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Tuesday, August 28, 2007


The End of an Era

Regarding today's report that the Albuquerque Tribune will be sold, or closed ...

On December 30, 1994, The Albuquerque Tribune ran a story about the departure of its editor, Tim Gallagher, who, after eight years at the helm, was bound for a new assignment as editor of the Ventura County Star.

Written by Trib staffer Hank Stuever (now at The Washington Post), the story told the tale of Gallagher's eight years in charge, and made it obvious that this was an editor who would be missed. How else do you interpret a sub-head that reads: "After eight years, The Tribune's ever-optimistic Boy Wonder leaves the paper he nourished in spite of it all."

That last part — "... in spite of it all" — referred to a lot of things, but most all of them boiled down to circulation woes. Great stories were told well six days a week in the pages of The Tribune (there was no Sunday edition), but we couldn't help but sometimes compare it to dancing on the deck of the Titanic. When I arrived in 1994 I often encountered city residents who didn't even know The Tribune existed.

I worked for Gallagher at both The Trib and the Star, and was often advised by him to focus on what I could change, which was what the staff of The Tribune did best. As an evening newspaper that operated under the oldest joint operating agreement in the country, there was plenty outside of the control of The Trib's reporters, photographers and editors. But, no agreement stipulated what photos they could publish, or which stories they could write. I recall attending many staff meetings directed by Trib Managing Editor Neal Pattison, at which he'd draw a circle on the board and slowly fill it in like a pie chart as the group debated whether readers got 35 cents of quality that day.

Trib staffers didn't just look out their windows, they examined their own operation as aggressively as any. This was the culture during and after Gallagher. When I was a part of it, the staff questioned its bosses as aggressively as it did bureaucrats and business leaders. So when Gallagher decided to leave, and a corporate VP dropped by to make it official (and to introduce the new editor, Scott Ware), the staff fired away. People wanted to know if this was the beginning of the end.

The matter was also addresed frankly in that December 30, 1994, story, which I pulled out to review this week and found the following Gallagher quote regarding the circulation situation:
"We're fighting an uphill battle here, the trend away from evening newspapers. I quit blaming myself for it. I went through the Stuart Smalley 12 steps. I'm doing what I can, we're putting out a good newspaper, everybody knows it's a good newspaper [SNIP ...] Don't get worked up about these numbers. This is still a very profitable business."

Gallagher's departure was not the beginning of The Trib's end. It has continued to publish for the past 12 1/2 years since he left. And although the staff size has been considerably diminished during that time, along with circulation, The Trib's product has continued to be recognized with national awards. As pointed out in the story today, The Trib was a "first-place winner in the 1998 and 2001 National Headliner Awards ... [and] won a National Journalism Award in 2002 for 'State of Our Children,' a 20-part series documenting the travails that face kids in this state." There are many others. A complete list would fill multiple screens of this blog.

Quality, however, doesn't always sell.

Paid subscriptions went from about 42,000 in 1987 (when Gallagher was editor) to 32,000 in 1994. But, as of today, it's about 11,000.

In journalism the number 30 signals the end of a story. For The Tribune, it would appear 11,000 marks the end.

No one who knew The Trib can say they didn't see this coming, but considering the strange confluence of events this past week, it seems all the more significant, not just the end of a great newspaper, but the end of an era.

Five days ago Gallagher announced he'll soon step down from his post as publisher of the Ventura County Star, and step out of daily journalism. He wants to become a freelance consultant while he still feels young and energetic, to leave at the top of his game, rather than risk the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring. [previous posts at LA Observed: here and here]

As for The Tribune, it appears likely to close. Despite the apparent hope in The E.W. Scripps Co. announcement today that it will either sell or shutter the publication, one has to wonder: Who would buy it? The Trib is a paper that, for all intents and purposes, has no printing press, no circulation department, no advertising department, and, well, no building either. The joint operating agreement under which it currently operates would not be in effect if the paper is sold and all the aforementioned essentials are part of the other newspaper. I suppose it's possible an agreement could be worked out, if the other newspaper's owner was willing, but two-newspaper towns just don't exist in the current reality.

There are many ways to demonstrate how much the newspaper industry has changed (and suffered) in the past few years. Many talented and dedicated people in many different places have lost their jobs. Once-great newsrooms have been folded up and forgotten. Everyone marks time in their own way. But for me, and I expect for many of my former Tribune colleagues, these past five days will be the place we mark as the end of an era.


Comments from former Tribune staffers @ ABQTrib.com

(scroll to bottom of story to view comments)

"So sad and sorry to hear the news ..." former Trib Editor Kelly Brewer (2001-03)

Scripps CEO's Memo @ Romenesko

SCRIPPS CEO KENNETH LOWE: "... keeping our friends and colleagues at The Tribune in your thoughts and prayers as we work with them ..."

Flashback January 2007 @ Romenesko

SCRIPPS CEO KENNETH LOWE: "... no immediate plans to sell specific Scripps newspapers ..."

Flashback January 2007 (One More Time) @ Romenesko

ROMENESKO: An exec said the company is contemplating splitting off its newspaper operations

Scripps Sells Another Newspaper @ Westword

WESTWORD: "The August 28 announcement that the E.W. Scripps Company wants to sell the Albuquerque Tribune set stomachs rumbling at the Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News ..."

Iliana Limón's Wolf Tracks Blog @ ABQTrib.com

"... It appears we will be printing our final edition with within the next two months ..."

A Moment of Silence @ jj sez

A view from the other side of the hallway informally referred to as "The DMZ."

Will edit for food @ Ali Patterson

"Ladies and gentlemen, in about 2 months it's very likely that I will not be working at the Albuquerque Tribune -- or be employed at all, for that matter ..."

Afternoon papers, the handyman’s dream @ Reuters blog

"When someone tries to unload a house in need of serious repair, it’s not a money pit, it’s a 'handyman’s dream.'”

My old paper facing closure @ Jack McElroy, Knoxville News Sentinel

"I started my Scripps career at The Tribune in 1977 ...'”

The Trib must live! @ ABQrising!

"There are a lot of reasons to keep the Tribune around ..."

HOLY CRAP! @ Stephen W. Terrell's Web Log

"There have, of course been rumors ..."

Grab the Funnies @ Only In New Mexico

"I love getting ink on my coffee cup in the morning ..."

Albuquerque Tribune on the Block @ Duke City Fix

"OMG ..."

A Paper For Its Time; Now Time Has Run Out @ New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan

"... assess what it will mean to New Mexico politics ..."

— TJ Sullivan in LA

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