Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Albuquerque Tribune: A Paper For Its Time; Now Time Has Run Out; Our Exclusive Coverage Of The End Of An Era, Plus: My Bottom Lines 

After absorbing the emotional shock, insiders moved Tuesday to assess what it will mean to New Mexico politics and media when the 85 year old voice of the Albuquerque Tribune is stilled, as it will be unless the very unlikely occurs and a buyer steps forward. The Tribune long ago ceased to be a mass media vehicle--its circulation now flirts with the anemic 10,000 level--but its role in watch dogging the state's largest media outlet--the ABQ Journal--has of late been its raison d' être, at least in the political community.

"The Journal has always looked over its shoulder to see what the Tribune is doing. Its kept them on their toes. Without that, I think you would see a softening and a complacency in the Journal news room," said a veteran New Mexican journalist familiar with the operations of the two outlets.

But it's not as if the Journal doesn't have its own problems. Insiders say the newsroom has come under the financial gun, and its staffing levels have shrunk considerably from their peak. Still, the operation remains profitable and the target of buyout offers.

Perhaps the most ardent suitor of Journal publisher Tom Lang has been the Trib's owner--media giant E.W. Scripps--which formed a joint operating agreement with the Journal in the Great Depression of the 30's to keep both papers solvent.

Under that agreement Scripps gets a healthy 40% of the JOA profits the company generates, but editorial operations remain separate. The agreement was set to continue until 2022, but Scripps says if someone steps forward to buy the paper, the JOA, which makes possible the survival of the smaller Tribune, will not be transferable. If the Trib is not sold, it shuts down. Scripps and Lang say they intend to terminate the JOA. That probably ends Scripps's hopes of taking over the Journal.


It appears profits from the JOA were rapidly diminishing, forcing a closure. Legal insiders tell us that the paper is likely being put up for public sale to satisfy Justice Department anti-trust rules, rather than a very serious effort at finding a buyer.

"The JOA is a federal government deal. By putting the paper up for sale, rather than shutting it down right away, the Journal shows a good-faith effort at keeping competition alive--that it is not trying to corner the market. The sale sign is being put out to expedite Justice Department approval for terminating the JOA." Explained one legal beagle.

Insiders expect the Tribune's final edition to come as soon as the end of October. Severance packages will be made available to the 45 editorial employees. Longtime staffers will, we assume, have pension protection through Scripps.

"The Journal could get a short-term bottom line boost from ending the JOA, but they are still facing long-term issues that all newspapers are facing--declining circulation and advertising and new media competition." Said another of our insiders.

Business Alligators say that the Sunday Journal with a circulation of 145,000 (down from the 160,000's) is now generating up to 40% of Journal profits. Weekday circulation is now at 106,000, in decline, but not as rapidly as the Tribune's. The JOA reportedly states that the Tribune cannot put out a Sunday edition. With the dissolving of that agreement, the Sunday territory would apparently reopen, but unless you have a daily to go with your Sunday edition, you don't have much.


When the Tribune had more muscle, the politicians would play the two papers against each other, giving exclusives to one or the other to favor or punish. In recent years, liberals and Democrats, often shut out from winning an editorial endorsement from the more conservative Journal, have been able to counter with TV ads and direct mail touting their Trib backing.

The Tribune has always been known in ABQ as the "Valley paper," read avidly by the downtown establishment and in the older ethnically mixed neighborhoods. Its coverage of city politics has been exhaustive and will be a major casualty of the forthcoming shuttering. The sports pages have also been a favorite, giving the paper a blue collar edge, contrasting well with the more buttoned up Journal.

The end of the Tribune means no daily competition on the political beat, and that will make politicians more dependent on the Journal. But it could also further strengthen the hand of the Internet as campaigns and candidates seek more sources to get their message out.

Two different takes of the same events is the biggest blessing of a two newspaper town, especially in the state's only major media market. To those enmeshed in New Mexican public affairs, like many of you reading this, that loss will be enormous.


With the end of the Tribune, the rumor mill will focus on whether the Journal will be next on the auction block. There is split opinion, with the consensus of our insiders being that Lang is not prone to give up what remains a powerful family and state institution. His success at diversifying into real estate has also made holding a declining asset like the Journal less painful.

"He still enjoys it. It may not always look that way from the outside, but we feel it here," one Journal insider told me Tuesday. Lang took over as publisher in the early 70's when his father passed away.

Whoever owns any New Mexico media is in for a wild ride in the years ahead as a new media century takes hold. The ABQ Tribune will leave an excellent legacy of feisty journalism, colorful writing and a devotion to improving New Mexico that spanned the generations. But it was of its time and now time has run out. What's next? Stay tuned.


How's this for coincidence? On the day Scripps announces the Trib is up for sale, it is also announced that a longtime former editor of the paper, Tim Gallagher, is leaving his publishing position at a Scripps California paper. Tim, 51, is the brother of Mike Gallagher, longtime investigative reporter for the ABQ Journal.

We posed the question on Tuesday's blog, half-seriously, asking what ABQ GOP Rep. Heather Wilson was doing in Asia while President Bush's ABQ visit on behalf of GOP US Senator Pete Domenici was running into all kinds of PR problems. Well, NM GOP Chairman Allen Weh must have thought we were implying that Heather was on a needless junket. We weren't. We were just curious.

According to Weh, Heather "is in Asia with several members of the House Intelligence Committee on a fact finding trip...They’ve been to places that your local travel agent wouldn’t normally send someone for a good time!...Unlike a lot of members of Congress who seem to view trips as travel opportunities, she is very selective and all business when she does go on one." Weh e-mailed.

Your intrepid blog, spanning the globe on your behalf, followed up and found Heather in the Philippines. And wouldn't you know it, we also found this editorial in a major Philippine news outlet critical of Heather and her four fellow congressional travelers. Sorry, Heather. But it seems wherever you go, La Politica follows...

Yesterday I misspelled "dispiriting," and in quoting Senator Domenici on the resignation of Attorney General Gonzales I mistakenly said he was speaking of former NM US Attorney David Iglesias. I assure you I have been appropriately punished...

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