PHOENIX, ARIZONA — Arizona exports political news like other states produce oranges or cheese. When Democratic media consultant Bob Grossfeld and a handful of veteran journalists launched the Arizona Guardian web-based news service in January 2009, they were well aware they were setting up shop in a state with a lively political scene.
And that was before Arizona’s headline-making “show-me-your-papers” immigration bill, the recall of that bill’s architect at the ballot box, the tragic shootings in Tucson, the US Justice Department investigation of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and many more.
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“We were all concerned that this state has never had ongoing, consistent, hardheaded political journalism like other states have,” Grossfeld said in a 2010 speech in Phoenix sponsored by the online nonprofit TEDTalks (Technology, Entertainment, Design). In the speech he outlined the business plan (winging it), emphasized the “let’s put on a show” spirit of his startup, and stated an apropos online-only maxim borrowed from The Godfather: “Leave the newspaper. Keep the reporters.”
Grossfeld invested less than $10,000 in servers, laptops, legal aid, and other costs to start the site. He recruited four journalists just laid off from the Phoenix-area East Valley Tribune. One was Paul Giblin, who had shared a Pulitzer for an investigative series on Arpaio shortly after the paper laid him off. The others were Dennis Welch, Mary K. Reinhart, and Patti Epler, who was Giblin’s editor at the Tribune. All the reporters added some of their severance pay to Grossfeld’s initial investment, and all had an ownership stake in the venture.
The Guardian focused on niche, insider political coverage, and distinguished itself by combining that seemingly infinite subject matter with a web outlet’s appetite for breaking news. Many at the Guardian saw the closing session of the 2009 Arizona Legislature, typically an all night deal-making marathon and in this case no exception, as the site’s true premiere.
“It was a fun night going from office to office figuring out the back-room deals that were being made to close the session,” Giblin told CJR via e-mail. “The lawmakers themselves were on the site all night to read about what was going on in the offices next their own. After daylight, the rest of the media showed up to find out what had happened. By that time, we had already posted the full account.”
The online world changes fast. Since its startup days in 2009, the Guardian has gone from four reporters and one publisher to one full-time employee. Welch is now the site’s only staffer.
Grossfeld stepped aside as publisher in early December 2011. He had suspended his political work in order to be the publisher of the nonpartisan Guardian, but is now back in the game. In a matter unrelated to Grossfeld’s Godfather reference, Reinhart says the Arizona Republic made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Giblin is now in Kabul as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, writing about coalition forces’s reconstruction efforts. Epler is now deputy editor of fellow online news startup the Honolulu Civil Beat , which CJR profiled in 2011.
Its masthead may be diminished, but the Guardian perseveres. The site has been behind a paywall almost since it first began, and continues to find subscribers willing to pay its steep premium. A year’s access now costs $360 for an individual, $1,440 for a “nonprofit professional,” and $1,880 for a “professional.”
Welch describes the typical Guardian readers as “lawmakers, lawyers, and lobbyists”–or, as Reinhart put it: “Inside suits, the capitol crowd.” Welch declines to discuss specific subscription numbers, but says that the number is in the hundreds. The site has never done much with advertising. It sells some, but 90 percent of revenues come from subscriptions.
The Guardian is not the only big-ticket subscription for sale in Phoenix, though. It competes for the insider audience with the $595-per-year Yellow Sheet Report, which was founded in 1906. The Yellow Sheet’s parent company, Arizona News Service, also publishes an every-Friday weekly paper, Arizona Capitol Times, with web updates.
Welch and freelancers post one to five original stories a day. He points with pride to the Guardian’s debunking of Gov. Jan Brewer’s 2010 claim that the deserts of Arizona were strewn with headless corpses. The Guardian also corrected Brewer’s statements about her own family history. She said her father “died fighting the Nazi regime in Germany,” when he actually died in 1955, in California. Reinhart mentions her Guardian coverage of the state mental health system and its budget shortfalls, before the Tucson shootings put the issue on the national map.
As sole survivor of the Guardian’s launch, Welch is working to expand the site’s network of freelancers. He says it takes special skills and temperament to cover a state legislature, especially Arizona’s.
His advice to other start-ups: Make the content worth the price of the subscription. He adds: “Your reputation is the only thing you have when you do something like this.”
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Name: The Arizona Guardian