Daily Star to halt presses; Republic will print Tucson newspaper in Phoenix
60 jobs will be lost in pressroom, packaging; Star seeking new smaller offices
The Arizona Daily Star will shut down its local press and print its newspaper in Phoenix, trucking copies to Tucson daily. Sixty jobs will be lost in the pressroom and packaging areas when the hulking three-story machine grinds to a halt in May.
The Arizona Republic will print the Star under a contract beginning in mid-May, company officials said.
The news-gathering operation will remain in Tucson, although there will likely soon be more empty desks in the Star's offices. The vast building on South Park Avenue has become so empty, the paper is looking for a location just a tenth of the size, sources said.
The physical printing press, located in the Star's plant on South Park Avenue, has been "a constant strain on our resources," the paper's publisher, John D’Orlando, told the staff Thursday.
The press, which was revamped at a cost of about a million dollars about a decade ago, has been "regular need of repair and upgrade," he said.
Despite D'Orlando's citing of the economics of operating the press here, the Star generated about $10 million in profits on $47 million in revenues last year.
"The decision to move our printing and packaging work to Phoenix was not arrived at lightly," D’Orlando said, and reportedly praised the Star's printing and packaging workers, according to a story posted online. About 15 of the 60 affected workers have been part-time, the Star said.
The company, a partnership between the Lee Enterprises and Gannett national newspaper chains, gave workers 60 days' notice of the job cuts. Under the federal WARN Act, layoffs of 50 or more full-time workers require at least two months' prior notification, and filings with government agencies. Friday, a layoff notice filed on Thursday by the Star appeared in the Arizona WARN online list, stating that 59 workers would be affected.
The Republic prints its newspapers later than the Star has, so newsroom deadlines are not expected to have "material changes," but "significant breaking news may impact delivery times," the Star publisher said. The Star's deadline for many stories has already been early — 8 p.m., which is before many government meetings are ended.
The Star's story on the ending of local printing operations said that the presses in Tucson and Phoenix are "100 miles apart." The Republic's printing facility is in Deer Valley, on the northern edge of Phoenix and about a 140-mile drive from TNI's plant at South Park Avenue and Irvington Road.
D'Orlando didn't respond to TucsonSentinel.com's request for comment Thursday afternoon.
The Star has endured the industry-wide trend of marked declines in print circulation, with the equivalent drops in revenues from print advertising. A decade ago, the TNI partnership that included the Star and Tucson Citizen had revenues of nearly $100 million, with $21 million in profits. The year before, in 2007, the two papers together earned more than $118 million, with $36 million in profits.
The majority of a daily newspaper's operating expenses involve the production and distribution of the physical print product — often more than 70-80 percent of all costs. The Star has followed the industry standard among print newspapers of spending about 10 percent of revenues on newsgathering, including paying reporters and editors.
Government sources said that rather than contacting Pima County's One-Stop career center, operated by the Community Services, Employment and Training Department, the Star initially reached out to the Tucson Mayor's Office, which doesn't run job-placement services, to request assistance for the employees who will lose their jobs. The paper plans to hold a job fair to connect the laid-off staffers with other companies, it said.
Downsizing office in the works
With the giant press wing of the Star's complex set to be quieted and much of the building vacant — including the large space that used to be occupied by the Citizen newsroom, staffers at the paper and observers have renewed speculation that the corporate owners will sell off the building.
Sources at the Star, speaking to TucsonSentinel.com anonymously to protect their jobs, said that the newspaper is actively seeking to move to a much smaller Midtown location "even without selling the white elephant building."
"Downtown's too expensive," they said.
While the current plant, to which the Star and Citizen moved to after leaving Downtown in 1973, is nearly 208,000 square feet, the Star is looking for about 20,000 square feet to contain "advertising, newsroom, everything."
Gannett and other national newspaper chains have frequently sold off real estate in recent years. Lee Enterprises sold the downtown headquarters of its flagship St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2015, renting space there until an announcement this January that it would move to a smaller leased space nearby.
Gannett sold off the 10-story downtown Phoenix tower housing the Republic in December in a $38 million deal. The newspaper leases back a portion of the building. In 2015, Gannett sold its national headquarters just outside Washington, D.C., where the chain continues to rent space.
Nor is centralizing printing or even editing functions uncommon. Gannett announced this week that it will close the printing facility for the Tallahassee Democrat, moving production to Panama City, about 100 miles away. At the Republic in Phoenix, a wall features a row of clocks so that staff can track the press times for newspapers they're designing and copy editing as far off as Colorado, Northern California and Montana.
"Please note that any impact on our colleagues is due to consolidation, not performance," D'Orlando said in an internal email to Star staffers. "We value the contribution of every employee who has worked hard to make the Star a success."
The Tucson printing plant used to be regarded as one of the best in the business. When the Citizen was in operation, before being shut down in 2009, the paper often won "Best of Gannett" awards from its corporate owners in recognition of its print quality.
Newsroom posts also thinning
The shift to printing in Phoenix comes as the Star has offered buyouts to a dozen of its older newsroom staffers, and a group of younger reporters has left the paper.
Last month, a list of household names on the Star staff were told they must soon decide if they'll stay on the job — the newspaper's corporate owners offered buyouts for older workers, with the veiled threat of potential layoffs pending if not enough staffers accept.
A dozen journalists were given 45 days to decide if they'll accept six months of salary to walk away from their jobs as part of a cost-cutting effort by Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based media chain that runs Tucson's daily newspaper.
On the list — and possibly soon no longer appearing on the morning daily's roster of journalists — are Greg Hansen, sports columnist, arts reporter Kathy Allen and environmental reporter Tony Davis, sources at the Star and others familiar with the situation said.
David Fitzsimmons, the outspoken editorial cartoonist and columnist, faces leaving his pen on his drawing board. Reporter Carmen Duarte has been at the Star since 1981. Other names familiar to even casual readers of the paper are on the list: Ernesto Portillo. Carol Ann Alaimo. Doug Kreutz. Alfredo Araiza and Ron Medvescek have photographed untold numbers of Tucsonans at thousands of news events. And behind the scenes, local news editor Norma Coile and copy editor George Campbell have worked to keep the news coming our way.
This round of buyouts is taking place across Lee's chain of nearly 50 newspapers, sources said.
Also leaving empty desks in the Star newsroom are border reporter Perla Trevizo and opinion writer Luis Carrasco, who are taking jobs at the Houston Chronicle. Reporter Mikayla Mace is becoming a writer for the University of Arizona's communications department, covering science at the school. Emily Bregel is also leaving the paper, and taking some time away from journalism to travel. Staffers have said that some replacement reporters will be hired at the paper.
The South Park operation under which the Arizona Daily Star is held is a partnership between massive national newspaper chains Gannett Inc. and Lee, with each holding a 50 percent share. Lee is the publisher of the Star, while Gannett was formerly the publisher of the Tucson Citizen, which ceased printing in 2009 and folded up its small blogging site in 2014. The online archive of the Citizen went offline two months with no explanation from corporate officials, and has not been restored.
Employees offered buyouts here are all 62 or older, with at least 15 years of employment at the Star, sources said. They have until early April to decide if they'll hand in their press passes in exchange for 26 weeks of guaranteed pay. The offers didn't include any health insurance, staffers said.
Corporate officials insisted to those offered the buyouts that there are no layoffs planned or anticipated, sources said. But Star insiders greeted those statements with skepticism; it's been a common practice for newspapers to move to layoffs if not enough workers accept buyout agreements.
Editorial cartoonist Steve Benson was recently among a group laid off at the Arizona Republic after he declined a buyout and Gannett did not meet its target for cutting salaries at the Phoenix newspaper.
In 2016, the Star laid off at least nine journalists — about 15 percent of the newsroom staff at the time. In 2011, the newspaper handed 52 employees their walking papers, including about 15 from the newsroom.
While overall revenues have drastically declined in the past decade, and Lee and Gannett have cut expenses to match, the Star is still very profitable. The operation netted about $10 million split between the two partners last year out of $47 million in revenues, with the profits distributed from "all available cash" on a weekly basis. The last year specific numbers were disclosed, 2016, the Star had continued its longstanding pattern of spending about 10 percent of its revenues on newsgathering, including the total salaries of all the reporters, photographers and editors.