Catch a Falling Star

Vapid content, turgid circulation, declining ad revenue and a depressed staff make for one plummeting newspaper.

Jane Amari, editor and publisher of the Arizona Daily Star, arrived in town promising both change and communication. At this point, she's delivered lots of change but little communication, and one out of two just doesn't cut it.

Amari, the most prominent member of Southern Arizona's journalism community, came to town nearly two years ago to oversee the Star's news and editorial functions. Her initial comments were promising. "I like tough journalism," she told readers back in October 1999. "We have a lot of catching up to do. One of the ways you start is by being open with your readers, by inviting criticism and opinion and by listening to them when they criticize you. I don't think we should ever choose not to listen." To really know the subscribing public, she added, "means actually having conversations with them and meeting them on occasion."

Looks good on paper, but when reality knocked, the plan went awry. Tucson Weekly figured that after more than a year of changes on the printed pages of the Pulitzer-prize-winning publication, it was time for a progress report.

We sent an e-mail: "It's been over a year now since Jane Amari presented a 'new look' for the Arizona Daily Star, changes designed to make for a better newspaper. It's time for a report card on how successful those changes have been and what lies ahead."

The message requested an interview with Amari and Bobbie Jo Buel, Star managing editor, to see how well they thought the Star had done and what remained to be accomplished.

If the commanders of this cadre of morning wordsmiths are proud of what they and their troops have accomplished, they're reluctant to share that pride. The response to the TW interview request was immediate. And succinct. "Thanks for asking, but Jane and Bobbie Jo decline to participate."

"That doesn't sound like the Jane Amari I know," says former Star executive editor Bill Woestendiek, Amari's supervisor when she taught journalism in Southern California. "I'm surprised the decision-makers at the Star won't talk to you. I knew Jane at USC and I hired Bobbie Jo at the Star, and both of them understand the value of honest communication. There used to be a welcome sign out, an open door, for anyone with questions about the paper. But not many old-timers are left, most of that crowd has gone, and I frankly don't think today's Star mirrors what it used to be when it hung a Pulitzer Prize in its trophy case."

Refusal to be forthright runs contrary to the statement on the Star's editorial page masthead: "A newspaper that is true to its purpose concerns itself not only with the way things are, but with the way they ought to be."

Some communications giants, print and electronic, have blanket policies forbidding reporters, producers and other staff members from commenting on a topic without the express consent of upper-level management. Jane Amari is management at the Arizona Daily Star and presumably doesn't need to ask permission to talk to other members of the media on how successful she considers recent changes to be.

"I think they're scared to death of the Weekly and angry at the constant criticisms that appear in The Skinny--but that's part of the ballgame," says former Star managing editor Steve Emerine. "They expect other people to be cooperative with them when they're knocking them. Shouldn't they extend cooperation in return?" asks the veteran Star and Citizen newsman, himself a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

Apparently not. Amari supports her fact-finding reporters when their sources refuse to give information. "We believe in using the Freedom of Information Act and to sue when we don't get what we need," she has publicly stated.

"The Star over the years has often been an arrogant entity, and some of that still lingers," says editorial veteran Tom Duddleston Sr., who formerly orchestrated news operations at the Tucson Citizen. His statement supports Woestendiek's contention that "a good newspaper should keep a watch on itself and not take itself too seriously."

"Jane Amari is a first-rate newspaper executive," according to Robert Woodworth, CEO of Pulitzer Inc. She's intelligent, with a BA (communications) and an MBA. She has a wealth of diversified experience from a job-hopping career that includes stints with Gannett, Times Mirror and Knight Ridder, among others. And she's accustomed to talking about her profession in public as a lecturer on journalism issues at institutions like UCLA and the University of Southern California. In the initial Star story announcing her appointment, she said she saw her role as publisher to be "visible in the community, to talk about what the newspaper is doing."

So why isn't she talking? "I think the fact that Ms. Amari and Ms. Buel declined to be interviewed says a lot in itself. It makes one wonder, exactly what are they trying to hide?" said one current Star employee who didn't want to be identified.

IF THE STAR'S SPEARHEAD is unwilling to provide a progress report on the rebuilding of the paper, others are less reluctant--including former staffers, current employees, freelance writers current and past and other professionals who have worked for, with, or against the Star. Of the several staffers who spoke with the Weekly, all requested anonymity before commenting.

"I'd give the paper a C-plus grade during the Amari months," says Emerine, "although I don't think it's a better paper now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Two decades ago the paper won a Pulitzer for reporting. I don't think there's any danger of that occurring again real soon. They're top-heavy with editors and auxiliary people and not very long on old-time field mutts, the people involved with actual story content."

And, he says, "When I was at the Star, I wanted us to cover the news and be first, report the facts in a timely manner. Now things either don't get covered or don't make it into the paper until days after the event."

Another thing that bothers Emerine is his perception of a coziness between beat reporters and the elected officials they cover. "A lot of things that probably ought to be written about aren't getting reported," he says. "Another thing that concerns me is Star reporters who allow personal bias to creep into their stories."

"They let politicians off the hook and allow them to say whatever they want without question," says frequent Weekly contributor Chris Limberis, who spent 12 years at the Star, much of it reporting on politics. "When officials don't tell the truth, you need to point that out. We used to do that and were encouraged to follow politicians' comments and stack them up against fact. Now they just get away with making unchallenged comments."

What bothers former Star staffer and Associated Press correspondent Don Carson most is that editorial changes, while they may look dramatic, don't assist the basic mission of conveying information.

"News is news and does not have to be played with," says the retired UA journalism professor. "I find a predictability to the paper's appearance--contrary to the actuality of real life. The packaging of features and daily news tends to eliminate the serendipity effect--the idea that each page might hold some rich new discovery. A newspaper should be like life, and as Forrest Gump's mother always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates.' A cookie-cutter approach tends to shape the news to fit and robs the paper of much of its individuality."

"Give them a C-minus grade," says Limberis. "They don't get the job done nowadays. They're bent on political correctness and offer one-sided coverage, completely contrary to what I heard Amari espouse and what Bobbie Jo Buel stands for."

Longtime journalist Abe Chanin began at the Star as a cub reporter in 1941, working his way through positions of responsibility in several sections of the paper, and ending up as editorial page editor before he left to teach the craft of journalism at the UA. While he expressed no interest in assigning a grade to the Amari report card, he did evaluate the effectiveness of her editorial modifications.

"The Star today is a pretty newspaper, filled with large photos that take up the front page and a news hole crammed with lighter and fluffier feature stories," he says. "And in doing so, she's eliminated a lot of hard news while giving us a softer publication with lots of examples of reporting that leaves something to be desired."

Chanin (who is currently working on a book about the life of former Star editor/publisher William R. Mathews) adds, "Ms. Amari put together a return to hometown journalism, a newsy down-home publication with announcements of weddings, births and deaths, and her efforts are commendable from that standpoint. But that's old-school formula journalism, nothing new, and the shift to this type of coverage took away a lot of actual news content. Hard news coverage disappeared in the process, and the quality of the paper, once considered a solid international publication, does not merit that distinction today."

When Bill Woestendiek was in charge, he and his crew took a lot of abuse for their two-fisted, hard-nosed investigative reporting that won journalism's top prize, a Pulitzer for a series of stories on football irregularities at the University of Arizona. "We lost advertisers, and my family and I received life threats," he says. "It wasn't easy being out there by ourselves, but we stuck to our guns and did a helluva job. It was a great newspaper back then, but it hasn't lived up to its potential."

In fact, in an interview some 25 years ago, Woestendiek told this reporter, "A newspaper should be of use to people when they bring it into their homes -- like a can opener -- it should add value to their lives." Today's printed pages don't achieve that goal, he says, calling it "pretty sad," enough to make him abandon his alma mater as a news source and start reading other dailies to find out what's going on.

"My beef with the paper involves its constant pandering to the lowest common denominator," adds another experienced Star journalist. According to this source, "The level of writing is consistently sophomoric. It lacks depth. Sentences are shortened to make them easier to read and even vocabulary is dumbed down."

SOME JOURNALISTS DON'T think the pre-Amari Star was a good paper, either, and say it definitely has not improved in its current iteration. Former reporter and one-time Weekly editor Dan Huff, who also declined to award a grade point average to Amari's efforts, submitted an e-mail response asking that he be allowed to forget his seven years spent toiling as a Star scribe. "Mundane," he called it, "complacent mediocrity in a wretched beige barn."

He does offer a back-handed compliment of Amari's leadership in working to change the mindset of a newsroom bureaucracy. "The fact that she has been able to alter the appearance--and editorial approach--of the Star is a spectacular human achievement. No matter how deeply change affects the real world outside their cozy cocoon of regular paychecks, awakening a gaggle of drowsy staffers, poking them enough to roll over and stop snoring, is no small accomplishment."

Huff, still a subscriber to the morning journal ("my wife reads the ads"), says that unfortunately "the new Star is shallow--a newspaper that has very little to recommend it outside of an occasionally fabulous photograph. The proposition that startling viewpoints or even original forms of writing have no place in the Arizona Daily Stumble is sad. Journalists from a once rough-and-tumble profession would apparently prefer to do lunch than rip some entity a new one. On most days, the Star seems little more than a scheme to kill trees and make money by delivering processed pulp to our doorsteps."

Former feature writer Leo Banks, whose byline is found in lots of well-respected publications nowadays, including Arizona Highways, does not like what he has seen, either pre-Amari or the contemporary version. "Editors are the key to any paper and the Star's are bad across the board. When Amari came on, much of the editorial crew should have been led out of the building in handcuffs as an act of journalistic hygiene," Banks commented via e-mail. "Owners bring in editors like Amari whose job is to sweat everybody in the newsroom to maximize profits. Reading the paper today is like watching someone drown."

Duddleston, a one-time UA journalism professor, says while he can see some improvements in things like business coverage, other changes have resulted in longer cop and court reporting and more puff pieces with little substance. "I don't think any reader would buy the paper just for the Neighbors page to read about their own neighborhood. Good features that appear here should be printed throughout the paper. Lousy features should be relegated to the circular file."

But do the changes implemented a year ago result in a passing grade? "My wife skims the paper and does the puzzles," Duddleston responds. "As a former newsman, I read the paper's content pretty closely. It's not that bad, but it could be quite a bit better. In fact, I buy the New York Times every few days to find out what's really happening in the world."

LEAVING EDITORIAL EVALUATION for the moment, the 54-year-old Amari was also sent to Tucson for another important reason--to make money for Pulitzer Inc. by increasing subscription and advertising revenue and cutting overhead costs, primarily paper and personnel expenses.

Industry observers like Mary Swiergol, publisher of The Desert Leaf, know what it's like to fight for ad revenue. The former New Jersey native is a tough publishing professional who has spent 15 years working an editorial/advertising ratio into a profitable equation for her monthly Catalina Foothills paper. Her publication's circulation base has also worked slowly but consistently upward, to its current 53,000 readers. "The Pulitzer organization hand-picked Jane Amari and sent her to Tucson to increase advertising and circulation revenue. It looks like that may be happening," she says.

Perhaps not. For a decade, newspaper publishers everywhere have been fighting flat or declining circulations. U.S. News has reported that total newspaper readership dropped from a high of 65 percent of the adult population to 56.9 percent by 1999.

A recent internal newsletter reports daily circulation of the Star at 98,450, "the third consecutive year of growth," according to Randy Cross, vice president for circulation at TNI, the non-news support agency run jointly by the owners of the Star and Citizen. The Sunday Star does much better with 171,745 copies, according to a recent Audit Bureau of Circulation report.

"Fifteen years ago the Star had a daily circulation of 85,000," says Emerine. "To increase by less than 15,000 readers in 15 years, when Tucson's population growth has quantified, is not very impressive--especially when you're the only game in town."

Add to the circulation woes a recent decision by the city to ban hawkers from selling newspapers from street medians. "Initiatives are gathering steam and will ramp-up by the end of the year to counter street sale losses," Cross told TNI employees in the internal publication Inside Out. Indications of one such initiative may have surfaced in the July 15 Star display ad that read, "Earn extra money through commission by selling newspaper subscriptions in front of retail outlets, such as grocery stores."

Cultivating circulation growth is such a slow process that TNI recently sponsored a contest to sell new subscriptions to its own employees. (The production department won the "Kick It Up a Notch" competition and received a $500 prize for selling each other delivery of their own newspaper.) "Prior to the contest, only 37 percent of our employees subscribed to either the Star or Citizen," said TNI president Cathy Davis. "We were able to (add 250 subscriptions) and kick that number up to 66 percent, another shot in the arm for our numbers."

One Star staffer thinks the Kick It campaign is a perfect example of "stupidity exemplified" that generates ill will among the 900 employees at the Star, Citizen and TNI. "A perk of working for a newspaper should be a free copy," the insider believes. "This campaign is patronizing and definitely bad public relations, but those in charge don't seem to mind disgruntling employees."

"Let's be fair," said one former staffer. "Circulation is a tough one, a hard subject to nail down in order to separate what the paper itself is doing in conjunction with what the industry itself and the economy at large are doing. I don't know if management can be blamed for some things caused by general economic conditions."

The numbers involving revenue, particularly ad revenue, are down, according to TNI, prompting Davis to characterize the company's early 2001 performance as "a mix of the good, the bad--and a little ugly."

How ugly? According to the TNI newsletter, the Star and Citizen have made efforts to reduce newsprint consumption, the largest expense after payroll. Early returns showed cost-cutting efforts were bearing fruit in the form of a 4 percent reduction, or more than three-quarters of a million dollars in savings. Another trend at the Star to combat rising paper costs was to go to a narrower paper roll. Even if today's paper were as thick as in the past--and you can tell that's not true by hefting the bundle in your driveway--readers would still be getting less content because of the reduced page width. But a narrower page weighs less, and because newsprint is sold by the ton, it's a money saver.

Personnel information is hard to come by, so it's difficult to accurately assess how much money is being saved on salaries and perks. According to longtime staffers, there was a paucity of reporters at the Star in the late 1980s, a condition that improved somewhat in the early 1990s. Recent hires may have brought the Star newsroom total complement even higher, but rumblings persist about pending staff reductions. Inside sources have confirmed that some staff vacancies are not being backfilled and employees talking about taking early retirement are being encouraged to do so.

Ad revenue, meanwhile, continues to decrease for the parent corporation. Just weeks ago, Pulitzer Inc. senior vice president of finance Ronald Ridgeway confirmed that second quarter corporate earnings would be down. He told attendees at a midyear media review symposium, "Based on conversations with advertisers, we're not expecting a turnaround anytime soon."

Steve Emerine is not surprised. "I suspect it's a daily battle in the advertising trenches," he says. "I know there's concern about some major advertisers venturing off into the electronic media or direct mail. Star newspaper advertising, because of its low penetration, isn't producing the kind of results advertisers feel they ought to be getting for that kind of expenditure."

The Star is not alone in its concern about ad dollars. Plummeting advertising revenue and rising newsprint cost have plunged even the big boys, like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, into rounds of layoffs. Some industry analysts predict this year will be the worst in a decade for newspapers and large advertising agencies, such as BBDO in New York, where they frankly admit, "The print media is getting banged around pretty good."

For Pulitzer Inc., whose newspaper operations include two major metro dailies (Arizona Daily Star; St. Louis Post-Dispatch), 12 smaller dailies and a group of 36 weeklies and niche publications, the 123-year-old company stays on the profitable side of the ledger book. But a bear market and a depressed industry have hurt the organization, even as it posted an operating profit margin of 13.9 percent earlier this year.

A detailed financial data breakdown of Pulitzer monthly revenue, published by the St. Louis Business Wire, shows a disturbing trend: combined Star/Citizen (TNI) advertising lineage sales in May 2001 down 4 percent for retail and a greatly diminished 14 percent for classified when compared to May 2000. One omen clouds the situation even further. Even more ominous, Goldman Sachs--citing an absence of signs that ad revenue will recover rapidly--has cut the ratings of Pulitzer (as well as Gannett and others) and downgraded Pulitzer Inc. stock by removing its shares from a recommended "buy" list.

Seventy-one-year-old Michael Pulitzer, a major stockholder with a known net worth of over $200 million, cannot be pleased while perusing current revenue charts.

Insiders at the Star confirm that austerity programs are being implemented in a big way. Travel has been cut drastically; even previously-approved trips for work-related meetings have been canceled. Sports travel has been axed. The news hole has shrunk again, and page counts are below last year's because of the decrease in advertising. The desks of some former staffers remain empty. No "Help Wanted" signs are evident, and there's a lot of listening for the other shoe to fall.

Personnel shakeups at the Star are not new; witness an archived interview with eclectic journalist Jeff Smith, who has floated through the pages of Star, Citizen and Weekly. Smith, in 1975 an assistant editor with the Star, had just been let go after a seven-year affiliation. "There's a lot of frightened people because of all the heads rolling," he said. "It's the manner and swiftness of the housecleaning that took place that shocked everybody." Once again the newsroom is rife with rumor and those in the know wonder if corporate brooms may soon make another housekeeping sweep.

"There are certain henchmen in the newsroom who spend too much time on disciplinary actions that are demoralizing and irrelevant," says Limberis. "They've shown themselves much too eager to squander talent."

Says one Star staffer, "This is not a happy place to be. You have to constantly watch your back and be on guard at all times for management's next calculated move to demoralize you, as an employee and as a human being."

Another employee noted, "There's a huge degree of paranoia related to arbitrary and vindictive shifting of jobs and responsibilities. It's stupid--a phenomenon I can describe, but can't understand. Employee happiness is at the low end of the scale while the bottom line is at the top, and there's a correlation."

Those who are no longer at the Star but have friends still on the inside have heard the same stories. "The atmosphere in reporter's cubicles is hostile, depressing, unhealthy and just plain weird," says Banks. "The stress level is dangerous and everyone who can get out is trying to do so."

Beat reporters aren't the only ones carrying the stress burden, either. One reporter says editors are also under tremendous pressure to improve circulation by experimenting, trying to find the right combination. "They haven't found the right answer yet," he says, "but they keep doing strange things to try and make the puzzle fit together."

So has the Star become a better newspaper? If she would speak on record, Jane Amari might say so. Others have already disagreed. Those interpretations are all subjective.

"The final report card grade on the remake of the Star will be determined by whether or not advertising space increases and circulation grows," says Duddleston. "If that doesn't happen, it won't be long before bean counters at Pulitzer weigh in on whether or not the money they laid out in an effort to make the paper more popular worked or not."

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