A city with no reporters

When the Albuquerque Tribune closed its doors in February 2008, our city not only lost an afternoon daily with a blue collar, left of center slant, it also lost a pool of reporters and editors, experts in the ways of local politics, society, history, and culture.

When the Trib’s doors closed, it was like having an eye poked out. Our world became harder to see and harder to understand.

As the Albuquerque Journal gets smaller and smaller every morning, as its newsstand price goes up to compensate for falling revenue, the troubling thought crosses one’s mind of living in a city with no daily newspaper, and no pool of print reporters and editors. It would be like flying blind.

Everyone in the news business used to know that radio and television lifted the work of Tribune and Journal reporters, and AP staff, often just rewriting the papers’ copy. And as the Santa Fe New Mexican has been cranking down on the size of its newsroom, information on New Mexico has grown increasingly scarce.

Doing basic reporting day in and day out costs big bucks. Salaries and benefits for a good sized newsroom of a paper-of-record could mean paying for upwards to fifty to sixty people, including editors, fact checkers, and proofers. And if a paper is serious about doing a good job, they pay their reporters on major beats competitive salaries so they won’t fly the coop. When a paper loses its will to excel, it lays off reporters or shrinks the newsroom by attrition.

In a media column last week, the ever informative Joe Monahan reported on the Journal’s slipping circulation, examining the loss of almost a third of its readership since 2006 through the lens of the recent purchase of the “the family-owned” Washington Post by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos.

Monahan wondered if Albuquerque-born Bezos might want to make an offer to buy the family-owned Journal.  It’s a fascinating thought.

What would someone with a lot of money do if they owned the Journal? Its readership started to fall off precipitously when the Tribune closed and after the Journal stopped being a state-wide paper, pulling out of the southern part of the state, its logical political base.

With no Tribune to compete against, the Journal got a little lazy, and its unremitting Republican slant in a Democratic state drove off tens of thousands of readers. The Journal has never had an adoring fan base. Its coverage is too biased and sketchy. It tends to move its beat reporters around just when they’re gaining some confidence and expertise. Until Dan McKay, the city beat was in shambles. And the best on-going story in town, the academic doings at the University of New Mexico, has never gotten proper coverage. Most people on campus figure the Journal is out to get the school.

No matter how much one dislikes the morning daily, however, especially its front page and its editorial positions and hard right columnists, the Journal has managed to retain some excellent writers – John Fleck, Dan McKay, and Leslie Linthicum prominent among them. And if you read the paper carefully, its back pages are still full of lots of national and even some local news, though much of it is supplied by the conservative leaning AP.  Like every other local paper I know of in the Mountain West, the Journal makes hay from high school and college sports coverage, which many of us enjoy – except for the followers of international and Lobo track and field who are left with next to nothing most of the time.

If someone does buy the Journal, there’s still Tribune talent left in town.  Ollie Reed is here with his 30 plus years of experience in New Mexico and beautiful prose style. And the best editor I could think of for a refurbished, more intelligent, fair-minded Journal would be Jack Ehn, the longtime editorial page editor of the Tribune who’s lending his expertise these days as the faculty advisor of the CNM Chronicle.

No matter how given many of us have become to on-line news, no one, I think, really wants to see Albuquerque without at least one print newspaper that has the capital to sustain a major body of reporters and stringers. The day may come though, when electronic gear becomes so democratically inexpensive that an on-line daily, with enough beat reporters to cover the city and state, could bring the coup de grace to the Journal in print, and give its on-line presence a drubbing in the marketplace.

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

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