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Media Watch 

CITIZEN'S DEMISE TOPS LIST OF YEAR'S BIG MEDIA STORIES

At the end of last year's obligatory year-in-review Media Watch—which noted the numerous layoffs, the industry cutbacks and the generally dire state of affairs in 2008—I posited this simple query: "Could 2009 possibly be much worse?"

The answer: If only we could return to the glory days of 2008.

The Tucson Citizen shut down its print edition on May 16, bringing to an end the longest-running daily in Arizona. Initially, staffers at the newspaper were told by parent company Gannett that the end would come in March, but that timeline was extended as potential buyers and legal issues muddied already convoluted waters.

"The last six months have been (tough)," said senior editor Jennifer Boice shortly after Gannett's initial closure announcement. "We've been through two layoffs, and now this. I don't think it gets much worse than that in any working environment."

The two months of limbo between the scheduled March shutdown date and the paper's final edition just added to the turmoil and uncertainty, as the Citizen functioned day-to-day with a streamlined staff. The paper published under an outdated afternoon model and survived largely because Gannett was still reaping profits from its joint operating agreement with Lee Enterprises, which owns and operates the Arizona Daily Star. Even though the Citizen had lost close to two-thirds of its subscription base between 1995 and 2009, the shared revenue acquired from the JOA allowed Gannett to keep the product functional.

Today, despite not having a print edition in Tucson, Gannett still receives half of the proceeds from Tucson Newspapers (TNI) as it maintains tucsoncitizen.com with a skeleton crew of bloggers and news gatherers.

"I think having two newspapers in a town makes both newspapers better. Competition is good in that respect," Boice said in May. "You go to one-newspaper towns, and if a story is breaking or happening, they go, 'Eh, we'll get it tomorrow.' Here, we don't do that. You get good news; you get better news; you don't just get one side of the story, one reporter's view of the story, and frankly, I think that's good.

"I look at the reporting and the news-gathering and editing team that we have at the Citizen, and there are some very, very good journalists there, people I respect and hold in awe. We couldn't be doing what we're doing without them, and I really feel badly about some of their situations."

The Gannett impact is still being felt at Tucson Newspapers, where all TNI staffers (excluding Star newsroom employees, who work directly for Lee) are required to take a Gannett-mandated weeklong furlough in the first quarter of 2010.

On the other side of the TNI compound, struggling Lee had to make sacrifices as well. The Davenport, Iowa, company managed to refinance a significant amount of its debt earlier this year, in the process praying for a massive turnaround in the economy and in the daily-print-newspaper model by 2012, when a balloon payment will come due.

Lee cut a good portion of its local workforce in November. Many employees with extensive careers in the industry and at the Star took a so-called voluntary buyout, a precursor to layoffs. Among the notables who accepted the deal: opinion-page editor Ann Brown, eastside editor Margo Hernandez, senior reporter Enric Volante and border editor Ignacio Ibarra.

On the television front, local stations made the digital transition without a hitch, although the federal government's decision to push the date back from February to June added a hefty price tag to strapped budgets.

Two general managers left the market. Belo (KMSB Channel 11/KTTU Channel 18) GM Tod Smith accepted a job with a station in Norfolk, Va. He was replaced by Bob Simone. Bill Shaw took the reins at KVOA Channel 4, succeeding long-time GM Gary Nielsen, who retired. (Look for more on KVOA's managerial restructuring in an upcoming Media Watch.)

KVOA also made a significant change to its news product, combining the tasks of photographer/editors and reporters, creating what is referred to as multimedia journalists. Reporters are now required to carry their equipment and shoot and edit their own footage.

"The news business is changing rapidly. If we want to continue to be leaders and innovators in the industry, we need to adapt and make changes as well," said then-KVOA news director Kathleen Choal, who has since been promoted. "Those changes will help News 4 to continue to provide the best local news content for all of our Southern Arizona viewers both on the air and on kvoa.com."

Finances hit Access Tucson hard in 2009. The public-access cable program provider shut its doors in June as part of a month-long furlough, another victim of the city's overall budget woes. Revenues through Cox Cable have remained steady, but the money earmarked for Access Tucson is kept in the general fund, so the city can dip into it if necessary. Said dipping forced Access Tucson into the 30-day closure.

"We were created by the city of Tucson in 1984 to do this job, and the primary reason they wanted an outside agency to do this is the city didn't want to be in the business of content control," recalled Access Tucson executive director Sam Behrend. "It would be an issue of government controlling the media. We were created by the city to do a job the city wanted done with revenues created by the cable company, but now, what they've done is disconnected the use of funding from the source. The city wants to take a hard look at the funding issues, and I think that's a good idea."

Local radio endured changes as well. John C. Scott took over day-to-day operations of KJLL AM 1330, which also dealt with the death of owner Aldona Sprei. Citadel, which owns five stations in the market, filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago. Clear Channel, which also operates a radio cluster in Tucson, cut back staff significantly while the market's other cluster, Journal, opted for the furlough route.

Ten years and three interim GM stints later, Randy Peterson was finally named general manager at KXCI FM 91.3.

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