Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Death in the Desert

Announced this week: The closing of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz.

I have no inside knowledge of what happened to this paper serving the east side of Phoenix. In the 1990s, when Thomson owned it, it appeared quite the comer. Let me offer a few ideas, and if my good friend Rebecca Dyer, who alas will lose her job in December with the closing, can contradict me, all the better.

1) It's not editorial quality. The Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize last year. It received honors as Arizona's best newspaper this year. Add it to the charnel-house of good and great newspapers that have closed, along with mediocre newspapers that have closed, and remove it from the list of good and great newspapers that remain open, along with the mediocre ones that remain open as well. We've seen over and over again that editorial quality may move the needle, but not that much. But still, this is a paper that, in terms of news, will be missed.

2) The Tribune last year went to four-day (then three-day) free distribution from newsracks. This did not save it either. This makes one wonder about breaking reader habits so severely. Most readers can cope with the loss of a day. Losing vast numbers of days -- losing home delivery -- the verdict is still out in Southeastern Lower Michigan, a market no one particularly wants to be in anyway. Phoenix was a better market. As Ken Doctor has said, all this does is tell readers to "Go online, go online." Alas, the advertising dollars are not there to replace the print ones. In Detroit, "go online" may work to the advantage of the News and Free Press because there is nowhere else to go. In Phoenix, anyone wanting a daily paper simply took the Republic. The strategy was suicide.

3) Most important, mashups rarely work. Newsday is the mashup everyone looks to: Start with the southwestern Nassau County market (that had been deliniated by the Nassau Review-Star), expand into northern Nassau County (picking up the market of a separate paper there), and then blow into Suffolk and keep away the 1960s effort to create a Suffolk Sun. But Newsday had a great advantage. "Long Island" had finite geographic boundaries. People commuted on the LIRR or the LIE. The great suburban growth of the 1940s and 1950s created a sense of being a "Long Islander."

Newspapers are local institutions. As such, they have to reflect a locality. The Fargo Forum can reflect Fargo-Moorhead because it's out in the middle of nowhere. When newspapers try to create a locality, they generally lose. Remember the Peninsula Times-Tribune, merged from the Palo Alto Times and the Redwood City Tribune? Remember the attempt by the New York Times Co. to make the Gwinnett Daily News into the "Newsday of Atlanta" by expanding it throughout the northern suburbs? Or, more recently, the failed merger of two papers in Bellevue and Renton, near Seattle, to create an "Eastside Journal" that belonged to no one?

Mashups can work when the identity is already there. The Ventura County Star is a merger of four daily newspapers. But there already was an identity of "Ventura County." (The two largest constituent papers, in Ventura and Oxnard, had been direct competitors for years.) Two other big mashups that I know have worked -- the Orange County Register and Florida Today. I don't know enough about either to comment as to why.

But Palo Alto and Redwood City hated each other -- one was Stanford, the other was (at that time) more blue-collar. People in Renton never went to Bellevue. They didn't want to read about it in "their" local newspaper. As they saw it -- and I know this from years of working in Neighbors -- stories from Bellevue were simply crowding out news from Renton. (The fact that those Renton stories didn't exist doesn't occur to them. They think we're holding them out of the paper.) People resent being told by a newspaper what their "local" area is.

The East Valley Tribune was a mashup of the Mesa Tribune, Tempe Daily News, Scottsdale Daily Progress, and weeklies or zone editions in Chandler and Gilbert. Mesa and Tempe adjoin, and I have no idea what sort of communities they are. Tempe is a university town; Mesa was founded as a Mormon settlement. Perhaps there was no animosity between them. I expect, though, that Tempe sees itself as higher on the social ladder than Mesa. Scottsdale was a different matter, an upscale resort and residential town based on golf spas and western wear. I suspect people in Scottsdale never went to Tempe or Mesa (except to go to the university) and probably bailed out of the merged Tribune as quickly as they could to avoid thinking they had anything in common with those towns. (It probably seemed like a good idea to advertising: Sell Scottsdale merchants on drawing in shoppers from Mesa and Tempe. But maybe they didn't want those shoppers.)

At the end of its career, the Tribune had reverted to being the Mesa Tribune, having dumped distribution in not only Scottsdale but Tempe. I suspect this tells of the interest people in Tempe had of news in Mesa. In the end, a paper generally reflects where its main office is. It's the frame of reference.

What would have happened if the Tribune folks had made some common sections but put out the paper under three different flags, making sure that each town had enough separate space? I don't know, because of point 4:

4) It helps to have your own county. If Mesa had not been in Maricopa County, the Tribune would still be with us. The East Valley is certainly big enough to be its own county. In the East, it would have been. In Arizona, with its giant counties drawn up when almost no one lived there, the Tribune was a paper in Maricopa County with 1/5 the circulation of the larger paper. This is simply an accident of geography. But national advertising is largely bought on county circulation data. The Tribune became a dispensable second buy regardless of how much penetration it had in its home market, because its home market didn't register with national buys.

Lesson for the few "second papers" left in America: Start an editorial campaign to create your own county. (The Daily News in Los Angeles' Valley tried this, doubtless for sound editorial reasons -- but it probably also hit them that being the No. 1 paper in Valley County was a lot better than being No. 2 in Los Angeles County, even if you were reaching exactly the same people.)

1 comment:

E said...

That's an interesting take on the notion of how a newspaper defines its community. When I was at the Calkins papers in the Philly burbs, we experienced something similar: Bucks County is just too big, and has no real center of gravity, and people in Newtown don't necessarily care what's happening in Bensalem or Plumstead.

On the other hand, when I was at the Batavia Daily News, the reverse occurred: We introduced a separate Orleans County edition and got complaints from readers in Genesee County (our base) who specifically feared that the police blotters would become more narrowly focused. They were assuming that they'd no longer get to read about DWIs in Holley or teenage vandalism in Albion in their Genesee County edition. They didn't really seem to care about the possibility of a greater concentration of other news specific to Genesee County.