Nearly 25% of Arizona Daily Star newsroom laid off
Lee/Gannett-owned newspaper guts ranks of remaining reporters & editors
From the top editor on down, the Arizona Daily Star staff was cut by nearly one-quarter on Monday, as the Tucson newspaper's corporate chain owners told local journalists they were being laid off.
The cuts were "deep, wide and high," one remaining staffer said.
Of the approximately 35-40 employees in the newsroom after previous rounds of layoffs and buyouts, 10 were laid off, sources told the Tucson Sentinel. About that many business-side staffers were let go last week.
Among those laid off Monday was Jill Jorden Spitz, editor of the newspaper for almost seven years, who joined the Star staff more than two decades ago.
Also cut were Curt Prendergast, the opinion page editor, and photo editor Rick Wiley, who's helmed that desk since 2004. Sources also said the Star was ending its Spanish-language publication, La Estrella. Several other journalists — from relatively new hires to veterans of more than 30 years — were also cut from the Star's staff, sources said.
Hipolito Corella, one of the Star's senior editors, will now run the newsroom on an interim basis, sources said.
Last week, nine employees on the business side, including advertising designers, were let go, sources said.
The cuts are among the most extreme at the paper since the Star laid off more than 50 across the newsroom and business departments in 2011. In the past 15 years, the Star's newsroom has dropped from more than 120 reporters, photographers and editors to a contact list that now numbers just two or three dozen.
Last year, despite business pressures, the Star made nearly $9 million in profit on $34 million in revenues. Following that fiscal year 2022 performance, the Tucson newspaper operation pulled in another $2.5 million on nearly $9 million in revenues between the end of September and Christmas, corporate filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission show.
The Star is operated under a 50-50 partnership between multinational newspaper giant Gannett Inc. and U.S. newspaper chain Lee Enterprises. The newsroom is generally controlled by Lee. Gannett controls much of the advertising and production operation, where there are about 20 remaining employees, sources said. When the partnership included the now-closed Tucson Citizen, Gannett was in charge of that newsroom's editorial functions.
The Tucson newspaper had already recently trimmed its ranks, abruptly letting former publisher John D'Orlando go in January and replacing him with a "general manager" in finance VP Joel Rohlik.
Also this spring, several fixtures of the Star staff were quietly given buyouts, including editorial cartoonist David Fitzsimmons. Several other staffers who were offered buyouts declined to take them, sources told the Sentinel. Longtime copy editor Myles Standish was also let go, as was reporter Gerald Gay. Sports editor Ryan Finley left the Star over the winter to move to San Diego. Several others also left the Star for other jobs.
Before the holiday season last year, the Star newsroom had about 50 staffers.
Monday's layoffs come as several Star journalists are on mandatory furloughs. Their status is not yet clear, sources said. Lee has made employees choose between two weeks of unpaid leave this year, or salary reductions.
Laid-off staffers told the Sentinel that they weren't prepared to discuss if they received any severance pay.
The cuts also mean that a previously announced government reporting position that would've been partly funded by the Report for America program will not be filled. One of the terms of that nonprofit organization's contract with newsrooms is that grant-funded journalists won't be used to facilitate layoffs or pay cuts.
Still highly profitable
While overall revenues have drastically declined in the past decade, and Lee and Gannett have cut expenses to match, the Star has remained one of the top-performing newspapers in both chains. The Tucson operation netted about $9.3 million split between the two partners in 2019, out of $43 million in revenues, with the profits distributed from "all available cash" on a weekly basis.
Each of the two prior years, the Star partners split about $10 million in profits out of $47-48 million in revenues.
In 2022, Lee and Gannett netted nearly the same amount out of considerably smaller overall revenues — $9 million from $34 million in total income — for a higher profit margin.
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.
The last year specific spending numbers were disclosed, 2016, the Star had continued its longstanding pattern of putting about 10 percent of its revenues into "editorial operations," including the total salaries of all the reporters, photographers and editors.
Back in 2006, the combined Star/Citizen operation brought in $121 million in overall revenues in Tucson, with $37 million in profits split between the two corporate owners.
The Star has endured the industry-wide trend of marked declines in print circulation, with the equivalent drops in revenues from print advertising. In 2008, 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.
Monday, the entire 77-newspaper Lee chain had a total market capitalization of $72 million, with stock trading right around the $12 mark. Gannett, which now owns about 217 daily newspapers, was worth a total of about $270 million, with stock priced about $1.86.
Since 2019, Gannett — which was essentially taken over by another newspaper chain known for slashing costs, Gatehouse — has closed more than 170 daily and weekly newspapers entirely, and cut more than 10,000 staffers around the country. The chain now has about 11,000 total employees.
Last month, Lee laid off about 15 journalists at the chain's newspapers in Montana, continuing the industry trend.
While the largest round of layoffs at the Star was in 2011, several other pushes to buy out experienced reporters and lay off newsroom staff have taken place, including in 2019.
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.
In 2019, 60 jobs were cut in the pressroom, as the Star moved printing of the paper to the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic plant on the north side of Phoenix, about 130 miles away.
The Star sold its Tucson newsroom and printing complex on South Park Avenue, which used to also house the Tucson Citizen. The newspaper now leases much smaller office spaces.