TUCSON, ARIZONA — After a 138-year run, the Tucson Citizen, a daily that reported on such historic events as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, closed its doors in May of 2009. Dylan Smith, the Citizen’s online editor, was among the many journalists displaced by the paper’s disbanding. Not content to let the Arizona Daily Star claim victory in Tucson’s newspaper war, Smith undertook what to him was an obvious move: he gathered several former Citizen colleagues and formed
TucsonSentinel.com as an online-only local news source. The site began reporting on the city of nearly 1 million in January of 2010.
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Like many small publications, the Sentinel has embraced the role of keeping the larger local news outlets honest. Smith explains: “There were a lot of people here that were disappointed when the Citizen shut down. Maybe they don’t like the daily paper that’s standing, or even if they’re reading it, they still see the need for more sources of info. And with a million people here [in Tucson], it’s a little too big to be down to one daily source of news”. Early scoops for the Sentinel included the report that a modern streetcar for downtown Tucson would garner $63 million in federal stimulus funding–a story on which they beat the Daily Star. “Even though they have a staff of one hundred reporters, they can’t get to everything,” Smith says. “And certainly we’re not trying to compete with a hundred reporters…well, maybe we are”.
Of course, Tucson is now synonymous with the horrific events surrounding the Gabrielle Giffords shooting on January 8, 2011. Caught in the vortex of a massive media swarm, the Sentinel had its hands full trying to sort out the facts in the midst of a frenzy of speculation and misinformation. Smith explains that, throughout the ordeal, the Sentinel focused on trying to debunk misinformed claims and refute falsehoods that were the product of shoddy reporting. When other outlets reported that the Loughner family had barricaded themselves inside their house, the Sentinel reported that these widely reported claims were in fact false. Other misinformation that the Sentinel corrected included reports of bystanders returning fire when the shooting erupted and correcting inaccurate reporting by other news outlets concerning the names and the number of victims.
For the young Sentinel, the magnitude of this story, coupled with its local ties to many of the victims, made reporting on these events an especially trying endeavor. Smith explains: “For me and a lot of other journalists in town, it was a hard story to cover because many of Giffords’s staff are former journalists. They’re friends of mine, people I go have a beer with on a pretty regular basis…knowing Gabby and knowing her husband from around town, it was an especially difficult situation.” Yet despite the emotionally wrenching nature of such an ordeal, the Sentinel showed a remarkable amount of maturity for a young outlet. Its coverage added some much needed accuracy and calm to the complex situation.
The Sentinel is a nonprofit that generates revenue in the form of sponsorships, reader donations, and local display advertising. As the site gains traction within the community, Smith hopes to push for an increase in individual donations. (He was afraid to alienate readers early on with too many solicitations, but feels that he is now past that danger.) Smith is the publisher and editor-in-chief, but also employs the help of “five or so hardcore contributors” as freelancers, most of whom he knows from his days at the Citizen. Roughly fifteen to twenty volunteers contribute content to the site.
In the short time since its inception, the Sentinel has proven its worth as a journalistic resource, and has done so because of the dedication of Smith and his contributors. “The thing about running a startup is that it’s got to be a vocation, not just your gig for eight hours a day,” Smith says. “Nobody’s likely to get rich on local news anytime in the next several centuries. While we’re trying to earn a living, we’re doing this to help our community maintain a source of good information.”