Tucson Citizen to close March 21 after 138 years
by Arthur H. Rotstein - Mar. 15, 2009 10:19 AM
TUCSON - Marshall Wyatt Earp's fabled 1881 shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone was reported this way:
"A day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttlecock, a day always to be remembered as witnessing the bloodiest and the deadliest street fight that has ever occurred in this place, or probably in the territory."
For nearly 140 years, the Tucson Citizen has told the stories of Southern Arizona, but on Saturday (March 21), the state's oldest newspaper will tell its last - its own. Gannett Co. Inc., the nation's largest newspaper publisher, announced in January it would close the Citizen if it didn't find a buyer for certain assets. Robert J. Dickey, president of Gannett's U.S. Community Publishing, said the paper was losing money and was a drain on Gannett operations.
The Citizen becomes the latest casualty of a newspaper industry struggling to survive despite the tough economy, dwindling advertising revenues and Internet competition. The battle has been especially tough in two-newspaper towns.
E. W. Scripps Co. closed the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News, one of two daily newspapers in Denver, in February. Hearst Corp. has said it will close or sell the San Francisco Chronicle if it can't slash expenses, and has laid out plans to close the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if a buyer isn't found before April.
Four newspaper companies, including the owners of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer, have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in recent months.
The Citizen, an afternoon newspaper, has struggled for years against the Arizona Daily Star, a 117,000-circulation morning newspaper owned by Lee Enterprises. During the Citizen's heyday in the 1960s, circulation was about 60,000; today, it's 17,000.
Editor Jennifer Boice said the Citizen's closure is a loss for the Star, the community and journalism.
"It's a loss because what we do makes the Star better, the Star makes us better, and because of that, the community gets better information," said Boice, who started at the paper 25 years ago as a business writer. "It's more than the sum of the parts."
The Arizona Citizen was founded on Oct. 15, 1870, by John Wasson, a newspaper man from California, with behind-the-scenes help from Richard McCormick, the territory's governor and later territorial delegate to Congress.
The paper changed ownership several times over the next 100 years until Gannett bought it in 1976, just a few years after a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Citizen led Congress to pass the Newspaper Preservation Act and new rules for joint-operating agreements for competing newspapers doing business together. Gannett also changed the name to the Tucson Citizen.
During its lifetime, the Citizen reported on Arizona's biggest stories, including the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral and the 1934 arrest of bank robber John Dillinger and three other gang members hiding out in Tucson.
"It has such a long history," Arizona historian Marshall Trimble said. "That makes it part of Arizona history, and it's just another piece of our history that's going away."
Michael Chihak, the Citizen's former editor and publisher who retired last summer, spent a significant portion of his life with the paper. His grandfather was a pressman at the Citizen in the 1940s. As a boy, Chihak delivered the paper on his bicycle and was a high school stringer. He later became a reporter and editor, working for other news organizations along the way, and returned to the Citizen as its publisher and chief executive in 2000.
"It was more than a career, more than a job, it was part of my life," said Chihak, who is now executive director of a nonprofit foundation in San Francisco.
He said it's heartbreaking to see the demise of the Citizen, and "the loss of all the jobs of the finest journalists I knew."
Newspapers remain at the forefront of gathering and disseminating information, Chihak said, "but obviously the emphasis has shifted to other means of distribution, and of gathering, for that matter."
More than 60 newsroom employees will lose their jobs because of the closure, but Tucson Newspapers Inc., which oversees the Gannett-Lee Enterprises business operations under the JOA, will continue until at least 2015.
Star publisher John Humenik couldn't comment on the Citizen's closure because of pending legal issues related to the JOA, but Lee spokesman Daniel Hayes said, "it's always unfortunate when a community voice is lost."
The final Citizen will be a 24-page commemorative edition delivered on Saturday. About 20,000 copies will be printed and available in news racks for a couple of days.
The Citizen's staff continues to work as hard and as skillfully as ever in its waning days, said Bruce Johnston, who joined the Citizen 36 years ago.
"We're professionals," he said. "We're treating every day like it normally is, even though there's a lot of gallows humor around here."
Except for the stacks of boxes and large trash bins lining the newsroom to catch years' worth of notebooks and paper stacked atop desks, it was business as usual. Reporters continued to call sources, plan coverage and share laughs.
But they also shared tidbits about mostly fruitless job searches, punctuated by sighs and knowing nods as they prepared for their final week at their newspaper - and for many, likely their final week in the business.
Associate Editor Mark Kimble, a 34-year veteran, said he worries about what closures like the Citizen's mean for the future of journalism.
There are "fewer sets of eyes looking at what government is doing and keeping an eye on the things that I think we all take seriously," Kimble said. "That's very unfortunate."