The Albuquerque Tribune published its last edition on Saturday, ending an 86-year-run as Albuquerque's afternoon newspaper. I worked there from 1985 through mid-1998. I had the time of my life at the paper and am terribly sad that it is now gone.
The mind is a scary and wonderful thing: mysterious, strange and unrelenting—always so fiercely unrelenting—in its efforts to let you know what you really think, how you really feel and what you truly desire in life.
By day you can work madly to scrub it clean with slogans, logic, pep talks, hatred and lies, and you can numb it to the pain, confusion, disappointments, dreams not pursued and decisions poorly made with gallons of booze and mountains of drugs.
But fall asleep and there it will be; striking back with dreams—every night, every nap, every short doze-off—and with a fury and vengeance that only a battle for self-preservation that must and will be won can generate. There is no hiding from it, no totally numbing it, no evading its brutal truths.
On Friday night and Saturday morning, my mind finally won its battle. In those five or six dreams—I have no idea how many there really were—I was back where I belonged: at The Albuquerque Tribune. I was reporting, laughing, slamming crooked politicians and reveling in the joy, thrill and honor of being a newspaper reporter.
I woke up both pleased and bewildered. I quit The Tribune nearly 10 years ago after working there as a reporter for 13 years. The ensuing years were filled with a bitterness and resentment that wasn’t always properly placed. I ranted against the paper, often wished it would die, and sometimes, as a former colleague once said, seemed like I was holding a pillow over its face while shouting, “Die fucker! Die!”
But as I got ready to go to The Tribune’s funeral on Saturday morning that fog of confusion and bitterness burned away and all was bright, sunny and clear, and I realized the truth of it all.
And the truth is that I loved The Albuquerque Tribune. I loved the newspaper, the masthead, the institution that The Tribune was, most of the people I worked with there, and, above all, being a newspaper reporter.
It was also clear that what I hated wasn’t the newspaper itself, but rather individuals who seemed determined to hasten the death of my life’s one true love. In the end, I discovered that I truly hated only a few of them, and that what I hated most about them was their decisions regarding this once-great newspaper.
The Tribune’s circulation stood at 46,000 when I got there in October 1985, fresh from the City News Bureau of Chicago, a wire service training ground for young reporters.
The first words I heard from a Tribune editor: “At this newspaper we do not write for Page A-3. We write for Page One.”
That was fine, all newspaper reporters dream of being on the front page. At The Tribune you were expected to be on that front page every day.
Later I was told: “We just want you to go out there and cause trouble.”
For someone who was naturally inclined to cause trouble, and who was blessed with an overabundance of trouble, it was the greatest marching order that any reporter had ever received.
I did cause trouble. For eight straight years, along with colleagues Eileen Welsome and Ed Asher, I worked to get the sleazes at
Throughout that time, though, The Tribune was being turned into a real-life, open-air nuthouse. Faced with a shrinking circulation, the owners—E.W. Scripps Co.—sanctioned a series of redesigns and experiments that only shrunk circulation more and at times made The Tribune a laughingstock.
The first came in 1986 when management bought into a study to redesign the paper and to change the way it covered and reported news. Called the Burgoon study, and prepared by couple of
The paper was redesigned to look like every other redesigned newspaper in the country. Stories were shortened so giant pictures could be put in, hard-hitting stories about government and the people who make the laws and regulations that take your money and freedoms were shunned, while fluff pieces and happy stories about happy people were favored. The college professor geniuses decided to axe the sports section—a move that veteran reporters at the paper said even at the time would be total insanity.
Neither management nor the professors listened to those veterans, and when The New Tribune debuted in the fall of 1986 with giant pictures, happy stories and no sports section, readers rebelled and cancelled their subscriptions. Within two weeks, the paper lost 5,000 subscribers. The artery had been severed and The Tribune’s blood was spurting all over the city.
Pictures got bigger and stories got shorter. An artist’s colony mentality took over. People wrote stories and took pictures with an eye to winning awards instead of to giving readers stuff they’d actually want to read. The paper did a series on drunks in
Later, the editors sent a team to
The journalism and photo awards poured in, and the circulation decline accelerated.
The newsroom, it seemed, was reorganized every six months. Reporters were put into teams and told to cover the city by ologies, whatever that meant, and told to behave like dolphins, maestros, yodas, free rangers and big dudes. Many of us prepared for the day when we’d be ordered to cover the city by shoe size. More and softer feature stories, weeks and months in the making, were slapped across the front page. When real and breaking local news occurred—news that rightly belonged on Page One—and reporters tried to get the stories into the paper’s Home and Final editions, they were told it was impossible because the feature story packages couldn’t be broken up. We had become a paper that wrote the news weeks in advance.
More journalism awards followed, and more and more papers went unsold, and more and more readers cancelled their subscriptions.
Opposing camps formed in the newsroom. On one side were the self-absorbed artists, and on the other the old timers and hard-news advocates. The battles were bitter. Hard newsies mocked artists as thirty-something wusses who cared only about resume-padding awards and blamed them for the circulation declines. Artists mocked hard newsies as Neanderthals who needed to crawl back into our caves. The paper’s editorials turned decidedly left, a move many thought was suicidal in town filled with so many government nuke workers and military families.
As we battled, readers quit the paper in droves.
It wasn’t all bad, though. During those years The Tribune produced some marvelous, hard-hitting journalism. Eileen Welsome, a truly crazy human being with a hair-trigger temper, ripped
We were proud of those hard-hitting stories and of the fact that we were fulfilling the Founding Fathers’ intentions that the press act as a watchdog on government.
But each time we congratulated ourselves on another ass-kicking story, the Tribune’s circulation fell.
The battles between news and the art continued, and circulation declined further.
The final blow came in 1995 when the paper got a new editor. He was a wuss and a journalistic failure. He complained that the paper was making too many enemies with its investigative reporting and ended that kind of reporting in favor of more and more happy stories about happy people. He didn’t want to upset anyone in the community.
This was the same fine individual who, when Vukelich and I were sued for a series of investigative stories we did on the Region
The other blow came when the paper hired, as its managing editor, a talentless blowhard from
It was after those two arrived that the great hemorrhaging of talent from The Tribune began. Tony Davis, Doug Brown, Asher, Vukelich, Shonda Novak, Neal Pattison, Mac Juarez, I and others left. Many more followed. Soon, the paper was a shell of its former self. The only rational explanation for these two being hired was that they were there to drive out people they thought were making too much money and who were independent minded.
During one newsroom meeting to discuss the fate of the paper, that editor, to everyone's shock, said something like, "At this newspaper we don't hold it against anybody who starts looking for another job."
Afterwards, reporters and editors rushed to update their resumes.
In the end, nothing would have mattered, and probably nothing could have saved The Tribune. We could have put out stunning investigative pieces every day and still gone under. Fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers.
In 1977, afternoon daily newspaper circulation in the
Today, newspapers everywhere are under siege. Many will fold, and many will survive. Those that do keep going will have to make dramatic changes. They’ll have to stop writing stories for other journalists. They’ll have to blanket their communities with solid, honest and hard-hitting coverage. They’ll have to stop sending reporters to the Mexican jungles to cover the Mayans.
The Tribune was home to me. It was a home I never wanted to leave. I loved it, and I loved being a newspaper reporter. At the time I felt I had to leave. I can tell you, though, that I’ve had no greater honor, thrill and privilege than being a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune.
The Tribune is gone now. But I’m grateful that on its last day the confusion cleared, and that before it did die I was able to whisper into its ear what I had wanted to say all along:
“You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”