Tucson newspaper drops print version

May 16, 2009 9:29:44 AM PDT
Arizona's oldest continuously published daily newspaper, the 138-year-old Tucson Citizen, will publish its final print edition Saturday after its owner failed to find a buyer. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

The closure makes Tucson the latest two-newspaper town to lose one of its dailies. The Citizen published in the afternoon while the Arizona Daily Star has appeared mornings. Both papers have a joint operating agreement.

The news prompted Attorney General Terry Goddard to file a motion for a temporary restraining order and a lawsuit alleging that the Citizen's closure violates state and federal antitrust laws.

"I believe serious questions must be answered about whether this action violates the antitrust laws," Goddard said in a statement.

In a phone interview, Goddard said he believes his office has a strong legal argument that what is being done isn't permissible under the antitrust laws. "And action would be taken to put the pieces back together," Goddard added.

There was no immediate indication whether U.S. District Judge Raner Collins would rule immediately. Officials with Gannett could not immediately be reached to comment Friday evening on the attorney general's filing.

Earlier in the day, Kate Marymont, Gannett Co. vice president for news, told the 138-year-old newspaper's staff that the Citizen will continue online with commentary and opinion but no news coverage.

A printed Tucson Citizen editorial weekly will be distributed with the Star to expand the reach of the Citizen's voice.

"Dramatic changes in our industry combined with the difficult economy -- particularly in this region -- means it is no longer viable to produce two daily printed newspapers in Tucson," said Bob Dickey, president of Gannett's U.S. Community Publishing Division.

The final issue of the Citizen will be a 40-page commemorative edition, with 25,000 to 30,000 copies printed and distributed to home subscribers, in vending machines and by street vendors, editor Jennifer Boice said. The papers will remain in vending machines for up to a few weeks.

On its Web site Friday, the Citizen feature a multimedia medley, from "Our Epitaph" written by Boice and photos of historic front pages to other staffers' memories and comments, video farewells and photo slideshows.

"I'm really sorry to see it go," Boice said. "We served a function in this community. We made other news media better."

During its lifetime, the Citizen reported on Arizona's biggest stories, including Marshall Wyatt Earp's fabled 1881 shootout at the OK Corral and the 1934 arrest of bank robber John Dillinger and three other gang members hiding out in Tucson.

But the Citizen has struggled for years against the Star, a 117,000-circulation newspaper. During the Citizen's heyday in the 1960s, circulation was about 60,000, but it had fallen to 17,000.

The Citizen becomes the latest casualty of a newspaper industry struggling to survive despite the economy, dwindling advertising revenues and Internet competition. The battle has been especially tough in two-newspaper towns like Tucson.

Already this year, E.W. Scripps Co. closed the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and Hearst Corp. stopped printing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, making it an online-only operation. The Christian Science Monitor stopped daily publication in favor of a weekly print edition with daily online news.

On Thursday, the Ann Arbor News in Michigan said its last day of publication will be July 23, to be replaced by an online-focused news operation with twice-weekly print editions, built from the ground up.

Other major newspaper companies, including publishers of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Marymont said the Web site envisioned for the Citizen has no existing model and no preconceived philosophy. She said Tucson residents may post to it, but she didn't have details on the extent of the public's involvement.

Marymont said she's hopeful the site will draw advertisers. "But this is first and foremost an effort to preserve a voice in a community, the voice of the Citizen," she said.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the model has possibilities. Something similar to a local version of Slate.com, a national Web site of commentary, might work, he said.

Such a Web site will not be extremely expensive for Gannett, "so it might be worth a try," Edmonds said. David Nelson, director of the media management project at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, agreed such a format might work.

He cited a similar two-newspaper joint-operating-agreement situation in Madison, Wis., where Lee Enterprises publishes the Wisconsin State Journal while the city's second newspaper went to a primarily online model last year. The Capital Times still publishes twice-weekly free print editions.

"If Lee is happy with the arrangement in Madison, there's absolutely no reason why they shouldn't move forward with a similar business arrangement with Gannett in Tucson," Nelson said.

The Citizen's proposed site "really is a form of social networking," Nelson said. "And, if you do have a market, and are able to show that you have enough visitors to that site who are an attractive target for advertising, revenue will flow."

Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, announced in January that it would close the Citizen if it didn't find a buyer for certain assets by March 21.

Four days before the planned closing, Gannett announced the Citizen would remain open while it negotiated with two interested buyers. Those talks ultimately proved unsuccessful.

"In the end, there were no buyers," Marymont told the Citizen staff.

She said Gannett would honor severance pay arrangements that had been announced in January after the initial closure announcement. It was unclear how many of the Citizen's 65 employees would lose their jobs.

The Arizona Citizen was founded on Oct. 15, 1870, by John Wasson, a newspaper man from California, with behind-the-scenes help from Richard McCormick, the territory's governor and later territorial delegate to Congress.

The newspaper changed ownership several times over the next 100 years until Gannett bought it in 1976, just a few years after a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Citizen led Congress to pass the Newspaper Preservation Act and new rules for JOAs for competing newspapers doing business together. Gannett also changed the name to the Tucson Citizen.

The joint operating agreement Gannett has with Lee Enterprises Inc., which publishes the Star, will end Saturday. Under the JOA, Lee and Gannett shared costs and profits; their business partnership, Tucson Newspapers Inc., handled all non-editorial functions, including advertising and circulation. Marymont said that partnership will continue outside of the legal framework of a JOA.

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