Political cartoon by Jeff Danziger, cartoonist, author and contributing editor to Global Insights. He is also a member of our media partner, Cartooning for Peace.
TUCSON, Arizona — I’ll get to the big picture in upcoming reports. For now, a focus on how my hometown paper has changed over the decades — with a hard-pressed staff that faces odds stacked against it — goes to the heart of the problem.
Bill Mathews’ Arizona Daily Star outshined Bill Small’s afternoon Tucson Citizen – except when it scooped us, and that crimson face went deep purple. Mathews was publisher but also simultaneously among the best war correspondents and editorialists of his time.
The Pulitzer family in St, Louis bought the paper when he died in 1969, then sold it to Lee Enterprises in 2005, which has aggressively cut costs – and corners. Meantime, Gannett took over the Citizen and in 2009 scrapped it for parts.
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The Star’s weekday circulation is near 100,000, only twice what it was in 1965 when Tucson had one-fourth the population. And now a hedge-fund hog snuffles at what is left of the only daily in a city of one million inhabitants. Writ large, it is the same across the United States.
Last month, CBS’s “60 Minutes” focused on Alden Global Capital, which is trying to add the Star to the 200-plus papers it has stripped to bare bones while jacking up subscription rates. It is the worst of what the industry terms vulture capitalists, an insult to self-respecting buzzards.
CBS never got to Heath Freeman, Alden’s 41-year-old president, fashionably unshaven with a self-satisfied smirk. No one does. The company website offers some palpable untruths about noble intentions. After 21 senators sent a letter asking him to show civic responsibility, he doubled down. The segment ended with a shot of his $19 million Miami mansion.
The piece focused on unreported local news and jobs lost as Alden shoots for 30 percent profits. The New York Times’ margin is a third of that. But the problem is far greater than that.
The role of good journalism
Mathews helped readers vote wisely and keep a close watch on what legislators did in their name. He was runner-up for a Pulitzer in 1934 during the Great Depression. FDR wanted to build back better, and Congress was near deadlock on economic recovery legislation.
“It is a matter that transcends partisan politics,” his long analysis began. “It is a matter where the welfare of the nation and its people should alone be considered.”
Late in 1941, another editorial warned that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor. Soon after, the battleship USS Arizona sank with 1,177 sailors and Marines aboard, one of nine lost warships. He assigned himself to Germany where he predicted Hitler’s assault on Poland, down to the number of divisions.
Later, he foretold how the Führer would fall and how that bomb would obliterate Hiroshima. The photo illustrating this piece shows Mathews aboard the USS Missouri with Gen. Douglas MacArthur for the Japanese surrender in 1945.
In the 1960s, Mathews and a seasoned editorial board anchored unsigned daily comment at the top left of the opinion page, as self-respecting papers did. News columns stuck to what reporters saw and heard, bereft of personal views. We wrote in third person; bylines were about attributing responsibility, not for showing off to friends.
It’s about readers, not us.
Papers back then weren’t “communities” with jointly signed “what about MY needs” grievance letters. We learned fast how to get yelled at by a benevolent dictator at the top and the rest of a newsroom hierarchy that was no democracy. It was about the readers, not us.
We kept watch on the city, literally, from iron balconies on a three-story salmon-hued downtown building. At cocktail hour, authorities and business leaders spilled the beans on local scandal over stiff shots at the Press Club. Everyone returned our calls; a “no comment” amounted to taking the Fifth.
A dapper managing editor in a glass office rode herd. A colorful bunch of copy editors pored over staff stories and news agency dispatches. One snipped the semicolon key off the typewriter of a reporter who overused it. Charlie Finney wrote celebrated novels. Alex Parker, always with his green eyeshade and hemorrhoid cushion, set up a scholarship that had paid my $125 tuition to the University of Arizona journalism department.
Editors gathered after lunch for the news conference, a crucial process now mostly lost at small dailies where work is often remote. That decided what made the frontpage. They gave priority to world and national dispatches from the Associated Press or the New York Times syndicate over all but exceptional local stories.
As deadline neared, we banged away at typewriters on long rows of desks. When someone’s cigarette ignited a large barrel of copy paper, everyone scrambled for extinguishers.
At 11:30 each night, rumbling from the basement presses grew louder until the whole building vibrated. We uncorked bottles in our desks, headed to fresh air on the balconies, and I reflected on my j-school professor’s favorite line: there are two kinds of people; newspaper people and the other kind.
Gender was no issue. Withering retorts silenced untoward male remarks. My sister, Jane Kay, escaped the “Society” page to pioneer an environmental beat that exposed carcinogens in the city’s water supply from Hughes Aircraft, now Raytheon, at Davis-Monthan Air Base.
Tucson in the 1960s was, as Somerset Maughan said about the French Riviera, a sunny place for shady people. Mobsters from “back east” bought property and messed around in local politics. You can’t cover that sort of thing with phone calls or emails at a distance.
Once I staked out the home of Joseph Bonanno, “Joe Bananas,” and sneaked up to rifle through his car’s glovebox – as illegal as it was stupid. Soon after, an FBI guy called my editor. If the Mafia doesn’t get that skinny kid with glasses, he said, we will.
In sum, newspapering back then was about up-close contact and competition. It was not, for fuck’s sake, “content.” Mathews would have had heart failure at stories now attributed to his bitter Phoenix rival, the Arizona Republic, and bizarre filler features from odd provenances.
True, as today’s critics say, it was a one-way process. A.J. Liebling was right: freedom of the press was reserved to those who owned one. With no “social media,” people could only mail in letters to the editor. But they had choices, and publishers fought hard to keep their readers.
“Interactive journalism” has its limits. People who can’t find Ukraine on a map need guidance from reporters on the spot to help shape their thoughts. I can hear Mathews’ snort at the idea of a staff whiz kid tweeting to subscribers: “Germany invades Poland; what’s your opinion?”
“Citizen journalists” are hardly new. People called in with “breaking news” or to offer tips about dark doings. These were stories only after reporters checked them out on the spot and, when necessary, consulted trusted sources to confirm, correct or deny them.
Today, the Star is printed 120 miles away in Phoenix. Mathews’ ornate building was demolished long ago, replaced by a 17-acre complex with a rail spur shared by the Star and Citizen. Lee sold that at auction in 2019 for just over $3 million, the same price a single home in the foothills fetched last month.
The surviving staff kept it going during the pandemic and will soon move into new quarters. Each morning, I hear that familiar plop in the driveway, just like the old days. But, squeezed to the limit, every edition is a crap shoot.
The other morning, the Star was late. I hurried to a Walgreens to spend $3 on a thin sheaf of newsprint with only a smattering of news about a world edging fast toward war. One local story touched on the subject. If Vladimir Putin lobs nukes at America, a likely target would be that Raytheon plant. It makes missiles and drones vital in an age of pax americana.
On some days, it is rich in local news: the fight for Colorado River water; the university president’s extravagances; over-aggressive policing; blatant abuses by the Republican state legislature and governor; Mexican border coverage. On others, not so much.
The problem goes back to a 2006 column by the much-missed Molly Ivins that began: “I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying – it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”
When the internet deprived papers of classifieds, legal notices and a chunk of display advertising, newspapers tried to survive by charging more for less. Some gambled that if they offered the paper free for, say, a year, readers would get the habit and subscribe. It didn’t work out that way. People insisted on getting news for nothing, which is what so much of it is worth.
Local papers have an essential role in explaining controversial issues
A business that is so fundamental to democracy got to be like those old free-lunch bars where regulars bitched about the quality of the food and then complained that portions were too small.
Few readers now understand that sacrosanct line between news columns and opinion.
Local papers have an essential role in explaining controversial issues that affect their readers. Like all news organizations, their quality depends on consistency and credibility across the board. Essentially, they need a Bill Mathews.
The Star’s staff-written editorials are long gone, replaced by snippets from other papers. Everything on the opinion pages is prefaced by lawyerly italics absolving the paper of responsibility for anything. Readers’ letters run at length, often far-right screeds about the “Red Star” despite frequent conservative columns.
One prominent op-ed extolled non-existent virtues of a Canadian-owned copper mine, a vast open pit projected to be dug in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, a treasured recreational area of rare biodiversity. It was written by the company’s vice president.
I had reported on the mine for Harper’s magazine. The EPA, U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers and county agencies blocked permits for 10 years, citing impact on dwindling groundwater, wetlands, wildlife and air quality. Under Donald Trump, decisions were reversed; only a pending federal court decisions stands in its way. Meantime, its owners have bought large tracts of private land for other mines nearby.
Tony Davis, recently named Arizona Press Club reporter of the year, has followed the story since the beginning. Scrupulously objective, he takes no sides. But his reporting makes the facts plain. The company would pay only minimal taxes and create few local jobs. Ore would be shipped to Asia for smelting; profits would go to Canada.
Proponents cite today’s high demand for copper to dismiss objections as the usual NIMBY resistance: not in my backyard. Countries in Asia, Africa and South America have vast reserves. But because of old federal law that exempts hardrock mining from royalties, it is cheaper and easier to mine the Santa Ritas. When I asked the opinion editor (since moved on) about it, she replied, “We use what we get.”
The Star took me on while I was finishing school, but I had already worked for a paper in Venezuela. Editors supervised me closely to make sure I earned my guild salary. Now, like so many others, it saves money with “interns” who work hard at token pay and little guidance.
The paper now bolsters its staff with students who, if promising, are not ready for the job. My thick file of goofs ranges from such silly misspellings as a large headline about a “highjacking” to glaring omissions in new stories.
Reliable journalism comes at a cost that far exceeds money
Journalism, a high calling with a serious purpose, cannot be about shortcuts and corporate editorial control. Reliable news comes at a cost that far exceeds money.
As I was writing this, a cameraman friend called from Paris. “I just had a good friend killed in Ukraine and another one who was with him might not live,” he said. The survivor is 35, with three daughters. If he pulls through, he’ll be missing a leg. Peter Jouvenal, his old sidekick who covered Afghanistan for 30 years, is a Taliban prisoner in Kabul. (See Global Insights article on Jouvenal and other westerners being held without charge by the Taliban)
In earlier days, we could calculate danger. Journalists were mostly considered off-limits. Today, “PRESS” on a vehicle just gives murderous assholes something to aim at. Indiscriminate shelling hits what it hits.
At a local level, risks are more about baseless crippling libel actions. But the principle is the same. Profit alone should not be the criteria, especially when predators buy up papers to starve them to death. Vultures at least have the decency to wait until their prey dies before swooping in.
Faithful readers can save them, but the prospects are dim. I just flew out of Tucson’s busy airport before 8 a.m. after finding no Star. At the main concourse newsstand, the woman at the counter shrugged. “We only get three a day,” she said.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.