In the spring of 2008, the Albuquerque Tribune published its last issue. Though known for its solid reporting and stalwart voice—it had won a Pulitzer in 1994—the small afternoon daily in New Mexico’s largest city never really stood a chance.
Most Albuquerqueans (or Burqueños, as the locals call themselves) would have agreed that the Tribune was superior to the city’s other daily newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal. The Trib boasted stronger reporting, better photography, and cleaner design. But it was stuck, bound by an operating agreement that forced it to stay an afternoon paper. So after 106 years in print, and with a daily circulation of about 10,000 at last count, the Tribune closed its doors. The Journal lived, but without any competitors, it languished.
The Tribune wasn’t the only local casualty of the modern media evolution. The alternative paper Crosswinds Weekly shut down abruptly in 2006, and New Mexico Independent, a lauded online nonprofit that took home a number of awards in its brief, two-and-a-half-year lifespan, went dark in 2010. Just last year, Albuquerque’s oldest and largest alternative paper, the Weekly Alibi (where I was editor in chief from 2007-09), cut all of its news coverage.
The closings have left a hole in the local media scene. A few digital startups—the most notable are New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico Compass—have tried to fill it. But so far a lack of resources have prevented either site from claiming a hold on the market.
Enter ABQ Free Press, a print alt-weekly set to launch this spring, founded by ex-Tribune reporter Dan Vukelich and funded by well-known Albuquerque lawyer Will Ferguson. Its primary mission, they say, will be to provide investigative and analytical journalism.
Vukelich, who’s worked in journalism for nearly four decades, says he’s launching the publication because he’s tired of watching what he sees as the increasing shallowness of public discourse. “I could write letters to the local newspaper, or I could start a newspaper,” he says. “So I’m starting a newspaper.”
A print-focused newspaper, in a digital era. The Free Press will launch its first issue in April or May, printing about 20,000 copies. Vukelich and Ferguson say they chose print as their primary medium because of the unique purpose an alt-weekly serves, one Vukelich refers to as a “nonlinear experience.” You eye its cover in a coffee shop, he says, pick it up and flip back and forth, maybe read some shorter pieces and make mental notes of the longer ones. If you hang onto it so you can invest your time in a longer story later, “then that’s where we’ve succeeded.”
The paper will have a website (freeabq.com), but he still isn’t sure of its ultimate function since he doesn’t want it to supplant the efforts of the print product. “Everyone in the world is telling me you have to have an online presence,” he says. “I just don’t know what it is yet.”
The staff will be small, especially in the beginning, with a handful of staff members and a roster of freelancers (whom Vukelich says he will “pay well,” although he declined to provide rates). Ferguson says he’s investing a minimum of $500,000 in the company. Vukelich is also fronting some funds, and the two will continue to look for more investors. They’ll give it at least a year, though Ferguson says the financial success of the paper is less of an immediate concern, adding that he doesn’t plan to make much money from the investment.
“Sometimes you just do things because you feel like it’s the right thing to do,” he says. The lawyer has built a career around financing businesses; so far he’s had a stake in about 30 (including a flight school, which Vukelich once attended). This is the first time he’s investing in a media company, although it’s not the first time he’s tried. Ferguson once came close to buying a group of radio stations, and back in 2004, he sold the Alibi its new office space and tried to trade equity in the building for equity in the paper. “The Alibi was a pretty strong entity back then,” he says, “and they were way too smart to make that deal.”
Since that time, the media landscape has changed—which begs the question of how this new alt-weekly will succeed where others, especially print publications, are failing.
Vukelich’s answer borders on idealistic: “By filling the void and not being predictable,” he says. “Predictability can kill absolutely anybody. A paper lies in your driveway, or you see it in a rack in a coffee shop. If you glimpse it and have no desire to pick it up, that’s the failure.”