Ever since Frank Connolly died in 1978 and his daughter Carolyn sold the Tempe Daily News to the Mesa Tribune two years later, the once-commonplace notion of “hometown” newspapers has been on an inexorable decline in the Valley.
The evidence is all around us.
The now East Valley Tribune—reconstituted into its current persona during a 1970s and ‘80s buy-up of small dailies in Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Scottsdale—announced on Oct. 6 that it will lay off nearly half its staff, convert to free distribution and publish four days a week instead of seven.
The Arizona Republic, having tried several times to reinvent its coverage of local news by adding separate “community” sections, in September began dropping one day of those editions’ previous four-day-a-week schedule.
That the major dailies are taking such measures should come as no surprise. Advertising revenues in major newspapers have declined around the country, due to the economy and an increasing migration to the Internet, among other factors.
To trace the roots of this not-entirely unpredictable story, at least as it applies locally, necessitates a 30-year trip into history.
When Cox Enterprises, publishers of the respected Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other major dailies around the country, decided to launch a head-to-head battle with the Republic by buying the Mesa Tribune in 1977, it effectively put into place the mechanisms that would result in where we are today.
Because the Tribune had been a family-owned newspaper for more than 80 years, it was still operating in the late ‘70s as it always had: someone dropping by with a story about Aunt Jane’s cruise to Hawaii, a high-school athlete’s grandmother stopping in to discuss his latest win.
The new owners knew, however, that things had to change if the Tribune were to compete against the solidly entrenched Republic.
Thus, within months of buying the Tribune, Cox introduced new technology, added editions and broadened the scope of coverage. Circulation increased but some readers worried that the little, personal stories they’d always read were being replaced by an emphasis on bigger, sometimes more controversial content.
But there was no turning back the march to progress.
Next came the Tribune’s search for other small-paper acquisitions, with a special interest in the Chandler Arizonan, the Tempe Daily News and the Scottsdale Progress.
Neither TDN’s Connolly nor Progress owner Jonathan Marshall was eager to sell. The Arizonan’s owners weren’t so reluctant and became an easier buy-out prospect. But it wasn’t until Connolly’s daughter grew tired of the responsibility for TDN and Marshall recognized an uncertain legacy for the Progress that they succumbed to Cox’s advances.
From that point on, the Tribune appeared well positioned to go head-to-head with the
But the new emphasis on becoming a major player drained enormous resources and resulted in the paper’s sale to two other chains, Thomson and, most recently, Irvine, Calif.-based Freedom.
So today the Tribune’s future seems uncertain at best. Even the Republic has enormous challenges to face.
But don’t write off newspapers just yet. While it is true that many big-city dailies are struggling, it seems that some of the smaller, community-based publishers are experiencing a rebirth.
Why this is happening could be a subject of much discussion and, perhaps, disagreement. From our vantage point, however, it validates a theory we’ve had since the old Warner Wrangler, now Wrangler News, came onto the scene 19-plus years ago: that people want to feel a connection to their own neighborhood.
The big dailies recognize this but, by their nature, can’t do as convincing a job of accomplishing it as the little mom-and-pop newspapers that have been a mainstay of American journalism. How many people still receive a copy of their hometown paper in the mail, despite being years and sometimes thousands of miles away?
Maybe the grandmother stopping by with news of her favorite grandson’s achievements on the wrestling mat isn’t such a bad idea after all.
She’s already dropped by to see us. We’re sure that, one of these days, she’ll be by again.