Once upon a town there was a time when folks around there had a pretty good idea what was up.
The town was Tucson and the time was the tail end of the 19th century through the better part of the 20th. Better indeed.
The folks knew up from sideways because – if they bestirred themselves to waddle onto the front lawn – they could pick up a hometown newspaper where they could read all about it.
The Tucson Citizen and the Arizona Daily Star had decidedly differing views. A grammar school dropout could tell which was which three grafs into their editorial pages – but they shared a fundamentalist approach to reporting those events:
You let the participants do the talking and the paper do the typing. The editorial page chewed the fat. News-side eschewed it.
The trick to maintaining incivility was for one paper to break a different story, or a different angle, when they could leave the competition looking asleep at the wheel.
What nobody did fiddle with was the facts, because then as now a small hometown like Tucson could tell when local coverage flunked the smell test.
You might run a story datelined Afghanistan and it might have a scent of barnyard here or there and you might get away with it, but a hometown paper better have the hometown news fair and square.
I am of the educated opinion, however, that even in these perilous times for print, an honest hometown paper that remembers its roots, and has the publisher to protect them, will survive.
The Citizen came first, in the last trimester of the 19th century, when all it had to fight was Apaches and politicians. Then the Arizona Daily Star hit the streets and the battle was joined.
As a mercenary whose checks have been signed by the publishers of both, from 1968 until the curtain came down on 2007, I’m here to tell you it was the kind of ride that keeps otherwise intelligent professionals working like short-handled hoers for money that would make a school teacher weep.
But we had the pride of knowing we were keeping the people up to date and armed with facts when the high and mighty were armed with sophistry.
My first encounter with hometown journalism was as an 8-year-old pal of Donald Thornton, son of Vic, managing editor of the Star. On weekends Donald and I would wander into the old Star/Citizen building on Stone Avenue and listen to the editors argue about whether Art Luppino was the best tailback in the country or just a fast frog in a slow pond. (For the record, Art was the greatest running back ever. You can read it spelled out in my scrapbook, in raw umber.)
In those days the Star was owned by the Ellinwoods and Matthews. The Citizen belonged to the Smalls. Those days were the ’50s. By the ’60s the feds had targeted Tucson newspapers in an antitrust action, which we were spared when the Failing Newspapers Act allowed the papers to keep publishing, leaving the housekeeping to a third party we still know as Tucson Newspapers Inc.
And they all lived happily ever after. Until the owners of the Star tried to sell but found no takers except a small-time outfit named Brush-Moore. So the Citizen’s owners, Bill and Bill Small, father and son, bought the Star, with the pledge to keep out of its internal affairs and find a decent buyer. Which it appeared it had – Pulitzer sounds like a decent newspaper name – until the wife of a Pulitzer made it a matter, for me at least, of quit or get fired.
Upon which my own purely personal opinion of selling a hometown newspaper to out-of-town interests experienced an epiphany. It blows.
So I began my career at the stupid end of a shovel.
A white knight rode to my rescue, in the person of William A. Small the younger. (Let me share this apology across the void to Bill: Scouts’ honor, Boss, when I referred to you as Bill Small the Lesser, it was an allusion to Homer’s Iliad, in which he identified Ajax the Lesser, thus to distinguish him as his father’s son. Not by any means to disparage you, or Ajax.)
Because in November 1976 I went to work for a hometown newspaper at the zenith of its powers. And circulation. The Citizen made money and spent money. It spent money to make money: I read somewhere that’s how smart money does it.
The Citizen reporting crew in the ’70s was three or four times its current staff, and its daily circulation was a similar bulge.
A veritable Ku Klux Klan of factors conspired to drive what was once a rabbit warren of glad-hearted hustle – curiosity inspiring phone calls, calls inspiring car keys, keys taking reporters all over Arizona, northern Mexico, to hell and gone and back again, in time to fill out our expense vouchers and then home for the weekend and gone again next Monday.
Bill Small did not bitch about the money spent to cover the on-beat and off-beat: He did the math and read the English, which sang of profitability.
There was money to be made in a hometown paper – the kind that made readers laugh and cuss and look forward to the next edition.
For Small it bought a newspaper sufficiently profitable that when he decided to spend his days pursuing the muse instead of news, his Citizen caught the eye of the biggest newspaper chain on the planet, the Gannett Co., of all the factors conspiring to stamp out hometown newspapers, the Mother Factor.
So after two blissful years working for an enlightened, penny- and pound-wise publisher, I thought, “Poop.”
And I was right. If Gannett allows this to see print it will be the most liberal editorial decision I have seen in three decades under the aegis of the people who brought us USA TODAY . . . and converted every hometown newspaper it could buy into one of its clones.
Old newspapermen joke that a good reporter could cover the Second Coming of Christ in 13 column inches. But a good feature writer could create a novella, and a good newspaper would dummy the room to run it.
My brother Dave wrote a feature on a kid from Mesa who walked into a beauty parlor, made five women lie face-down on the floor and then calmly shot each in the back of the head. The story ran roughly the length of a Louis L’Amour novel. It jumped from Page One of the Los Angeles Times Sunday edition all the way to the back, and then jumped from the back to the front again, turned around and ran until it ran out.
The Times got one of the best days of street sales in its history. The kid got life in Florence, and my brother got a VW vanload of Best of Whatever awards. Including one with my former publisher’s last name.
It was the kind of story Gannett never would even consider, not if every woman the kid murdered were every subscriber’s mother, daughter, sister or aunt; if the kid were every reader’s adopted son, and the town were home to the chief executive officer of Gannett. Maybe that’s a good thing, a savvy decision, but it is not the sort of policy that endears it to the antiquarian species that reads its paper on the porcelain pedestal of a morning.
Gannett ran an ad campaign for the Citizen a few years ago featuring a chorus of elevator-tenors chiming “. . . the Citizen is Tucson.” I had my doubts then, and as Gannett smothers Tucson’s oldest, once-hometown paper, like some bothersome bed-ridden uncle, I don’t think the Citizen is Tucson anymore.
Gannett sent one of its aparatchiki to announce the execution to the crew, lest they hear it first from the Star. There were people there – friends of mine, guys who have fired me three, maybe four times – who’ve put in 40 years or better at that newspaper. And this suit from east of the Potomac lacks the decency even to thank them for their toil and tears.
He was here to announce a successful hit, by an assassin with a long string of successful hits. These are propitious times for killers looking to end newspapers they’ve bled white.
Hit men don’t fly across a continent to thank the family and friends of the departed; they come to put the stink-eye on anybody who looks like he might make trouble.
The emissary just didn’t get enough stink on everybody. Pray that you live long enough to see the hometown newspaper make its inevitable comeback.
Mark, Billie have the last word
Jeff Smith is only mostly dead. Much like his muse . . .