By Ray Stern
Follow the money.
That’s sound advice for any investigative journalist. And it’s a key aspect of the drastic new business plan for the East Valley Tribune .
As previously reported in this blog and by the Trib itself, the corporate owners of the longtime East Valley newspaper decided that plummeting subscriptions required a dramatic change: Earlier this month, Trib bosses announced that, starting in early January, they would lay off nearly half the staff, shrink to four-day-a-week publication, end paid subscriptions and pull out of two cities – Tempe and Scottsdale – altogether.
The idea, Trib publisher Julie Moreno later told me, is to focus on the core markets of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Queen Creek.
But insiders say the coverage in those markets will be further focused to the exclusion of older, poorer, more Hispanic areas whose populations aren’t as appealing to advertisers.
In particular, sources say, the Trib will no longer routinely cover central Mesa (except for City Hall downtown) and north Chandler. Instead, the paper will concentrate its reporters in the ZIP codes that advertisers most want to target.
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Not that there’s anything wrong with that, from a business perspective. Assuming the Trib’s parent company, Freedom Communications, really does want to stay afloat over the long-term, its officers must make tough decisions they think are best for survival. However, community members, especially in the areas that the paper will stop covering, will end up less informed.
Meanwhile, morale at the Tribune has sunk to new depths as dozens of employees await their January termination.
The employees who know they will be laid off can’t quit until after the first of the year or they’ll lose their severance packages, worth two weeks’ pay for each year of employment. But leakers of newsroom gossip say reporters, Web staff and other workers are doing as little work as they can get away with, moping around as they half-heartedly discuss starting Web-based businesses or lament the diminishing job prospects in the news industry. At the same time, sources say, the employees who will still be around after January are getting more and more frustrated as they’re forced to pick up the slack of those who are leaving.
In the midst of the bad news for the Trib, it’s ironic that the Arizona Newspaper Association last week awarded its highest honor to the paper for the fifth year in a row. But the Trib's big changes haven’t yet taken effect. It won’t be as likely to win awards next year: Of the nine individual journalists named in the article about ANA awards, four – Ralph Freso, Jason Massad, Bob Satnan and Mary K. Reinhart – are getting laid off, and a fifth, Martin Cizmar, now works as New Times’ music editor.