Cash-Poor Coverage

The 'Star' and 'Weekly' are criticized for under-reporting the local economic crisis

Resembling a house built on sand being buffeted by a raging storm, Tucson's economy has been severely shaken. During the last few years, has the city's print media adequately explained why the community has suffered more than most American cities?

The reasons are complex and confusing, but include an over-reliance on continuous population growth to stroke the local economic engine.

The consequences of this dependency have been an economy that markedly declined during the recession, resulting in serious repercussions. With average owners having lost about one-third the value of their homes, with an unemployment rate around nine percent, and with 30 percent of the city's children living in poverty, Tucson's economy has frayed badly since 2007.

Those are sobering benchmarks of the community's economic well-being. But have the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Weekly thoroughly described how it came to this?

To help determine an answer to that question, an analysis of the two publications was conducted. Star issues from Feb. 15 to Aug. 15, 2011 were examined, and every 2011 issue of the Weekly through Aug. 11 was reviewed.

Two categories of articles were counted. The first included economic stories about Tucson and Southern Arizona that had a general overview, but stories about specific businesses were excluded since they didn't directly relate to the topic. An example of a counted story is the Star's May 1 page one headline: "Arizona's Scarlet Letter? State's Tarnished Image Hurts Our Economy, Critics Say."

The second type of story considered had to do with border, immigration or ethnic studies issues. These needed to be local- or state-focused, and the May 1 edition of the Star included a few of these stories, also.

The reason for the comparison was simple. It was hypothesized that the economic stories, which could be considered "bad news," would be less prevalent than the pieces on immigration, border and ethnic studies issues. Those might be classified as "controversial news," and thus are probably less depressing to readers in the current downturn.

In addition, writing about economic issues is difficult to make interesting, whereas the built-in conflict swirling around topics such as illegal immigration can make it a reporter's bread and butter.

For the Star, the results of the survey were 103 border/immigration/ethnic studies stories vs. 77 on the economy. The results for the Weekly were 17 and five.

"I disagree with the premise (of the argument)," said Jimmy Boegle, editor of the Weekly, when provided with the survey results. "For the specific topics they may be right, but there is lots of other coverage. Margaret Regan in her arts and dance stories has written about the toll the economy has had on the arts. So there's been a lot of coverage in one way or another."

Boegle also mentioned the Weekly's political and health coverage as including impacts of the economic recession. "It has been covered," he insisted of the newspaper's attention to the local economy.

In an e-mail, Arizona Daily Star editor Bobbie Jo Buel asked to see the specifics of the analysis before responding to the question. "Seventy-seven stories in six months strikes me as low," she said. Because of other pressing matters, though, Buel was unable to respond further before the deadline for this story.

Despite that, she did comment: "In addition to stories about the local economy we write about layoffs, hiring, foreclosures, underwater mortgages, the real estate market, softening and growth in key industries, and more."

Buel was asked another question. On Aug. 3, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released information about unemployment rates in metropolitan areas that showed a rise for Tucson from 7.8 percent in May to 9.1 percent in June. For its part, the Star only ran a national story about unemployment and ignored the local increase.

A few weeks earlier, the state of Arizona had also released information about the jump in local unemployment. Yet when the Star ran a story about joblessness in the state on July 22, Pima County wasn't even mentioned.

Buel called this omission "an oversight." The Star did discuss Pima County unemployment in a story last week.

Asked about the Star's lack of coverage concerning the large increase in the local unemployment rate between May and June, Buel responded: "We typically run a story or brief somewhere around the 20th of each month that analyzes the state numbers, usually with a chart detailing stats for key counties."

From her perspective, Ginger Lamb, president of the Arizona Newspapers Association, said in an e-mail she can't speak for other newspapers besides her own—the Arizona Capitol Times. But she did write of the Star and Weekly: "As newspapers that cover their communities I would expect they know their audience and are providing content that their audience needs."

The Star perhaps best summarized the deteriorating economic situation in a July story. Reporting on the opening of a new Tucson call center, the newspaper cited a company spokesman as saying, "The market pay rate for call centers has dropped since the recession began, from the $14-per-hour range to $9.50 or $10."

Whether the Star and Weekly have provided the background material needed for their readers to understand why that is the case and why the local economy is so depressed remains questionable.