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The New Guard
Nick R. Martin
July, 2009, Page 90
Portraits by Nancy Januzzi
The Pulitzer Prize winner landed on his feet at the Arizona Guardian after the East Valley Tribune laid him off in January. “I wasn’t trying to save journalism. I was just trying to keep bratwursts on the table,” he says of his newest venture.
Valley newspapers are not immune to the mass layoffs striking traditional media as they struggle to find their place in a digital world. For a few ex-Tribune reporters, an online news startup could offer an afterlife following the death of their careers in print. But will readers pay for what they’re peddling?
It's midmorning on a Tuesday in April, and Paul Giblin is the only person tending shop at the tiny Downtown office of the Arizona Guardian. He sits amid a mishmash of folding tables that pass for desks, mismatched chairs and messy piles of papers stacked throughout this basement alcove. He is answering a flood of calls and e-mails stretching into its second day. CBS News had called. So had Portfolio magazine. Giblin just got an e-mail from a reporter in Switzerland who wanted to confirm a quote.
“I’ve been here since 6:30,” he tells me. “I’ve been hearing from people I worked with 20 years ago.”
It’s become a bit of a blur. He’s not even sure where his co-workers are. About that time, the cell phone rings again. But his reaction is different. Giblin listens for a few moments and starts taking notes. He asks a question and writes some more. More questions, more notes – the steady rhythm of a reporter at work. Ten minutes go by and Giblin hangs up. He looks up from his computer.
“Win a Pulitzer and people drop stories on you,” he says.
Indeed, less than 22 hours earlier, Giblin had been named a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism. It immediately became the biggest coup yet for the Guardian, a fledgling online-only political news organization founded in January by Giblin and three other local journalists, all of whom had spent years working for the now-ailing East Valley Tribune.
Giblin, 46, won the prize for an investigation he co-wrote last year with reporter Ryan Gabrielson while working at the Tribune. But the Guardian almost immediately used it as an advertisement, touting itself as the “home of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists,” including the editor of the project, Patti Epler, 55, who is now a staffer at the Guardian as well.
The story of the Arizona Guardian is essentially the story of the broader drama taking place in the media industry these days. Four veteran reporters with decades of collective experience were laid off from a newspaper, found a lifeline on the Internet and are learning to reinvent themselves mid-career with the threat of failure looming every day. They have been plucked out of the enchanted land of mainstream media and plopped into the rough-and-tumble world of Internet startups, perhaps the freest of free markets.
The genesis of the Guardian came during a time of devastation for its founders. The four journalists had been longtime employees of the East Valley Tribune. That’s where I met them. I worked alongside dozens of talented people for several years at the Valley’s second largest newspaper. We didn’t have the wherewithal to cover a huge number of topics like our biggest competitor, The Arizona Republic, but we worked long hours, broke the occasional big story and covered the region as best we could.
Illustrations by Bryon Thompson
40% of the East Valley Tribune’s staff was cut in January.
Then, on October 6, 2008, our company gave us the worst assignment possible: We were being laid off, along with about 40 percent of the newspaper’s staff. Additionally, the company would stop covering the cities of Tempe and Scottsdale, and it would only print a newspaper four days a week instead of seven. The publisher and top editors broke the news in a series of meetings that day. The official line the Tribune was giving was that it was making a “major shift” to deal with an “unprecedented downturn” in the news business. We knew how to translate: The company was losing money fast. But among the dire announcements that day was a caveat that gave many of us the chance to answer the question, where do we go from here?
The Tribune gave us three months before the cuts would actually take effect. We had until January 2 to figure things out.
For many of my colleagues, the timing meant an exit from journalism, an industry notorious for its long hours, low pay and little thanks. But some wanted to stay in the game. “It’s the thing that I’ve done for 33 years now,” says Patti Epler, who was the Tribune’s metro editor when the cuts were announced. “That’s what I still want to do.” But with the entire industry undergoing an existential crisis, the job market was bleak. So Epler and some of her close colleagues began looking to the Internet as their next medium. Epler’s idea was to launch a nonprofit-based Website, hoping to get grant money to fund the startup costs. “When it became clear that print journalism… was going down the tubes, it became clear that it was time to look at other stuff,” Epler says.
Simultaneously, Tribune reporter Dennis Welch, 36, was looking toward the Web, too. He had begun taking a closer look at an idea proposed to him by Democratic political strategist Bob Grossfeld, whom he had interviewed for various stories over the years. Grossfeld’s idea was simple. He proposed a model in which journalists covered Arizona politics intensely, posted it to a Website and charged readers high prices to access it. The audience would probably be just a small group of lobbyists, legislators and government officials who needed to know the ins and outs of state government and who could afford to pay good money for it. But it would help pay for the kind of watchdogs needed at the state Capitol.
“Look, I’ve had this thing in the back of my head for years now,” Grossfeld said back in April. It was a model already at work in dozens of publications in Washington, D.C., and, in fact, it was being done here in Arizona as well. The Arizona Capitol Times newspaper has a Web service called the Yellow Sheet Report, which charges high prices for exclusive content about politics. Grossfeld and Welch agreed they could assemble a team to take on the Yellow Sheet, charging lower prices while providing solid coverage. “I’m just convinced that it needs to be done,” Grossfeld says. “I’ve never been thinking like, ‘Oh yeah, get the deep, dark scandals out.’ No, just the basic reporting and treat it seriously.” (Capitol Times Managing Editor Matt Bunk did not return calls or e-mails for comment.)
Eventually, Epler’s grant proposals fell through, and Welch and Grossfeld were able to convince her, along with outgoing Tribune reporters Mary K. Reinhart, 49, and Giblin, to join the enterprise. They named it the Arizona Guardian (arizonaguardian.com) and launched it January 5, just three days after leaving the Tribune.
For this former East Valley Tribune editor, the Guardian is a chance to continue her passion for journalism. “It’s the thing that I’ve done for 33 years now,” she says. “That’s what I still want to do.”
The Way We Were
In 1987, Governor Evan Mecham famously banned Phoenix Gazette newsman John Kolbe from his offices, calling the journalist a “nonperson.” There were as many as 23 print and wire service reporters covering the Capitol at the time, and many of them rallied around their banished colleague. The governor eventually lifted the ban. It’s one of the more legendary stories of Arizona media.
oday, the situation is much different. Mecham and Kolbe are dead, the Gazette is gone, and fewer than half as many reporters are still assigned to cover state politics. The Guardian has entered the scene at absolutely the worst time for media covering the state Capitol.
For one, the remaining press corps is getting kicked out of their decades-old offices in the state senate building at the end of the session, with Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, saying the government needs the space for other matters. Second, the state Legislature itself has been a source for little actual news this year, given that the state’s budget is in shambles and any other legislative action is essentially stalled. And finally, the economy is in the dumps, making it tough for anyone to pay the high subscription costs the Guardian is charging – as much as $150 per month.
“Times are hard for everyone, including lobbyists,” says Howard Fischer, who runs Capitol Media Services and is a longtime fixture of the Capitol press corps.
Fischer has been covering state politics since the days of Mecham and Kolbe and has witnessed first-hand the incredible changes in journalism. Saying he got tired of being fired from newspapers, he started his own enterprise in 1992, selling stories about state government to papers throughout Arizona that couldn’t afford to have a reporter in Phoenix.
Today, even in hard times, those papers have remained loyal to him, even as they’re cutting staff. But he says it isn’t easy to watch. “I’m in the same situation as everybody else,” Fischer says. “I’m watching my clients and pinching pennies.”
The key for the Arizona Guardian’s success, says one media analyst, is for the Website to provide essential information that Arizona policy wonks and political junkies can’t get anywhere else. If it can do that, people will pay for it.
“Any time you can give somebody the intelligence for business to help them make money, you can charge for content,” says Alan Mutter, a San Francisco-based media analyst who is a former city editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and has been the CEO of Web startups.
Particularly now, in a time of massive change for the media industry, journalists need to find any way they can to keep making money to sustain their work. Mutter calls the Guardian’s model “a very logical thing to do” at any statehouse across the nation. The journalism is “second nature for these guys,” he says. “And now they can actually be in business for themselves and perhaps do as well or better than when they were at a newspaper.”
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