Monday, February 25, 2008

I loved The Albuquerque Tribune

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 Bernalillo County, City Hall, the courts and anywhere else I could find them.

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 Arizona college professors, it was a knife pressed up against The Tribune’s arteries.

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 Gallup. For a week straight the editors banned the front section for local news and ran the Gallup series in its place. The pictures were pretty and the prose was lovingly crafted, but the papers didn’t move. The racks at City Hall and throughout the city remained full that week. The public refused to buy it.

Later, the editors sent a team to Mexico to write about the lost Mayan civilization. Again, the pretty pictures were splashed across the front page, local news was shunted to the back sections, and the newspaper racks remained full of papers that no one bought.

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 PNM for mismanagement and the federal government for injecting unwitting Americans with plutonium. Welsome once threatened to drive to the main office and knife editors. That seemed like a good idea to me, but the editors didn't think it was so funny. Ed Asher, who looked like a homeless guy and lived on cigarettes and Dr. Pepper, ripped UNM athletics, the Balloon Fiesta, City Hall politicians, and Louie Saavedra, who abused TVI when he ran it for more than 20 years. Dan Vukelich savaged state government. I got my punches in at city and county officials, and even got a trip to Hawaii out of it to ridicule Bernalillo County officials who had decided to junket there in 1991.

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 III Housing Authority (a lawsuit we won), looted a Christmas gift basket that Dan and I had received from our lawyers. Our editor took the basket into his office, and when it came out it was missing all its sausages and cheeses. Dan and I were left with the apples, bananas and oranges.

The other blow came when the paper hired, as its managing editor, a talentless blowhard from Texas who had been run out of the Austin-American Statesman. She was a loud-mouthed phony who believed that credibility and respect were earned by braying stupid orders at subordinates. One weekend this fraud dialed a reporter’s phone, and without identifying herself, blurted into the answering machine, “Find me!”

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.

I hated those two editors, and I always will. There were a couple of other frauds there that I still hate. But most of the others, even most of the artists, were, just like the rest of us, trying to figure out a way to save afternoon newspapers. We tried, and all of us failed. The crazy thing is, we all loved the same thing—ink on paper. Some loved pretty pictures, and some preferred words. We were all newspaper people. We didn’t care about video or digital this or digital that; we cared about ink on paper. And ink on paper, at least when it comes to news, is fading.

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 U.S. stood at 33 million. By 2004 it had fallen to less than seven million. The Internet, TV, video games and just about everything else got people’s attention and money. When I arrived at The Tribune in 1985 its circulation was a damn good 46,000. At the end, circulation was 9,600, and the Tribune had sunk into irrelevance.

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.”


Loring Wirbel said...

We just missed each other - I worked there 1981-84 as science editor, with Jack McElroy and Jack Ehn. I knew this was no surprise, but was heartbroken when it happened.

Doth Grin said...

Dennis, great reflections. You always were pretty truthful.
I wondered to myself recently why I decided to bail out of reporting and become a teacher when I had no experience at the time,
A couple of reasons have finally cemented into my mind. One, at that time, I did not have as much fire to burn down the house as I do now, and two, I was old-school. I loved covering the breaking news, being in the dirt, being out of the newsroom. I loved standing by the flooded arroyos, near or across the crime tape, and by the roaring bosque fire. Those were the stories everyone talked about, and those were the stories I wanted to write about...but I was born too late for that world, which has been taken over by broadcast media and the internet.
I love my world as a hard but fair teacher, but I also loved my days in the "Ed-Cave".
Take care, and GO CUBBIES!

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