Small, indep. news site in AZ could gain from corporate news layoffs

What is a loss for corporate legacy media in the Tucson, AZ, newspaper market could be a small gain for an independent news start-up.

“Given that the amount of local content in the [Arizona Daily] Star is bound to be affected, we expect to attract more attention,” said editor and publisher Dylan Smith of nonprofit community news outlet TucsonSentinel.com. “I hope the quality of our work will keep those new readers coming back for more.”

Last month, the Lee Enterprises Inc.-owned Arizona Daily Star daily newspaper in Tucson, circulation 106,000, announced layoffs of 52 newspaper employees — 15 of which were in the newsroom. In 2009, Gannett, which has a joint operating agreement with Lee Enterprises, ceased printing the Tucson Citizen after it could not find a buyer for its 17,000 circulation paper. The Tucson Citizen lives on in a web-only local news and information format.

Smith launched the online-only Sentinel in January 2010 after his former employer, the Citizen, stopped printing. Below, Smith talks about how the two legacy media outlets downsizing might affect his daily online news business. Dylan works full time running the Sentinel, he has a news editor, and a network of local content contributors.

The AZ Daily Star announced July 21 it was laying off 52 staff in several departments. As an independent news business owner, did you this coming? 

While it’s terribly sad that 52 people who I like and respect very much are now unemployed, the continued rounds of layoffs at Lee and Gannett papers (the Daily Star is held by a partnership between the two) make it clear that nobody’s safe at those-or likely any-chains.

The Star has laid off dozens over the past several years, and given the $1.1 billion debt that is crushing Lee Enterprises, there will probably be more in the future.

The rounds of layoffs there, the Tucson Citizen ceasing to publish, the closing of the Associated Press bureau and layoffs at TV and radio stations mean there are probably a couple hundred fewer journalists here in Tucson than a few years ago.

How much ‘competition’ is the AZ Daily Star to your news site? Do you overlap in coverage area? Do you link to them or vice versa? Do you vie for the same advertisers?

In any media ecosystem, more sources of information can both potentially lead to a more informed community and compete for reader attention.

People only have so much time in their day to get the news; we’re trying to fill the information gap created by other companies.

While we don’t have a newsroom filled with dozens of reporters, we routinely beat the Star to important stories, notably reporting that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was still alive as others continued to report her assassination for quite some time.

We reported on the recent layoffs at the Star within minutes of their employees being told, and posted comprehensive updates all day; they waited until midnight to post 6 sentences.

In some areas our coverage overlaps, but the Star is still very much focused on being a daily newspaper. Many, if not most of their stories aren’t posted online until midnight, and they rarely link to other sources. We try to use both the immediacy of the Internet and the ability to link and present primary sources and data to better inform our readers.

For advertising, we’re more focused on recuiting local small businesses as sponsors, while the Star follows the traditional daily newspaper model of working with larger business with larger budgets. We see helping small business get their message out as part of TucsonSentinel.com’s mission of reflecting our community.

The star’s ‘layoff and realignment’ announcement blurb is not specific to how many journalists were laid off, which beats will be reorganized or eliminated, and how they are restructuring operations. What do you see them doing, from your point of view as a local independent journalist and news business owner?

The layoffs ripped a large, productive chunk from the Star’s newsroom, as well as many key employees from other departments. Half of their photo staff was let go, and many key beat writers.

Those losses, coupled with the great reporters who have voluntarily left the Star recently, mean those who remain will face a great challenge trying to cover the same areas. I don’t know if that can be done.

It’s rather early to draw any conclusions as to how the newspaper might change or contract its focus, but that there will be changes is a pretty safe bet. A constantly shrinking staff at our city’s major daily newspaper isn’t something that serves Tucson well.

Do you think Tucson Sentinel stands to benefit from the local traditional media’s downsizing?

Benefit is a strong word. As a local small business, we face the same challenges that others in our community do. But unlike most of the traditional media, we aren’t controlled by a headquarters a thousand miles away, we don’t have 47 layers of expensive middle management, and we’re entirely invested in this community.

The continued layoffs at the Star, the Tucson Citizen no longer publishing, the ever-smaller staffs at nearly every news outlet, all drive awareness among everyday people that they’re not getting the same amount of quality information that they used to.

One of the many comments on social media last week said “The Tucson Sentinel is setting the online journalism pace these days.” Another said “People are going to be looking more and more to the Sentinel. As a vet of both the Star and Citizen, it’s beyond sad to see it ending this way, but a new day for solid reporting is breaking.”

Both our readers and sponsors react very favorably to our being a local business. They know we care about this city, and that our operation puts nearly all of its cash flow back into local staff and other Tucson businesses.

“But unlike most of the traditional media, we aren’t controlled by a headquarters a thousand miles away, we don’t have 47 layers of expensive middle management, and we’re entirely invested in this community.”

Do you see changing your operations to accommodate this change in the local news landscape, such as revisiting your coverage priorities to fill a new local reporting void by the paper? Are you in a position to expand your business?

While we’re always looking to beef up our coverage, we’ve tried to set our reporting priorities based on what we see as important, rather than reacting to other media outlets.

There are some areas – the border and immigration, local politics – where we’re always looking to advance our abilities. Others – crime, for example – we don’t chase; every TV station in town does those stories.

Do you expect a bump in traffic? 

Every time there’s a big news event, our traffic spikes off the chart and then plateaus higher than it was previously. Currently, depending on the news of the day, we’re seeing traffic of about 6-10,000 a day.

Given that the amount of local content in the Star is bound to be affected, we expect to attract more attention, sure. I hope the quality of our work will keep those new readers coming back for more.

Do you have a business relationship with the Arizona Daily Star? Do you know any of the people being laid off?

No business relationship. They’re doing their thing; we do ours.

From my years working for the Tucson Citizen, which shared a physical plant with the Star, I know a great many of those who lost their jobs. Many I consider close friends, many others are colleagues who work I hold in very high regard.

While it’s unlikely all will, I hope many of those who were laid off are able to continue in journalism. I wish I had the budget to hire quite a few of them.

Have you seen or heard any reader concern about the layoffs? What is the ‘buzz’ around town about this outside media circles?

When a major employer and community institution cuts a major chunk of its work force, people notice. When it’s part of an ongoing process, they notice even more.

And the shrinking pool of print readers and advertisers certainly notices that their newspaper is shrinking as well.

The Daily Star has long been targeted by partisans on both sides of the aisle. Some conservatives have long called them the “Red Star” because of their somewhat Democratic-leaning editorial board. Tucson’s establishment Democrats aren’t fond of what they see as unfounded targeting of city projects by the news side.

Some from each side have been blaming the Star’s editorials and reporting for the newspaper’s woes. Of course, the truth of the matter is that the poor choices made by out-of-town newspaper chains have far more to do with the paper’s financial straits.

But there are a significant number of people who are dissatisfied with the news they get. If they’re looking for straight news without the spin, we’ll be there for them.

Any other information to add?

We have two full-time editors who work 60-70+ hours a week, and a solid core of about a dozen frequent local contributors. We have perhaps 20 others who contribute on a somewhat regular basis, as well.

Increasing the number of experienced reporters who are steady contributors is a priority for us. Our goal is to add another three or four fulltime reporters to our staff in the near future.

Two our of contributors demonstrate the unique power of the Internet to facilitate reporting for a local news organization: our editorial cartoonist, Roberto De Vido, provides his take on Tucson and Arizona politics (and other topics) from his home in Japan. One of our columnists, Jimmy Zuma, is a former Tucsonan who writes on politics from his D.C.-area base.

TucsonSentinel.com is a local, independent nonprofit news organization that offers professional reporting and community conversation on issues that affect Tucson.

We operate a website that offers quality, accessible journalism on local and national events and provides a platform for civic engagement.

With a staff of professional reporters and editors, freelance writers and public contributors, TucsonSentinel.com acts as a honest broker of information, filling the need for a virtual roundtable where the community can discuss the issues of the day.

Our goal is to build a sustainable nonprofit business model that delivers quality reporting in a competitive media environment. TucsonSentinel.com provides evenhanded professionally produced journalism.

While thousands of journalism jobs across the country have vanished, TucsonSentinel.com continues the in-depth reporting and memorable storytelling that is essential to democracy. Working with both local and national partners, we capitalize on the Internet?s latest reporting techniques.

A metropolitan area of nearly 1 million deserves a vital and sustainable source of news. TucsonSentinel.com sets out to be that watchdog.

See related story in Inside Tucson Business: “Distressed Daily Star is an opportunity for other media.” Article is a Tucson media advertising ecosystem analysis.

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One Response to Small, indep. news site in AZ could gain from corporate news layoffs

  1. For further speculation, blather and pontification about the state of Tucson media, see Sentinel editor talks newspapers on TV for some other coverage of the Star layoffs.

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