Final locally printed edition of Daily Star will roll off press Sunday
The hulking machinery at the Tucson Newspapers plant will rumble Sunday as ink is rolled on paper for the last copies of a local daily newspaper to be printed here.
The Arizona Daily Star is shifting production to the north Phoenix plant of the Arizona Republic, although the newsgathering operation will remain here. The shift comes coincidentally just days after the 10th anniversary of the final print edition of the Tucson Citizen. While the Star will no longer be printed locally after Monday's edition hits the streets, the press will continue to operate on a limited basis for another month, as outside contracts are wound up.
Sixty workers are losing their jobs in the pressroom and packaging areas as the three-story steel behemoth grinds to a halt. Their layoffs were announced in March. In addition, a half-dozen longtime reporters and editors have accepted buyouts, ending their newspaper careers, and other experienced staffers have recently left the Star.
While the Star's reporters and editors will remain in Tucson, there are even more vacant desks in the paper's offices, and the vast building on South Park Avenue has become so empty the Star 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, has been "a constant strain on our resources," the paper's publisher, John D’Orlando, told the staff in March. 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 Tucson printing plant has been 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.
John Lundgren, now the director of print operations, has worked in the pressroom for 43 years. It's his talented team of press workers who'll no longer be carefully calibrating the intricate Goss Metroliner machinery — millions of pounds of steel longer than half a football field — that has unspooled giant rolls of newsprint and run it between rollers and inky mirror-image plates at dizzying speed.
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.
Downsizing office in the works
With the giant press wing of the Star's complex about 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 in March.
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 in March that it would 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 in March. "We value the contribution of every employee who has worked hard to make the Star a success."
Deadlines unchanged, newsroom thinning
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.
Still, rather than being distributed from Tucson, the newspapers will now have to be trucked about 140 miles south from the Republic's printing facility in Deer Valley, on the northern edge of Phoenix.
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.
And the ranks of those journalists have grown thinner, with the Star's newsroom now holding about as many as the slimmed-down Citizen did at the time of its closure.
The Star has offered buyouts to a dozen of its older newsroom staffers, with half of them accepting, and a group of younger reporters has left the paper.
In February, 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 — all 62 or older — were given about 45 days to decide if they'd 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.
According to multiple newsroom sources — who've been cautioned against providing info to TucsonSentinel.com — taking the deal are arts reporter Kathy Allen, who'll still contribute freelance work, ace photographers Alfredo Araiza and Ron Medvescek, columnist and La Estrella editor Ernesto Portillo, copy editor George Campbell, and reporter Doug Kreutz. Campbell was previously among a large group of Star staffers laid off, back in 2007, but was hired back.
Offered buyouts but sticking with their jobs are environmental reporter Tony Davis, sports columnist Greg Hansen, city editor Norma Coile, cartoonist David Fitzsimmons, and reporters Carmen Duarte and Carol Ann Alaimo.
Joining a group of other journalists leaving empty desks at the Star is photographer Mike Christy, who is starting work for the University of Arizona Athletics Department.
Earlier, border reporter Perla Trevizo and opinion writer Luis Carrasco took jobs at the Houston Chronicle. Reporter Mikayla Mace left to be a writer for the University of Arizona's communications department, covering science at the school. Emily Bregel also left the paper, and taking some time away from journalism to travel.
Staffers have said that some replacement reporters will be hired at the paper. Among them are fresh UA graduate Jasmine Demers, reporting on science, and cops reporter Stephanie Casanova.
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 in January with no explanation from corporate officials, and has not been restored.
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 only about 10 percent of its revenues on newsgathering, including the total salaries of all the reporters, photographers and editors.