Gannett pulls plug on Tucson Citizen, again
Four and a half years after the press of the Tucson Citizen rolled for the final time, the final employee of what became a blogging site was laid off Friday. Newspaper chain Gannett announced that the website would become an archive, letting go sportswriter Anthony Gimino (for the second time) and shutting down the site.
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.
Mark Evans, a former assistant city editor for the newspaper, served as the site's administrator until leaving to head up Inside Tucson Business last September.
With a phone call Friday, Gimino was laid off by Gannett for a second time. He was a sportswriter for the print newspaper from 2004-2009, and then began writing for the online version of the Citizen when Gannett received a grant to pay for a part-time reporter. He later moved to a full-time position, helping Evans corral the site's stable of bloggers while continuing to report.
When Evans departed, Gimino was left to handle the reins alone.
Neither Gimino nor Evans were surprised by the move to shut down the site — nor were other former employees of the newspaper.
"I'm disappointed but not surprised," Evans said Friday. "The site's only purpose was to exist."
The South Park operation under which the Citizen fell, along with the Arizona Daily Star, is a partnership between national newspaper chains Gannett Inc. and Lee Enterprises, with each holding a 50 percent share.
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 last editor of the newspaper, Jennifer Boice, said Friday that the decision to keep a website operating was a move to "placate the Justice Department" by providing "an editorial voice." Months of negotiations with federal authorities preceded the January 2009 announcement that the newspaper would be sold or be closed down by Gannett.
A call to Kate Marymont, Gannett's senior vice president for news, was not returned Friday. Justice Department officials with knowledge of the case were said to be "in a meeting" Friday, and did not respond the phone and email requests for information.
In a terse statement posted on the Citizen website, Marymont said, ""We are pleased to continue tucsoncitizen.com as an important community resource for Tucsonans who want to research the history and traditions of their city."
The post, which replaced every page on the Citizen site Friday, said a free archive of stories dating back to 1993 "will be available in several days."
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.
The last person to hold the title of "publisher" for the Citizen was Michael Chihak, who resigned in 2008 (the same period that Gannett began active discussions about closing the newspaper).
"It's always a loss to the community when a viable source of news and information goes away," Chihak said Friday on learning the site had been shut down.
"The Citizen was part of Tucson for so long, for 144 years," said Chihak, now the news director at Arizona Public Media.
Evans and Gimino both said the Citizen received little support in its existence as a website.
Pointing to Gannett's deal with the Justice Department, Evans said the site's "only reason was to exist."
"With a little more support — with tech issues and with staffing — I could have made it profitable," Evans said. "I almost got to break-even in 2012, but we had all kinds of technical problems (that year)."
"The beginning of the end was when (then-Tucson Newspapers Inc. head) Mike Jameson was laid off or whatever they did with him (in November 2010)," Evans said. "TNI was rolled into the Star, with John Humenik in charge."
"After that, there was just the barest toleration of the Citizen's existence," Evans said.
"Plan after plan to make the site better was ignored," he said. "That's when I started looking for work elsewhere."
In a story on the shutdown reported by John Schuster and posted on Inside Tucson Business on Friday afternoon, Evans detailed his frustrations with Gannett.
After proposing a 2012 plan to revamp the website's operations, Evans said, "I was told Gannett legal had to make sure the site redo was acceptable under the settlement agreement between Gannett, Lee and the Justice Department."
"I got no response from Gannett corporate. Not even a 'no.' I was just ignored," he said.
Evans said he was told that any programming work on the site was dependent on a decision by Lee to implement a long-delayed paywall for the Star's website.
Gimino, who has the weekend to box up his belongings and turn in his company laptop, echoed Evans in saying that Gannett corporate ignored plans to improve the site.
"There was resistance to a sports site," he said of a plan he formulated after Evans left, to shift the site's focus to just sports coverage by Gimino, Andy Morales and other sports writers who have been blogging without pay for the Citizen.
Gimino said he was told that restrictions imposed by the Justice Department might block a move to a sports-only format.
Both Evans and Gimino said they were proud of the work they were able to do, despite the lack of corporate support. Evans was able to hire Gimino back to report on sports because the site received a $50,000 grant to support building a network of bloggers in 2009.
"There were a few bloggers who rose above and beyond," Gimino said, citing postings by Morales, Carolyn Classen, Karyn Zoldan, Scott Terrell and others.
"Other media, especially TV, piggybacked on their work a lot," he said.
"I feel really bad for Anthony," Evans said. "He's one of the best sportswriters in the state. I was able to get out (with another job). He ended up getting laid off again, by the same newspaper."
In a Facebook post later in the afternoon, Evans said he was "heart-broken" for Gimino. "He put in 60-70 hour weeks as a one-man Arizona Wildcats newsroom. That Gannett didn't recognize his talent and either let him make the site successful, or find him a job is sorely disappointing."
"Moreover, I'm becoming more pissed off by the minute by the fact that Gannett didn't even bother to thank the bloggers who have provided that site with content for years only for the glory of the work (that means no pay)," Evans wrote. "I'm just disgusted that it would end this way."
Contributors to the Citizen's blogs were notified via mass email Friday afternoon about the shutdown of the site, after it had been turned off. The email included a Word attachment containing the statement posted on the website, and an equally terse message:
Dear community blogger:
We are sharing with you the attached announcement this afternoon from Gannett Co. Inc. regarding the Tucson Citizen.
Thank you for your participation with the Citizen.
Morales said Friday that he "joined the 'unpaid' staff at the TC.com because the major print outlet in Tucson was more focused on being a national publication rather than something for our community to rely on."
"It was worth it to me to sacrifice hours of my time to bring stories of our youth to the people of Southern Arizona," Morales said via a chat message. "I think my work speaks for itself and the fact that my stuff 'just happens' to magically appear in print A LOT means that I must have been doing something right. I'm not going anywhere."
Boice, the Citizen's final editor, credited Evans, Gimino, Morales and others for doing quality work ("amazing with the resources Mark was given"), but said the "old and storied newspaper" — one that reported the shootout at the OK Corral —"was reduced to a shadow of what it once was, thanks to Gannett."
The Citizen was the "subject of benign neglect by Gannett" after the presses stopped running, said Mark Kimble, who oversaw the paper's editorial pages.
"I'm surprised that it lasted this long" said Kimble, who worked at the Citizen for 35 years before being laid off in the 2009 closure of the print paper.
"I can't say that I was a frequent reader of the website," he said. "I mostly read their sports section — Anthony (Gimino)'s work especially. But I'm not sure that a collection of blogs amounted to much of a separate editorial voice," as Gannett said they would provide.
"I'm also not sure what the effect will be on the editorial published in the Star will be," Kimble said. After Evans' departure, Gannett has provided a weekly editorial for the print pages of the Star penned by Linda Valdez of the Arizona Republic, one of the newspapers in the chain.
Valdez said Friday evening that, "My understanding is that it is over, too. … I won't be writing any more (opinion pieces for the Star)."
The Star's report on the final demise of the site run by its corporate partner was even shorter than Gannett's announcement of the closure. The morning daily posted a three-sentence brief on its website — a story on which it did not allow the public to comment.
Archives a worry
Boice, who spent 25 years in the Citizen newsroom, expressed concern about the newspaper's physical archives — something she's done since the paper's closure was announced five years ago.
The newspaper library held tens of thousands of photographs and undeveloped negatives, along with copies of the newspaper and other historical documents, such as local high school yearbooks. Those archives are sitting "in an abandoned room on the abandoned side of a building," Boice said.
"I think (Star editor and interim publisher) Bobbie Jo Buel has respect for the historical status of the archive, and in conservation," Boice said. "But given Lee (Enterprises') financial situation, it's very worrying. I'm not sure they have the wherewithal to preserve it."
Without anyone to keep watch on it, "the integrity has been compromised," she said. "The photos, at least, should definitely go to the (Arizona) Historical Society" where they can be held in a climate-controlled space.
"There are many photographs that were never even published," she said.
PK Weis, who served as the newspaper's photo editor for 30 years after six years as a photographer for the paper, said Friday, "I'm just kind of speechless ... I worked there all my life, pretty much."
"From a historical viewpoint, (the shutdown) is just a tragic day," said Weis, one of about 65 Citizen staffers who were laid off in 2009. "Journalists of today have missed the romance of that era of print newspapering."
Dylan Smith was the online editor of the Tucson Citizen when the newspaper was closed.