What Killed East Valley Tribune

The East Valley Tribune plans to close December 31. What went wrong in the prosperous, expanding communities in the outer belt of metro Phoenix? I'll try a little CSI-style inquest.
 
First off, the paper is technically not dead yet. It posted a 60-day closing notice last week, as required by federal law for enterprises with more than 100 employees. A last-minute buyer might come forward, as was the case earlier this year at two small Connecticut dailies. I find that highly unlikely, however.
 
The East Valley Tribune is one of several American papers experimenting with a shift to Web-only publication on most weekdays. At the start of the year it started printing four days a week and cut that to three in May.
 
This, along with some deep staff cuts, removed a big chunk of legacy operating costs. But what seems to be working well at the Christian Science Monitor and the two Detroit papers, as Poynter Online has recently reported, did not generate enough savings to put the paper in the black.
 
At the same time, the Tribune pulled out of Scottsdale to focus on the growing communities of Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert. It also switched from paid circulation to free distribution of 100,000 copies in the smaller geographic area.
 
Publisher Julie Moreno told me in a phone interview that the strategy was not so much flawed as ill-timed. "Frankly the model was working pretty well. We were getting great pickup in the racks, and advertiser response was good," she said. "But we needed more time and a better economic backdrop to make it work."
 
The paper gave up all of its circulation income at a time when others in the industry are charging more per copy and seeing modest increases in circulation revenue. Online advertising can't sustain even a downsized news and sales operation, and this year it has stopped growing. Meanwhile, print advertising has been off by a quarter to a third industrywide.
 
Bad luck probably played a role as well. The Tribune has new presses, ordered back in better times. It prints four distinct zoned editions and was pursuing a hyperlocal strategy, layered onto the big changes in frequency and distribution.
 
After the shutdown was announced, former staffer Matt Bunk suggested in a thoughtful blog commentary that the news staff was "spread too thin" -- after being cut 40 percent in January -- to pull off a new local-local strategy. At ground level, the targeting seemed more "identity crisis" than sound strategy, he wrote, at times devolving into attempts to target the news report to select ZIP codes favored by advertisers.
 
Another postmortem from former film critic Craig Outhier agreed with Bunk that the zoned strategy overmatched the dwindling staff and that the paper had lost many of its most experienced writers -- and along with them, any depth of beat coverage.
 
Moreno disagreed, saying the staff was appropriate to the new goals, but ad volume simply fell short.
 
The Tribune had long enjoyed a reputation as an editorially solid paper. It won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting this year for investigative stories on flamboyant Sheriff Joe Arpaio's anti-immigrant policies.
 
The paper had three owners in three decades, with Cox selling to Thomson, which sold to Freedom Communications in the late 1990s when it decided to exit the newspaper business. Freedom was burdened by problems of its own at the flagship Orange County Register and carried a heavy debt load of $770 million, taken on as part of a leveraged buyout in 2004.
 
Turnaround specialist CEO Scott Flanders quit June 1 to try instead to rescue Playboy Enterprises. Three months later, Freedom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
 
A healthier parent company may have carried the Tribune and waited for the Sun Belt's boom-bust real estate cycle to run its course. Freedom, however, was in no shape to absorb continuing losses, and in this still-shaky business climate, no buyer emerged.  
 
Metro Phoenix is notoriously sprawling, and the eastern communities are much more populous than the few towns on the west side. One might argue that Gannett's Arizona Republic won the metro newspaper war -- first in Scottsdale and Tempe, then by forcing the Tribune to retreat to the more distant communities.
 
My takeaways would also include this: Discontinuing most weekday editions, migrating to the Web and switching to free distribution is a roll-of-the-dice strategy. And the Tribune may have cut back so drastically that its report, in either print or electronic format, became expendable to some portion of readers and advertisers.
 
Meanwhile, the 918,000 residents of Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler are left to ponder an all-too-common question these days -- who, if anyone, will cover their hometown news come 2010?

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