Disappearing Act

The East Valley Tribune counts down its final days

A couple of weeks ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Ryan Gabrielson learned that his former employer, the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., was stopping its presses for good.

It was no secret that the Tribune’s parent company, Freedom Communications, was crippled with debt. The California-based company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy back in September and was seeking a buyer for the newspaper. But management hadn’t been exactly forthcoming about the paper’s fate. So Tribune staffers put their reporting skills to work, digging through bankruptcy documents in order to find clues.

That’s how one of Gabrielson’s former editors spotted a revenue-projection filing showing that the Tribune wasn’t expected to contribute to the company’s bottom line beyond December. She e-mailed her findings to Gabrielson, who left the paper in August for a year-long investigative reporting fellowship at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. It was an unceremonious confirmation of something that Tribune staffers had been dreading for more than a year.

“Is there a good way to receive that news? I don’t know,” Gabrielson said.

Several days later, employees were convened and the news was officially confirmed. The paper would shut down effective December 31, ending a nearly 120-year run. While staffers and readers were saddened, most of them weren’t surprised.

There had been small rounds of layoffs in the second half of 2008; then, in January 2009, the Tribune cut 140 jobs, including more than forty percent of its remaining newsroom staff. Around the same time, in a last-ditch attempt to stanch its losses, the paper stopped home delivery in favor of a free-distribution business model, with print editions available three days a week and the rest of the week’s news published online.

When the final announcement came, the loss of another small, struggling, daily in the constant march of news industry doldrums didn’t make much of a splash. But the Tribune deserves more than the usual lip service to the importance of local watchdog journalism, Gabrielson said.

“People say it’s never good to lose another voice so we should mourn it because it’s another voice lost. But it’s more than that. The Tribune was a paper that punched above its weight class pretty often,” Gabrielson said.

The paper, which serves the Phoenix area, had a paid circulation of nearly 100,000 as recently as 1997. Since then it has shrunk drastically, but maintained its scrappy reputation. The Tribune didn’t always get it right, but sometimes they nailed it. Not to mention there was that 2009 Pulitzer for local reporting.

On Nov. 2, the day the shutdown was announced, Nick Martin, a former Tribune staffer who was laid off in January, wrote:

It’s hard not to like an underdog, even one that laid you off. For all its faults and missteps - it had plenty of both - the Tribune was still the little Phoenix-area newspaper that could and often did beat the competition. It never had the money or staff to truly go story-for-story against the neighboring Arizona Republic, but it somehow found a way to best its deeper-pocketed foes on important stories pretty frequently.

But even as Gabrielson and former Tribune reporter Paul Giblin were investigating the series that won them their Pulitzer—showing that routine police protection suffered as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio focused on combating illegal immigration—they knew that the paper was in trouble. By the time their Pulitzer was celebrated with cake and champagne in April, Giblin had already lost his job.

“It felt like it was a race to get [the series] out before the collapse,” Gabrielson said. “There was a sense even then that this wasn’t going to last for long; that the Tribune was bleeding money and that it was not sustainable.”

After the layoffs, Giblin and three other former colleagues co-founded The Arizona Guardian, an online news outlet covering the state capitol. Giblin has since accepted a public relations position with the U.S. Army; he just departed for Kabul, where he’ll be stationed for a year. Gabrielson says his own prospects look good but won’t reveal much more than that because he is focused on his fellowship—and because, as he says, “nothing is final.”

Gabrielson will say this, though: ““I’m one of the luckiest print journalists around.”

And he has faith in the future of the hardest-hitting kind of journalism.

“A lot of money is pouring into investigative projects. I think it has a future just because I can’t imagine a world without it,” he said. “It’s just not going to be coming from places it traditionally did.”

All of which doesn’t make it any easier to watch his old paper shut down, even from a distance.

“I knew that it was coming, but I was surprised at how upset it made me,” Gabrielson said. “A place I worked at for five years is going to disappear.”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.