Evans: I chose unemployment rather than work for 10/13 Communications
My father taught me that a man is only as good as his word. I never gave that lesson much thought when I was a kid, it was just stupid stuff dads say to sons. But when I became a dad, and had a wife, a house, a couple of kids, a couple of mortgages and three car payments, I started to give more consideration to some of my dad's aphorisms.
In fact, I've been thinking a lot lately about what ol' Pops said about being true to your word and about the importance of living an honorable life.
My profession — journalism — lives and dies on the good word of its members. Not that many people believe that about us anymore.
But I do.
I'm a journalist. A news editor. My job is to gather and report the news. Not the news as I see it, or as I think it should be, but as it is — the truth, or as close to the truth as I can reasonably get.
If readers don't believe I'm reporting the truth, then what's the point in reading what I write?
A journalist is only as good as the truthfulness of his reporting.
I believe a lot of people in this town trust me to report the truth and I've worked hard over the 19 years of my career to make sure I've earned that trust.
Yesterday, I took my earned trust to the unemployment line rather than carry it with me to a news company I don't think has earned any trust in the past six years.
In 2007, four of the best small newspapers in Arizona were the Explorer in Oro Valley, the Daily News-Sun in Sun City (Phoenix), the Ahwatukee Foothills News in south Phoenix (or west Chandler, if you prefer), and the East Valley Tribune in Mesa.
By 2012, they were four of the least regarded, least useful, least newsworthy and least trusted newspapers in Arizona.
What changed? They were all purchased and gutted by 13th Street Media (which has now become 10/13).
I took the Explorer's evisceration personally. I started there as a city reporter and sports editor in 1996 and became editor in 1997. We had a newsroom of four, including me, when I took over, and an annual gross of about $800,000. When I left for the Tucson Citizen in January 2007, we had a newsroom of 11 and a gross of more than $3 million.
The Explorer had an excellent sports section and a first-rate calendar and entertainment section. But that's not what it was known for. Its bulldog, hard-nosed government reporting was respected throughout the state. I hired dozens of talented, young reporters who reported the hell out of the Northwest suburbs, including one young intern who eight years after he left the Explorer would win the Pulitzer Prize at the East Valley Tribune.
The Explorer staff won tons of reporting awards, including a reporter who was named a finalist for an IRE medal, one of the highest awards in journalism for investigative reporting.
The Explorer was trusted to report the news.
No one in Pima County thinks that of the Explorer anymore. For the past couple of years it has operated with a newsroom of two, though recently that's doubled to four.
Yet the newspaper is crammed with advertising.
That's by design. Shortly after Randy Miller, the owner of 13th Street Media, took over at the Explorer he handed out a "Manager's Guide" that spelled out what the newspaper was about (I had left the paper a few months before it was sold. I obtained the guide from a trusted source). It's only about 12 pages long, but it's clear that the company was an advertising delivery firm, not a news provider.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say — all news companies endeavor to make money, even the nonprofit ones. And readers often want to read the ads as much as they want to read the news.
But the traditional news company business model is for teams of journalists to gather and report news that people desire to read (or hear or see), thus building an audience, and the newspaper's sales department then sells that audience to advertisers.
Thirteenth Street turned that model on its head. As spelled out in the manager's guide, the customer was the advertiser, the news just something to put around the ads. The company wasn't selling an audience; it was selling to advertisers a cheap way to put their ads in front of middle-to-upper income suburban homes.
In fact, the guide went out of its way to say that sales staffing was to be kept at a maximum and news staffing was to be kept at an absolute minimum.
Thirteenth Street has since merged with another company and become 10/13 Communications. But Randy Miller, the author of the manager's guide, is still running the company.
The company has grown greatly over the past year, acquiring dozens of newspapers in other states, including a few small ones right here in Pima County in addition to Inside Tucson Business and the Weekly.
All of us working at ITB and the Weekly were laid off from our old company, Wick Communications, and told we had to apply for employment with the new owners. I had a decision to make.
Perhaps the new company has a new attitude toward the news. Perhaps not. Maybe the new, merged company doesn't put out that manager's guide anymore, or no longer tries to make its reporters sign noncompete agreements — as it did in 2008 - so if they get fed up, they can't get another journalism job in town. Maybe it does.
Some of my news colleagues, given the sorry state of the news industry locally and nationally, suggested I give the new owners the benefit of the doubt. It was better to be employed at a "newspaper" than unemployed, they said. Besides, maybe I could change a few minds and make the company respectable and trusted.
But if 10/13 is a different company than 13th Street Media, with a different, better attitude toward news gathering and reporting, I see no evidence of it in the Explorer. Or the Tribune. Or the Daily News-Sun. Or the Foothills News.
So I choose not to elevate 10/13's reputation in town by lending it mine, nor do I want to risk seeing my reputation tarnished by attaching it to 10/13's.
I would rather be unemployed and risk financial ruin than work for Randy Miller.
I recognize the fallacy in my argument — that if the Explorer is so untrustworthy and so horrible, why do all those companies advertise in it and why do all those people in Oro Valley walk to the end of the driveway and pick it up every week? I don't know. I guess that's why Miller's company is growing like a weed — he's figured out that most people don't give a shit about local news anymore, but they really like pizza coupons and "10 percent off if you mention this ad." That's a different argument for another day.
I also recognize my action is probably rash and certainly sanctimonious. But I worked too many 80-hour weeks at the Explorer, missed too many of my kid's school plays, missed too many weekends with my wife trying to make the Explorer into a news organization that people trusted only to see that reputation obliterated in less than a year, to now place my hard-earned reputation into the hands of the Explorer's destroyer.
A man is only as good as his word and I don't trust the word of Randy Miller.
Mark B. Evans is the former editor of Inside Tucson Business. He’s previously been the administrator of TucsonCitizen.com, was a Tucson Citizen assistant city editor, editor of the Explorer and news reporter for the Coolidge Examiner. He’s also an adjunct instructor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.