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Pulitzer-Prize Winning Series on Arpaio Cost Paper Subscribers, Former Editor Says; Sheriff's Office Never Refuted Findings

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You'd think that when a scrappy, underdog newspaper publishes a series exposing a local politician's campaign as not merely ineffective, but dangerous, readers would clamor for more.

Not in conservative Mesa. And not when the politician is as popular as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was elected to a fifth term following the East Valley Tribune's July 2008 series. Letters to the editor and anonymous, online comments included readers who stated that throwing Mexicans out of the country justified civil rights violations.

Some readers began an orchestrated campaign against the Tribune, says Patti Epler, the editor who worked on the series with reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin.

"It's my understanding that they did lose subscriptions over the series," Epler says.

The blow had to be tough for the Tribune -- it's subscription base, like other newspapers nationally, has been eviscerated in recent years.

Follow-up on the series was minimal.

"They actually never told us to back off," Epler says of her former bosses. "There was probably some sensitivity toward, quote-unquote, piling on."

Nobody ordered the staff to stop hammering Arpaio, she says.

That may be. But when the series sparked the only known internal investigation by the Sheriff's Office on a deputy accused of racial profiling, the Tribune didn't cover the story even as the Arizona Republic and New Times rode the paper's coattails.

Of course, the readers bitching the most about the Tribune series were Arpaio's taxpayer-funded public relations staff. After the series ended, the Sheriff's Office faxed a letter to the Tribune's newsroom that accused the paper of lying in the series. Trouble is, the sheriff's refused to say what the lies were, says Epler.

Then-executive-editor Jim Ripley, (a victim of January's layoffs), declined to publish the letter, she says. The Sheriff's Office followed up by insisting they would soon schedule a meeting to go over allegedly wrong facts, but they never got around to it, Epler says.

"We repeatedly asked them, 'Where did we screw up?'" says Gabrielson, the series' lead reporter. "A month before it ran, we gave them everything we had. Our best sources were the sheriff's people -- Loretta Barkell, the chief financial officer, Bill Knight, the chief of investigations."

Though Arpaio was re-elected and some newspaper readers didn't like the series, the Tribune's work impacted the debate. It showed that the county agency had been slacking on criminal investigations to pump up the sheriff's pet program. The work was cited in news reports across the country and in the literature of pro-illegal-immigrant activists. In what turned out to be a significant blow to Arpaio's credibility, the conservative Goldwater Institute produced a critical report on Arpaio last year entitled "Mission Unaccomplished." The report's bibliography shows the Trib series was a major source of data.

Gabrielson says the last couple of days have been "sheer elation." When the 28-year-old reporter heard he'd won the biggest prize in journalism, he felt "immediately nauseous and out-of-breath," he says. "I was sort of petrified. I didn't think there was a chance in hell this would happen."

The win is something of a Pyrrhic victory for Giblin and Epler, who were among the multitudes laid off in the paper's epic downsizing. Both are trying to eke out a living at the Arizona Guardian, an online news outlet they helped form.

"My immediate plans are to bust out a story about voter trends," Giblin tells New Times. "I can hardly even remember the Tribune. I literally went from the Tribune to this thing."

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