For 22 years I worked for the Tucson Citizen newspaper, and for that experience I am eternally grateful.
It put me in touch with my community in ways I had never experienced before, and surrounded me with some of the most caring and wonderful coworkers I will ever work shoulder to shoulder with.
Though I had written about mariachis and folklórico dancers before the Citizen, it was there that my awareness of all that they do began. And it was there that I wrote about the symphony, opera, chamber music, country and world music, as well as the odd features piece, and served time on the editorial board before and while producing video content for the paper’s website.
But today I’ll write about my first and last days at the Citizen.
I joined the paper in August of 1987. They had wanted me to start in mid July but I had left my previous job at the beginning of August of 1985 and wanted to have a solid two years between jobs to prove to myself that I could survive handily if I ever lost a job again.
Now it’s been four years. Should I be looking?
On my first day I came in wearing a suit and bow tie. There was no reception area like the paper would acquire later on. Instead you walked into the newsroom and straight into a row of folks that worked for the paper. I knew I was to report to Bruce Johnston but had no idea where in this maze of desks that might be.
And so I walked up to the closest person to the door and said hello to Pat Head – a rather imposing black woman who looked up from what she was doing and cheerlessly asked, “What the fuck do you want?” Before I could answer she yelled at the sports section, “Corky! There’s some kid in a bow tie. Must be for you!”
I explained who I was and what I was doing there and she pointed behind her without glancing toward the features section of the paper. I went back and got settled in with my first editor, Bruce Johnston, who was one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with in journalism. He made me feel completely at home, and like no question was a dumb one.
It must have been a Wednesday because the next day I was supposed to write my first hot review – of the season opener for the Tucson Symphony, with a new young conductor named Bob Bernhardt, who would become a lifelong friend. Having never written a review before without a few days to do so, and knowing that no one was going to be around late that night to guide me through, I asked how long a review should be.
Bruce told me to write it for whatever length it was worth. If it was good, write up what made it good. If it was bad, explain why. Just tell the story for what it was worth. And if it wasn’t worth writing about, give it a couple of inches and call it a day.
I guarantee you no one in newspapers today would give you that total range of freedom in writing about anything. But newspapers had space and advertisers in those days, and readers who actually appreciated what you did. It was a different world.
My last day was very different.
On May 15, 2009 I had gotten up very early and driven to a cemetery on the far east side of Tucson for a 7 a.m. ceremony. The remains of soldiers from after the civil war to the 1890s had been found downtown while construction was underway for a new courts building, and these remains were to be re-interred at Fort Huachuca later that day with full military honors. A motorcycle procession of veterans, led by congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was to accompany them to the site for reburial.
I got to the cemetary a while early with reporter Garry Duffy to do the story, which was to be the front page spread the following morning. I was shooting video. So I shot the small coffins of remains by themselves, then with details as flags were carefully draped on each.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Tucson Catholic Diocese was on hand, talking with the veterans before the ceremony. Before I knew it people were gathering, and I started shooting as the bishop spoke and prayed.
About 5 minutes in my new iPhone started ringing its cheerful little marimba song. I’d just gotten it recently and had no idea how to silence it, so I left the camera running by itself and backed up as far away as I could get as quickly as possible so as not to disturb the gathering. Eventually the phone stopped ringing, and without so much as looking at it, I headed back to continue the video shoot.
Just as the bishop was finishing still photographer Rene Bracamonte arrived and whispered in my ear, “I just got the call from P.K.” P.K. was P.K. Weis – our photo editor. I assumed she was explaining why she was late for the ceremony, and just continued to shoot the people and all of the military pomp of the event.
About 5 minutes later C.J. Karamargin – Congresswoman Giffords’ communications director, and a former Citizen staffer, offered his condolences on hearing that the Citizen was closing. Again, at first I didn’t realize what he was saying and said, “Well we’ve known this was going to happen for a while. We just don’t know when yet.” He said, “It’s today. I just found out.”
I told Garry Duffy but he’d already heard from Rene, and we set about getting our last quotes for what we assumed would still be the next day’s cover story and video. We interviewed Giffords, and in asking the question, Duffy noted the irony that the remains being transferred were of soldiers who may well have been among the first readers of the Tucson Citizen when it opened in 1870. Giffords picked up the cue and worked that into her statement of how sorry she was to hear that the paper would be closing. Gabby was always a good friend to us at the paper, and she often joined us at Friday evening gatherings at the Shanty.
At that point I finally checked the message on my phone which was from my boss, Dylan Smith, saying to stop shooting and get on back to the paper to shoot what was going on there. So we climbed into my Jetta and hauled ass for the south side, conversing with Dylan along the way.
The newsroom was in chaos when we arrived. Dylan was busily updating the website with whatever news of the minute was coming out about our closing. People were hauling their notebooks and legal pads to giant recycling bins around the room. Staffers were reporting for work, only to learn that they had to clean out their desks. Meanwhile other reporters and editors were busily preparing what would become our final edition of the paper.
My first task was to put up a going-away video I had shot over the previous few months with staffers remembering different things about their time with the paper. As fast as that was done I had to go and shoot what was happening, interview the representative of Gannett about the closing and what might happen to our archive (another story for another time) and edit it quickly to put online.
There were surprisingly few tears. Mostly people were in shock as they went about their final newspaper chores. Lifetimes of work and expertise were being heaped into recycle bins like trash. Personal mementos were being taken down and packed in boxes. And as the afternoon wore on, the newsroom grew thinning and thinner.
I was shooting all of this, and from time to time returning to my own desk to clear things out while rendering the video I was shooting to go online. People were coming in and out of my office to say goodbye.
About 15-20 of us stayed until the final press run about 11 p.m. We watched the pages rolling above our heads to the thunderous roars of the press. We watched the pressmen check for print errors and grab a few “spoils” along the way. I walked around shooting the people and the printing press from various angles. And the slowly the press slowed down, came to a halt and all was quiet (relatively) again.
We each grabbed some extra copies of the paper. I took a few more to give to the Arizona Historical Society, where we’d hoped our archives would be housed. It is, by the way, Gannett’s fault, not AHS’ that they did not end up there.
And then I dashed back to the newsroom to process the video and put it online. One or two people came back into the newsroom, but for the most part it was eerily quiet and empty. The bulging trash and recycle bins were evidence of what had happened.
I finished editing, chatted briefly with photographer Val Canez who was dawdling trying to get the stuff out of his locker, then climbed into my car and headed home.
It was a surreal end to what had been perhaps the greatest work adventure of my life. Some of the finest creative and reporting minds I have ever known were scattered to the winds, and a newspaper that had pioneered journalism in the west, even reporting the shootout at the OK corral the day after it happened, as well as the arrival of the railroad and every other major event, was now silent.
I put the box of stuff from my desk in the back room of my house, and have never opened it since.
That chapter of my life was over.