Founded in 1891 under a different name, the East Valley Tribune has a long and storied past.
Its archives contain an estimated 750,000 items of paper, photographs, negatives and microfilm.
All that history is held in repository at McCullough-Price House, part of the Chandler Museum, and about 50 percent of it has yet to be organized and preserved according to industry standards.
“It’s a goldmine,” said Jody Crago, museum administrator, who oversees the collection.
“There was a fire at the Tribune offices in 1936, so most everything that predates 1936 was destroyed,” said Nate Meyers, curator of collections.
“For all intents and purposes, the collection starts in 1936 and includes everything all the way up to 2009. So yes, there are materials there from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and so on – all the way back to 1936.”
How it got there is almost as much of a roller coaster as the newspaper’s past.
Although the East Valley Tribune is thriving under its present publisher, Times Media Group (whose CEO, Steve Strickbine, bought the paper in 2016), it wasn’t the case in 2011, when the newspaper looked as though it was going to fold.
“We, as a museum, started to try to get pieces from the Tribune because the Chandler Arizonan was purchased by the Tribune and became one of the feeder papers. We were trying to save as much as we could,” Crago said.
Crago also belongs to the East Valley Cultural Heritage Coalition, an organization comprising preservationists from Mesa Historical Museum, Gilbert Historical Museum and Arizona Historical Society of Tempe, in addition to the Chandler Museum.
Members share story spaces and collection care for better productivity with limited resources.
In 2011, the Tribune’s former publisher announced to its newsroom that the paper was going digital and its files were not traveling with it when the staff moved to a new space.
Two reporters, Mike Sakal and Garin Goff, knew that the collection contained a wealth of information that just couldn’t be thrown in the trash.
They reached out to East Valley historian and president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation Vic Linoff, who contacted the members of the coalition.
The question then was, “This is bigger than any of us and this should be something that should be saved. Should we try to save it?” Crago recalled.
The affirmative answer from the coalition members was unanimous.
Linoff was told on a Tuesday or Wednesday that what was in the building was going to the dumpster by end of that week.
“I went down with a tape measure and clipboard and I wanted to see how many cubic feet of material there was and was told ‘no measuring. You’ve got to take it out right now,’” he said. “We loaded up my car and other vehicles and took it to my office so that it was all protected.”
By that point, the items were in grocery-store boxes and the organization system was gone.
“I just wanted to make sure that nothing happened to it. … Reporters were told to take what’s in your desk, everything else is going to trash,” Linoff said. “We came within a hair’s breadth of losing a substantial archive.”
Crago names Linoff and his wife, Vicki, as the “heroes of the story.”
“He knew that we, as organizations, were going to save the Tribune collection, and he had a building that wasn’t being used,” he said.
The next task was to find the best way to distribute the material because there were items from various cities.
The Tribune was established as Mesa’s first newspaper, the Evening Weekly Free Press, in 1891. For more than a century and taking in its stride dozens of new names and ownership changes, it has chartered the growth and development of the area.
The newspaper gradually snowballed by absorbing community publications such as the Tempe Daily News in 1980, Chandler Arizonan in 1983, Gilbert Tribune in 1990 and Scottsdale Progress in 1993.
The coalition decided to store it in Chandler because the city had a research library that was staffed five days a week and could provide the most accessibility to the public.
Eight years later, the archivists at the museum are still processing the find. Volunteers play a big part in the reorganizing. Grant help from Arizona Historical Society and Arizona Historical Records Advisory Board, and funds from the city of Chandler and individual donors keep it going.
So far, the files of people’s surnames have been organized, and subject files comprising activities, events, buildings and businesses are being processed. Slides are being organized by date.
Meyers, the curator of collections, said that the museum accepts volunteers of any age and experience level.
“There’s so much to do,” he said. Volunteers are expected to commit to helping a minimum of a few hours twice a month.
During the first year, the archives were removed from the grocery boxes and placed in bankers’ boxes. As funds became more available, the paper, photos and slides were moved to acid-free boxes and folders.
Acid-free protection is the industry standard in archiving documents because lignan, a naturally occurring acid in wood fiber, is removed from the protective storage items.
So far, the oldest items noted in the collection are from 1911, when the Roosevelt Dam was opened, Meyers said.
The Tribune offices had a fire in 1956, and the collection picks up after that, with most items dating from the 1960s to 1980s.
There are files on presidential matters, including a Kennedy file; two boxes of files on former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, Sen. John McCain and other Arizona stalwarts.
Then there’s the local content.
“For every image that ran in the paper, there were four to five images that didn’t run. It gives us the opportunity to get a really good sense of the East Valley,” Crago said.
Although pictures of the 1980s and 1890s seem fairly recent and less historical, Crago said they enhance the collection’s value.
“The ability to have this stuff documented is a real coup because the East Valley Tribune documented the Valley and we have the ability to then go back and see people, events, stories that were important at that point and gives us the opportunity to use that in exhibits, research, and all sorts of stuff,” he said.
Linoff said the collection is special because it represents the end of the analog era.
“By the time the paper left, everything was digital; it’s all on computer and on disk. These were the last hard records. You have printed photographs, you have negatives, you have slides, nobody has that today, it’s now all digital,” he said.
“I’m absolutely thrilled and excited that we were able to save and conserve. We get so much of our research information from newspapers. And if this is lost, there’ll be no way to regain it,” he added.
Word is already out that the collection is available, Meyers said.
Media representatives, students, historians and researches have contacted the museum for access.
The ultimate plan is to digitize the whole collection for easy retrieval online. A small portion of it is already available at chandlerpedia.org (see under “Named Collections”).
Crago is satisfied that the collection is now in a stable environment and not at risk.
“It’s a labor of love. Several people have had hands in this. Everybody realizes this is a resource and we don’t want to see it disappear,” he said. “It’s in Chandler, but it’s a Valley story. By sharing it broadly, everybody benefits from it.”