Guest Commentary

The story of a little newspaper, now 25 years old, that almost didn't make it

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. --Thomas Jefferson

It is a newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell. --Wilbur Storey of the Chicago Times, 1861

Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense. --Mark Twain

The Tucson Weekly has always been an improbable construct.

It should have died a quick and easy death, since it was started by two 24-year-olds with no money, limited experience and virtually no qualifications to assume the monikers of editor and publisher. The city had a nasty reputation for chewing up and spitting out all attempts to start publications that were alternatives to the daily papers. That the Tucson Weekly continues to thrive and can celebrate 25 years of publication is nothing short of a miracle.

And I'll tell you the story straight: After our second issue, we were flat-broke. In the space of a few days, we "sold" the fledgling paper to the Phoenix New Times, but that deal blew up in a matter of hours when I flapped my mouth about the deal to another publisher and incurred the wrath of the boys up north. We were facing the sure prospect that yet another comer in the tortured history of Tucson's alternative press would quickly fade away in the forgotten annals of wannabes. But at the advice of Jim Larkin, New Times' publisher, we asked our printer for two weeks of credit. The printer was owned by Harte-Hanks, a Texas based publisher of shoppers (then publishing the Tucson Shopper). For some reason, they consented.

At the beginning of the third week, we still didn't have the money to pay the printer. But the third issue rolled off the press. And then the fourth, and the 10th, and the 20th and the 50th. No one ever asked us for a payment, and we continued to sell ads and generate copy and grow the paper, marveling at our situation and obsessing over a number of increasingly paranoid theories as to why we were being allowed to continue with such an insane method of startup financing. By the end of the first year, the Tucson Weekly had grown from its humble beginnings as a 12-page paper with a circulation of 15,000, to a 40-pager with a circulation of 35,000, and growing. And we still hadn't paid a dime to our printer.

After running up a bill that exceeded $100,000, we finally called the general manager and requested a meeting to discuss our "credit situation." Noting that we had been printing with them for more than a year, he opined that we could probably work something out.

When he came to visit us, we broke the news that we owed his company a lot of money. The suits from Texas came to town soon thereafter, and the story ends with a lawsuit that was settled out of court after a series of misadventures with attorneys and a judge pro tem who I am convinced (and whose name I cannot recall) was a fan of the paper and somehow enabled us to prevail against formidable odds. In the end, apparently, it all came down to the incompetence of an accounting clerk who made the conscious decision to ignore our increasingly hefty tab instead of confronting us about it. Twenty-five years later, the details are somewhat fuzzy, but good luck and opportunism turned into a secret weapon that would serve the Weekly repeatedly in the years ahead.

In that first tumultuous year, the Tucson Weekly forged what is still its basic identity, as an irreverent teller of truth and a purveyor of opinions; a savvy companion regarding the pleasures and diversions of entertainment and the arts, eating and drinking; a compiler of calendars and listings; and an initiator of essential conversations about what it means to live here, in this place, in this time. And it was--and remains--a reliable medium for local advertisers that delivered a desirable audience of potential customers.

Because of our inexperience and lack of resources, the initial editorial focus was on arts and entertainment, with a smattering of attempts to cover the "news." But within a few months, the desire to advocate was unleashed with the paper's dogged campaign to save the Temple of Music and Art (now restored and the home of the Arizona Theatre Company). In the November 14, 1984, issue, the cover headline screamed: "The Desecration of the Temple," and for weeks, the paper followed the issue with stories, editorials and even public-service ads, encouraging citizens to take up the cause and promulgating the notion that a downtown Arts District was the way to revitalize Tucson's moribund city center. Looking back 25 years later, it is both heartening and depressing to assess the relative successes of this effort as downtown Tucson continues to muddle toward some vision of revitalization, however elusive.

The Tucson Weekly's early willingness to abandon all pretense of objectivity and rely instead on the twin passions of principle and outrage have served it well as the paper continues its weekly conversation with its readers.

My 16 years with the Weekly were distinguished by the genuine sense of family we fostered at the company and the many long-term relationships that the family nurtured (not to mention a few marriages, and the babies and dogs that often had free run of the place). It was an intentional effort of organized madness, with a central credo to have fun while pursuing ever-greater creative heights and continual improvement of the paper. I delighted in hiring talented and obsessive people whose commitment to the project far outweighed the paltry compensation they received and the long hours they worked. The editorial department had almost total freedom to pursue their passions, and the parade of unique and dedicated practitioners of our trade produced some amazingly entertaining and often compelling results. Always in the background was the incessant need to sell more ads, juggle a maddeningly inconsistent cash flow and run the operation like a business instead of a three-ring circus.

I can never recount the history of the Tucson Weekly without noting the invaluable role of Sidney Brinckerhoff. After five years of operation, the paper nearly disintegrated when an impending financial collapse and a bitter dispute with my founding partner brought the paper to its knees. My partner quit, and Sid stepped up with a check for $250,000 to stabilize the operation. He invested more than twice that amount during the next two years and provided the capital investment that the paper never had in its early days. For whatever reason, he embraced the Tucson Weekly in its hour of need when its future was incredibly bleak, entirely tentative and more than speculative. Thank you, Mr. Brinckerhoff!

This is a perilous time for newspapers, regardless of their niche. In a matter of weeks, the city will finally lose its afternoon daily, the Tucson Citizen, which has published in this town since 1870, reputedly the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the state. The parent company of the Arizona Daily Star is in financial freefall, and virtually all metrics morosely declaim declining readership and revenues in the industry, threatening the survival of what is arguably the most important source of news and analysis in the country.

Without the content generated by newspapers, Web sites that aggregate content and simply react to news would cease to exist. Broadcast media cannot match the context and depth provided by quality print journalism. The Web, while overflowing with what passes for content, cannot hope to replicate the news product produced by dedicated and experienced journalists.

The real work of journalism is the consistent, capable and considered filtering of the zeitgeist in all its forms by writers and editors committed to a craft. At its best, journalism is the unrelentingly hard work of collecting facts, considering context and creating an end result that can successfully convey a compelling story with no prior restraint. It is damn near a sacred endeavor, one that is enabled and enshrined by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It requires practitioners who are allowed the space and time to pursue this special process.

"Citizen journalism" may have its place as practiced in the blogosphere, but if we are to substantively hold our politicians and business leaders accountable for their actions, we need to ensure the preservation of the institution of the press and those who constitute its foot soldiers. Whether it's a commitment to some form of "professionalism"--which can be debated, perhaps--or the grounding and depth that comes from a kind of collective journalistic memory and ethos, nothing can replace the importance of the role that a free and capable press plays in maintaining some semblance of a democratic society that is responsive to the citizenry. Without the press, the likely result is a cacophony of random voices without focus or form, which is akin to the voice of a mob and a clear detriment to a civil society.

The Tucson Weekly is part of a subset of American media history known as the "alternative newsweekly," its origins emanating from the underground press of the late-1960s that emerged as a response to the Vietnam War and the rise of the youth culture, fueled by the ever-popular combination of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. When the Tucson Weekly first appeared in February 1984, there were about 30 similar newspapers in mainly larger cities that loosely banded together in a trade group called the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Now numbering about 130, alt-weeklies are a vital part of any city's media landscape, providing a distinct point of view and a personality that was in many ways entirely unique prior to the rise of the Web and the blogosphere.

For the most part, alt-weeklies have maintained a commitment to investigative journalism and a willingness to pursue the kinds of stories that have been neglected by daily newspapers. Regarding cultural coverage, alt-weeklies have often led the way in promoting and engaging with music, theater, dance and the visual arts, providing coverage that has been essential to nurturing those art forms in their respective communities. And the alt-weeklies have been the incubator for a unique and precious art form, the alternative comic (which has recently come under threat as papers cut their budgets in response to declining revenues--but fortunately, not at the Tucson Weekly). These papers matter, and they may well be the future of journalism in this country as the dailies face an increasingly dim horizon.

The question is: What now for newspapers? If I presumed to have the answer, I'd start another media company and lead the way, but I'm as confounded as anyone else regarding a business model that can harness the power of online media in a way that makes sense and that can actually sustain a newspaper and those invaluable journalists that produce its content. To date, the business model that newspapers operate within hasn't changed much in the last 200 years: Advertising pays the bills, period. Content may want to be free, as the digital cliché goes, but to date, the consumer of newspapers and other media has largely had a free ride without cognizance of the real cost of the content. I don't think it would be possible to start a publication like the Tucson Weekly today and hope to succeed.

Fortunately, fiercely locally oriented publications like the Tucson Weekly and its fellow alt-weeklies may best be able to weather the current challenging environment and eventually thrive, given the fact that they don't have large printing presses to keep running and other investments in expensive infrastructure to maintain. For the local restaurant or mom-and-pop retailer, there is still a lot of efficacy to be realized in running an ad in the Tucson Weekly, and the dead-tree medium is still a largely practical means of distribution. For now, anyway. I still pick up the Weekly, but I read it first online.

As the Tucson Weekly considers its prospects for the next 25 years, my fervent hope is that the brand name it has established has enough gravitas and power to be leveraged in new and creative ways as the digital revolution continues to change the media landscape. Best of luck, comrades.