The West loses a scrappy daily paper

 


Just as the booming -- or busting -- West needs her most, the Albuquerque Tribune is no more. The paper published its last edition on Saturday, Feb. 23, after 86 years of rough-and-tumble journalism that included winning a Pulitzer Prize.

The paper was owned by the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., which decided last August that it didn’t need to keep bankrolling the Tribune. The afternoon paper had a circulation of less than 10,000 by the time it was closed, and it was dwarfed in every measurable way by the larger Albuquerque Journal, its daily rival.

But in one important way, the Tribune was as good or better than the Journal. I’d also argue that the health not just of the journal, but also of Albuquerque, depended on the Tribune. The masthead of the Tribune used to say “Give Light,” and on its best days, that’s what it did. When New Mexicans went looking for a thoughtful story about how smaller events meant something big, they knew it was worth tossing a couple of quarters at the Tribune.

The paper’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning story -- about people unwittingly injected with plutonium during the Cold War -- started as just that sort of small detail that became something larger. Eileen Welsome’s prize-winning series was born because she paid attention to a footnote in a larger report. She was able to convince her editors, who eventually rallied the newsroom behind her, that her painstaking and time-consuming research would bear fruit in a landmark story.

That’s what the Tribune did best: It searched out the people and stories the media pack ignored. My time at the Tribune was a blip in the paper’s history, though for three years it was the best job I ever had. As a political reporter and columnist, I was frequently given unorthodox marching orders. One editor distilled his advice into bullet points: “Don’t chase your tail. Don’t sweat the petty stories. Set your own agenda. Go after the big story.” It was the kind of advice that allowed the Tribune to survive way longer than anyone expected. The odds against it have been overwhelming for years now.

Although the Tribune and the Journal shared a building and a printing press -- courtesy of the nation’s first joint operating agreement -- the competitive spirit between the two papers was palpable. In the early mornings, I had to see what the other guys had come up with. If my rivals missed a good story, I was inspired to chase it. If they got it, I became determined to find a way to get it better. That competitive spark lit up New Mexico and its biggest city in a way that benefited both newspapers and the people of Albuquerque as well.

My job put me in contact with the biggies -- sitting down with President Bush in 2004 was a rush -- but in the end I concluded that these orchestrated encounters didn’t mean much. I became the reporter assigned to follow New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in his nonstop hustle for the spotlight. By the time I left, in 2005, it seemed a safe bet that Richardson would run for president. It also seemed that despite his obvious skill and ability, he was unlikely to get far. In a way, I felt as if becoming president would have been a demotion for Richardson. He and his fellow Western governors always seemed to matter more than the president of the United States because they were shaping our lives most directly.

Richardson proclaimed the day of the last Tribune edition “Albuquerque Tribune Day” in New Mexico, praising the paper’s journalists who “ needled those in power when they (often) needed it and praised them when they (rarely) deserved it, contributing to a reputation as an aggressive and tenacious watchdog of government at all levels.”

You don’t replicate that kind of dogged commitment easily. The blogosphere’s one-person screeds seldom carry the impact of a newspaper when its collective powers focus fully on a subject. Replacing a newspaper with a collection of idiosyncratic online chatter is a poor trade.

These days, I edit a very different newspaper than the Albuquerque Tribune. I like to think, though, that the spirit of the Tribune has been transplanted to Boise.

Shea Andersen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editor of the Boise Weekly in Idaho.
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