec 27, 2017, 9:44 pm
-0 +1

One question (and I promise it’s not a dumb editor one):  as a co-owner, is Gannett putting money into the Daily Star or just taking it out?

If it’s the latter, don’t they get the Nameless Dairy award for milking the cow?  Regardless of whether it actually has any cash?

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