Media Watch

'Explorer' Sold; New Owners Hand out Pink Slips

The Friday, Nov. 30, announcement of the Explorer's sale may mean more than just a change in ownership: It likely marks a significant philosophical change in the newspaper's approach.

After the departure of former owners Melanie Larson and Terry Brashear, new management quickly handed out pink slips to at least five employees, including editor Dan Stebbins, staff reporter Eric Beidel and two members of the production staff.

In addition to obvious cost-cutting measures, the move also has the appearance of turning the northwest-side weekly from a watchdog to a lapdog.

"Just by the people they got rid of, you could draw that conclusion," said Stebbins, who took over as editor in September. "It doesn't take a genius to do that. The owner of the company says he was able to operate the (Colorado) Daily in Boulder with a staff of three and a whole lot of stringers, a whole lot of freelancers, and apparently, that's the way it's going here."

The new owner is Randy Miller of Thirteenth Street Media. Miller continues to operate The Daily, a newspaper that had ties to the University of Colorado severed decades ago due to its opposition to the Vietnam War. Colorado Daily is a far different publication these days. Miller sold the paper to Prairie Mountain Publishing Co. LLC, a 50-50 partnership of MediaNews Group Inc. and E.W. Scripps Co., in 2005. He had purchased the property four years earlier, at which point he announced the publication would take on a more family oriented approach.

There are those who believe he will try a quick turnover of the Explorer as well, but the greater fear in the here and now is how the northwest-side weekly will tackle that area's news.

"I met with them as part of a group of four other writers," said Beidel about Friday's events. "They basically asked us what we think of the paper, what we think we can do better, general stuff like that. I sort of thought the meeting was a bunch of lip service. I think they had already made their decisions by that point. They asked me and Oro Valley reporter Patrick McNamara if Marana and Oro Valley had (public information officers), and we said, "Yeah." Do they send press releases? Do you put them in the paper? "No, not always. It depends on what it is. We never run a press release from a PIO." They seemed a little taken aback by that. I quipped that most of the press releases for Marana were, "Come take a picture of this cactus we just planted." Everyone else seemed to chuckle, but when they didn't chuckle, I sort of knew I wasn't going to be a part of these guys' plan."

In an example of what he views as the new Explorer's fluff-over-fact edict, Beidel says he was criticized for his coverage of the much-maligned Avra Valley Fire District and admonished for not paying more attention to the Marana Police Department's unveiling of six new cruisers.

"They made it pretty clear that they had intentions of going soft on Marana and softening up coverage," Beidel said. "(New editor/publisher Dave Perry) said they weren't interested in doing the watchdog thing I had been doing with Marana. He told me to think about it, and I later told him I didn't agree with what he called journalism, and I don't agree with the direction he was taking this, but I'm not willing to quit, because I really need a job. That's when Dave Perry made the decision to move along without me."

If the Explorer indeed moves in a lighter direction, it will more closely mirror that of its chief competition, the rapidly expanding, PR-friendly Marana Weekly News.

"I don't know if it's because they feel the Marana Weekly News is some kind of threat," Beidel said. "The only way it could be considered a threat is through advertising, and I'm thinking the business community advertises there as well as (with) a lot of other entities that are tied with pro-town (forces). They may try to steal some of that to cozy up to Marana. I just knew I wasn't going to fit. I wasn't willing to resign. They had to fire me."

Perry did not respond to interview requests.

Before venturing into the world of buy-and-flip newspaper ownership, Miller was a vice president of Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa, outfit that owns the Arizona Daily Star. The legal portion of his Arizona Corporation Commission papers were handled by the law offices of Lane and Waterman, based in Davenport.

The Explorer has gone through its share of tumultuous times of late. Perry's arrival makes him the fourth editor in less than a year.

"For a while, when we were switching editors pretty frequently, it started wearing on staff," said Beidel, who started at the Explorer in February 2006. "People talked about getting out. Morale was in the dumps. For a while, it wasn't that enjoyable. Other than going out and getting stories, it wasn't that enjoyable going to the office, but once we hired Dan Stebbins, things really started looking up. I thought Dan did some great things. Dan was pretty aggressive on editorials. He was doing a great job, and this happened."

Said Stebbins, "We were all sort of spoiled working for Melanie Larson and Terry Brashear, the former owners. They treated everybody like family. This is the stark reality of dealing with someone who is bottom line oriented."

And perhaps more interested in cruisers and cacti.

"That's the attitude that was presented by Dave Perry," Beidel said. "'We're not going to report on when they do something wrong.' I told him I thought it was pretty irresponsible to strip away the watchdog function of the newspaper, especially when the Explorer has a reputation for that. People on the northwest side have grown accustomed to it. I think they're going to be clamoring for that, and they're not going to be getting it.

"I think Marana and Oro Valley will be able to go more unchecked now because of this new direction they're taking at the Explorer."

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