15 years gone: RIP Tucson Citizen

A version of this column was first published in 2011.

I’ve got one of those calendars atop my monitor, the type you find in banks, with metal tiles for the days of the week, dates and month.

One side I keep up to date. The other, no matter the date showing on the screen of my iPhone, says “Fri May 15.”

That’s the last day the newsroom of the Tucson Citizen was filled with hustle and bustle, the last time the talented crew of reporters and photographers and editors there took stock of their city.

The last time a story was keyed in, a printing plate was burned, the last time a press rolled the nameplate “Tucson Citizen” onto newsprint was for the final edition, which hit the streets for Saturday, May 16, 2009.

Saturday, Oct. 15, 1870 through to that evening in 2009, when the Gannett newspaper chain pulled the plug.

It was a hell of a run, and I value every moment I spent there, in my short time in that newsroom, with those great journalists and a legacy of more than a century of fine reporting.

I’m proud I had the opportunity—and responsibility—of working on a daily newspaper; they’re probably not long for this world. Since the Citizen’s shutdown a decade ago, it lingered for several years as a community blogging site. Gannett, which acquiesced to the blog to get the Justice Department off their backs over anti-trust issues related to closing the paper, switched that off about five years to the day after they first publicly announced that the paper’s days were numbered. This winter, another five years on, the entire online archive of the Citizen vanished with no explanation. And over those years, scores of other newspapers around the country have closed, and tens of thousands of professional journalists have been laid off — many of the remaining news outlets have been slashed so deeply that they’re referred to as “zombie newspapers” within the industry.

And coming up in just days, the press that has been printing the Arizona Daily Star — the same one that put ink on paper for the Citizen — will rumble to a halt for the final time, as the last locally printed copy of that paper rolls off. The corporate partners that own the Star — Lee Enterprises and Gannett — are moving production to the Arizona Republic’s plant in north Phoenix. About 60 workers are losing their jobs here.

Ironically, on the night when the press was to roll to a stop for the last time for the Citizen, a pagination error forced Editor Jennifer Boice to yell “Stop the press!” as she waved a sheaf of newsprint in her hand.

She, and so many others at the Citizen, dedicated a career to a great newspaper.

Technology marches on, but quality always finds its home. I hope our work at TucsonSentinel.com—with the support and contributions of a number of my former colleagues—in some way honors the memory of the great reporters who told our city’s stories in the past.

In many ways, running a news website is a constant search for the latest: the latest breaking story, the latest bit of technology. Despite my family’s long heritage in print journalism, I’m a firm believer in the power of the Internet to inform and inspire like no other medium for reporting.

But the news is a ceaseless pluralization, and not a business always given to reflection.

Tonight, I’m again taking a moment for a slow look back. Pulling out a copy of the final edition of the Citizen, the one banner-headlined “Our epitaph,” and raising a glass to the past.

“Our epitaph,” penned by Jennifer Boice: “Newspapers don’t just close, they die.”

“Once a newsboy, he grew into avid reader of Citizen,” by Thomas Elias.

Gabby Giffords’ “We needed the Citizen”: “Our community will have one fewer voice, one fewer watchdog, one fewer place to go for the news we need to understand our increasingly complex world.”

Corky Simpson’s “Our heart beat as one with the Old Pueblo’s”: “We’ve
been peopled by saints and sinners, wise men and flim-flammers and in
the old days, a few fall-down drunks who always got up in time to put
the old gal to bed.”

Jeff Smith’s “Recalling our heyday, when we were locally owned,” which decried Gannett’s handling of the paper and the shutdown.

“A newspaper life isn’t for the feint of heart – so I loved it,” by Judy Carlock.

My reflection, “For one family, a century of newspapering is at an end.”

And so many more great accounts of the history and meaning of a community institution.

To my colleagues there, to those who came before us, to those laid off as Gannett and Lee Enterprises and the other chains slash their newsrooms, and to all of those who’ve watched presses grind to a halt at other newspapers around the country, I offer a much-deserved “thank you.”

I’ll toast the future tomorrow. Tonight, I’m getting my fingers inky.