The East Valley Tribune could be in for a serious change in direction under the helm of its possible rescuer, Randy Miller, owner of Tucson's Explorer newspapers.
Miller has surfaced as the hopeful buyer of the battle-worn Trib, and a finalized letter of intent with the Trib's parent company, Freedom Communications, awaits approval by a bankruptcy judge. The alternative to Miller's lifeboat is burial at sea, but articles on the Internet make it seem as though the Trib's Pulitzer-prize-winning days may be behind it.
Miller, a former vice president for Lee Enterprises, owner of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, has a reputation for soft news and advertiser-friendly journalism -- that's in addition to his reputation as a guy who knows how to turn print and Web media into a cash machine. A July 2008 article on www.entrepreneur.com says Miller was "considered something of a newspaper wunderkind back in the day..."
The article covers that month's acquistion of the Telluride Daily Planet in Colorado by Miller's company, Thirteenth Street Media.
Miller is described as a former executive at Lee and Gannett who worked previously as an editor at the Kansas City Star and Detroit Free Press. He must have saved his newspaper- delivery-route money as a kid:
Miller bought the Colorado Daily -- once the student newspaper of the University of Colorado at Boulder, which turned first into a non-profit off-campus business and later into an employee-owned company -- at a bankruptcy sale in 2001 for $2.4 million (the paper went bankrupt in part because of a $250,000 embezzlement by the company's former finance director).
But then comes a line that would make most journalists cringe:
In the following years, Miller made the paper more "family friendly" and emphasized features and entertainment coverage.
Miller sold the Colorado Daily in 2005 to Scripps. In the fall of 2007, a few months before buying the Daily Planet, Miller bought the Explorer papers. Laid-off reporter Eric Beidel, a finalist for the Arizona Press Club's 2006 award for community journalist of the year, trashed the new regime in a December 2007 article in the Tucson Weekly:
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."
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Whether the Explorer or Daily Planet perform quality journalism or not, we leave to their regular readers to judge. We do know the Explorer, founded in 1993, won the Arizona Press Club's Brick Wall award in 2006 for going toe-to-toe with the Town of Marana, and that its reporters won awards both before and after 2007.
We're hoping the East Valley Tribune remains a part of the Valley landscape for a while longer. Sure, staying in business and making money should be the first priorities -- but news junkies like us need red meat in their diet. Fluff isn't worth so much as a mouse click.