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Media Watch

Requiem for a Bantamweight

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Newspaper industry observers probably noted the sad coincidence of events June 3. Pulitzer Inc. delivered the keys of its kingdom (including the Arizona Daily Star) to Lee Enterprises. At the same time, media giant Gannett (owner of the Tucson Citizen) created another one-newspaper town in America, as the Green Bay News-Chronicle ceased publication after nearly 34 years.

Why should desert rats like us (aside from the occasional Scansin émigré) care much about the closing of a 5,000-circulation daily in Wisconsin?

Humphrey Bogart's impassioned managing editor in Deadline-U.S.A said it best: "Without competition, there is no freedom of the press."

Frank Wood, the News-Chronicle's owner, fought the Gannett-owned Green Bay Press-Gazette for about 13 years, and lost at least $13 million in the Bastogne-style battle.

Much of the battle is laid out in Richard McCord's excellent book, The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire. The book, first published in 1996, was updated in 2001. It combines an examination of unethical and underhanded tactics Gannett used in other markets to demolish competitors with the News-Chronicle's early efforts to survive.

McCord wrote a 10-part series for the News-Chronicle, "It's Now or Never," that showed readers how the News-Chronicle worked and some of Gannett's strategies. In a farewell column to readers June 3, the closing paper's news editor said that in a way, McCord's series was good medicine that worked too well.

Ray Barrington wrote that residents responded quickly to the newspaper's call to arms, but the response was heavier than the News-Chronicle circulation staff could handle--which led to cancellations because of poor service.

The Press-Gazette wooed readers away with some interesting subscription incentives, including utility payment vouchers, free gasoline and a seriously loss-leading introductory price.

Meanwhile, Wood's publishing business was creating shoppers and weekly newspapers. Gannett went to morning delivery of the Press-Gazette to meet the News-Chronicle head-on, and began matching the shoppers and weeklies.

Given the losses and the frustration, it's a fight most of us would have walked away from a long time ago. But then again, this is Green Bay, where a philosopher named Vince Lombardi once said after a close game, "We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time."

He kept fighting because of the people. When he took on the newspaper and a publishing business, he put a lot of unemployed people to work. When a lawyer told Wood that closing the business was the best way to prove Gannett guilty in court of illegal business practices, Wood thought of those people. And laying people off was the very last resort as the battle with the Press-Gazette continued.

As Lombardi put it, the clock--actually, the calendar--convinced Wood to quit the quixotic fight. He was 76, worried that there was no plan of succession for his business, and that if he died, the whole mess would land on his wife. He sold the paper to Gannett last July, and the newspaper giant kept it alive for less than a year.

Frank Wood stood up to Gannett for a decade and then some for another reason--democracy. A source told me about a year ago that Wood hoped to find a formula for remaining profitable against a media giant. That formula, perhaps, could be used elsewhere. Wood's dream, the source said, was that all major metropolitan areas have two independent, competing daily newspapers, because "he feels that makes for a healthier democracy."

The number of two-newspaper cities has been declining for many years. There are only about 20 or so left in the country, and a dozen of them, including Tucson, have two newspapers primarily because of the antitrust exemptions afforded under the Newspaper Preservation Act. This allows the struggling newspaper (in our case, the Citizen) to survive by sharing noneditorial services and splitting the financial take with the stronger paper.

There are some ironies of note in this story. Several two-newspaper cities in this country became one-newspaper towns as a result of Gannett's purchase of the weaker paper in a joint agency. The pattern for Gannett had been to let the weaker paper get worse, buy the bigger paper and close the weak one. Given Gannett's pattern, that's a fate Tucson avoids--for now, anyway--thanks to Lee's takeover of Pulitzer.


POPPY, BUDDY?

"Help the reader" was a major mantra during my time at the Arizona Daily Star. Sometimes, I wonder as I'm reading the paper if it's still the case.

Like Star's A-1 Memorial Day centerpiece story: "Buddy Poppies Fading/Few Seem to Know Significance, Bother to Buy."

I'd wondered about the connection between military vets and poppies off and on since my father's funeral in 1977. After the Rosary, a group of vets conducted a brief ceremony and scattered several poppies across his dress blue Navy jumper, then handed some to my mom, my sister, my grandparents and me.

Why poppies? Why not carnations, or daisies? I scanned the Star story looking for THE answer. The story offered this:

"Buddy Poppies have been around since the early 1920s, part of the VFW campaign to honor the dead by raising money to help needy or disabled veterans."

But why the poppy? Dan Hawkins of VFW Post 7399, based in Catalina, told the Star: "Pretty much everybody knew what it was about when you were out there selling poppies."

So what was "it" about?

There's a lot of history to Buddy Poppies, and more than we have space to tell. But seems like someone at the Star might have thought about how much poetry has been written since 1915, and perhaps about how much less literary knowledge younger readers have. It's probably been many years since grade schoolers have memorized the words a Canadian Army doctor, John McCrae, wrote and cast aside during the Battle of Ypres:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row ..."

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