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From AJR,   April/May 2008  issue

When Heart Isn't Enough   

The Albuquerque Tribune took names and kicked up the dust, but still couldn’t survive.


By Tony Davis
     

The obits were predictable when the Albuquerque Tribune crashed on February 23, age 86. A paper whose 1993 revelations of Cold War-era plutonium experiments on people won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, the Trib was one of the last of its kind, where writers spent as much time plotting crusades as they did pondering leads. It joined the Cleveland Press, Philadelphia Bulletin and 20 other major afternoon dailies that have landed in the dustbin since 1980. The Trib's decline was the stuff of Greek tragedy, a paper that basked in the limelight of well over a dozen big national awards while circulation plummeted from 45,000 in 1985 to less than 10,000 at the end.

But the first thought to fly through my mind that day was not of Pulitzers or circulation swoons. It was a simple management philosophy that carried power far beyond its words: Hire the best people you can and let them do their jobs.

The brainchild of our editor Tim Gallagher, this mantra sounds like a cliché, but it made the Tribune a laboratory for innovation. One former Trib reporter, John Hill, said he was impressed "by how much they let the inmates run the asylum." Another, Pulitzer-winner Eileen Welsome, likened the atmosphere to anarchy.

Sounds a bit much, but think about it. You're a crusader, wishing to bust heads and take prisoners, or you're intrigued by a quirky tale that nobody has told. What's the first thing you need? Not a fat salary or big staff, but an editor who will tell you to take a couple of weeks or months and don't come back without the story. Even in the best of times in the newspaper business, such editors were rare. But we had them.

Today, attitudes like Gallagher's are seen as an anachronism in what's left of our business. Editors can't afford not to micromanage. They operate from fear: of continued circulation declines and ad losses to the Web, of offending readers or giving them more than they can handle.

Scripps Howard's Tribune wrestled with these demons, but seldom succumbed to fear. The fearful ones were the powerful officials and institutions we took on: the U.S. Department of Energy, which controlled one of every nine New Mexico jobs; the mining industry; the state's largest utility; the Legislature; the liquor industry; the Catholic Church; the cattle industry; three Albuquerque mayors; and two governors.

Look at what one paper did during my eight years and eight months with a staff of 60:

• A five-part series probing Navajo alcoholism, a problem long swept under the rug by tribal leadership.

• Another series exposing the commercialization of wildlife, including illegal hunting of elk and selling their horns to China for use as an aphrodisiac.

• A third project showing that the court system was mismanaging enforcement of drunken-driving laws and failing to keep proper records. The paper unearthed a case of a man arrested, convicted and rearrested for DWI 25 times.

• A yearlong exposé of conflict of interest in the Legislature, complete with an early effort at computer-assisted reporting.

• Revelations that the county assessor had given massive breaks in appraised land values to his campaign finance chief.

• My report in an eight-page section of how public lands ranchers, loggers and their allies in Catron County were using threats of violence to intimidate federal officials trying to rein in overgrazing and overcutting.

• Finally, Welsome's tale of how the federal government injected 18 people with plutonium after World War II. Her three-day series led to a broader federal investigation revealing that similar experiments had been conducted involving radium and other radioactive substances. It took six years off and on for the feisty Welsome to produce that work. It exuded passion and force available from no more than a handful of other pieces of American journalism in the past quarter-century (see "Radiation Redux," March 1994). Two years after it was published, then-President Clinton apologized to the families of thousands of persons on whom the feds had performed experiments.

Most of these projects won prestigious honors: the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting, two George Polk Awards, the IRE Award, the National Headliners Award (three times), the Roy W. Howard Award for public service reporting (four times), the Edward J. Meeman Award for conservation writing and the Sigma Delta Chi public service award.

Welsome and others who worked on these stories remember the Trib as a place that hired eccentric, unorthodox types and made in-depth journalism a high priority.

Consider reporter Dennis Domrzalski, a refugee from Chicago's City News Bureau who brought the "Front Page" mentality with him. When hired, he recalls, his superiors told him to "make trouble, go out and dig up dirt." In 1991, he shadowed and mocked 14 county officials junketing to a convention in Maui during a recession. "Before I left for Maui, I sat down in Tim Gallagher's office and he told me, 'We want you to let people know how ridiculous this is,'" the reporter recalls. "I get goose bumps just thinking about that."

Dan Vukelich, who wrote the series on the Legislature and worked on the DWI series, describes his employer of 15 years as a place where editors acted like supervising adults, choosing the best ideas.

The man who took the editor's job at age 30 preached "fire, aim, ready" when trying a new experiment. Gallagher was a cockeyed optimist who used to respond to our repeated fretting about the Trib's future with the nervous reassurance that he probably would have been the last person to leave the Titanic. "The idea was not to study every damn thing to death," Gallagher says.

My fondest memory of the free-form atmosphere came in 1994, as the city editor's post lay vacant after a reorganization. Working on the Catron County project, I spent the next few months virtually without supervision, making 300-mile trip after trip down to Southwest New Mexico to interview flag-burning ranchers, dig up damning federal documents and walk rivers whose cottonwood and willow trees had been ravaged by cattle.

It wasn't the first time the paper let me follow my instincts. I was hired in 1987 to cover growth and development. Within eight months, the savings and loan crisis had tanked the Sunbelt's real estate economy, so I got free rein to spend almost a year probing the world's first nuclear waste dump, 300 miles southeast of Albuquerque near Carlsbad Caverns.

And it wasn't just conventional investigations that made the Trib's reputation. Hill, now a state Capitol reporter at the Sacramento Bee, wrote a series making the creation of a big new subdivision a metaphor for the strains on public services brought on by urban sprawl. "The kinds of stories I did at the Tribune, I've never done before or after," Hill says.

The cost of this experimentation was that we missed, briefed or buried the meat and potatoes: meetings, budget hearings and government pronouncements. Gallagher dismissed such material as "agenda journalism." We got away with it because we were in a joint operating agreement–the country's first–with the more traditional Albuquerque Journal, which had a staff of well over 100 and a circulation more than three times ours. We sneered at them, citing anecdotes like the day Domrzalski was finishing a lengthy probe of the county assessor and walked into a meeting room where his competitor was sitting through a budget hearing. "I felt like I was in heaven," Domrzalski says.

The Trib cost itself with other lapses, like the time a consultant persuaded the paper, pre-Gallagher, to junk the sports section. That move lost us 6,000 subscribers, many of whom never returned after the decision was reversed. Domrzalski, now a freelance writer in Albuquerque, recalled in a recent blog what followed. The newsroom was riven by constant reorganizations and shifting visions. "More and softer feature stories, weeks and months in the making, were slapped across the front page," Domrzalski wrote. "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."

He exaggerated, but it's true that we tried every possible experiment to win readers back: a daily in-depth news page; an arts tab called "Wild Life" that was heavy on alt-rock; a subscriber-only electronic edition that was a precursor to the Web; a barrage of full-page graphics.

Nothing worked. Many of the heaviest hitters started preparing résumés. Gallagher fled to a similar job at Scripps' morning Ventura County Star in California in January 1995. I left 14 months later.

Today, Welsome is writing books in Denver. Vukelich edits a golfing magazine published in Albuquerque. Domrzalski is also doing contract public relations work. Gallagher bailed on the business last year to start a public relations consulting firm in Ventura.

When the paper died, it was a shadow of its former self, its staff down to about 40, its mission spent, its morale in tatters and its writers and editors having waited six months for Scripps to find a buyer. Only then could the staffers collect well-deserved severance packages and get on with their lives.

But so far I have survived the industry's crash and am blessed enough to be working these days on my third project in 18 months at a time when in-depth reporting is being systematically decimated by cost-cutting, fear-mongering managers across the country. But I won't be driving 300 miles up and down the state to do this one. And I won't get another three months without supervision to follow my muse.

Tony Davis (tdavis789@yahoo.com) has been a reporter with the Arizona Daily Star since 1997, and covers the environment. He worked for the Tribune from July 1987 through March 1996.