When it comes to the media during the last decade, much of the conversation seems to revert to someone saying print is dying. However, while some major newspapers across the nation have stumbled or closed, community newspapers continue to thrive.
One of those newspapers is The Explorer, which is celebrating 20 years of production. The Explorer first opened its doors in 1993, providing content primarily for the Oro Valley area. Now, The Explorer covers Oro Valley, Marana, Pima County and Northwest Tucson, going from a circulation of about 4,000 to 45,000. What started as a bi-weekly publication grew to being delivered free-of-charge to driveways through Oro Valley and Marana every week.
The Explorer has a strong standing in the communities of the northwest primarily because no matter who has owned it through the 20-year stretch, its focus centers around delivering hyper-local content.
“When it comes to community newspapers, the content is all local, so competition for these newspapers is totally different,” said Explorer co-owner Randy Miller. “The Explorer has been successful because it’s one of those newspapers focused completely on local content, from what’s happening at the local high schools to reporting on the local town council. And, it’s not just editorial. Community newspapers are successful because they benefit local advertisers that aren’t on the national level. From our hometown dentists to the local florists, community newspapers provide that platform. We provide a platform where all can flourish.”
Miller, who worked for large daily newspapers early in his career, said in 2000 he read that community newspapers were the future. Now, Miller of 10/13 Communications, owns newspapers in Tucson and Phoenix, Houston and Colorado.
For The Explorer, the entire reason for the newspaper’s existence is centered around the need for more local news coverage. In 1993, The Explorer was started by Kathryn Reilly, who quickly partnered with Melanie Larson and Terry Brashear.
In 1993, Larson said Oro Valley was going through a controversial recall with the town council, and residents wanted more information. With a background in marketing, Larson said two weeks after Reilly started the paper, she and partner Brashear decided to join the team.
“Just like the Oro Valley homeowners and business owners, I wanted to know what was going on,” Larson said. “I saw from the beginning that people had a thirst for local news.”
Eventually, what was strictly Oro Valley News at the beginning, was produced inside Brashear’s garage and as the thirst for local news grew, so did the newspaper.
By 1995, Oro Valley News became the Northwest Explorer and Oro Valley Explorer. By 1998, the newspaper continued to grow, solely becoming known as the Northwest Explorer. By 2005, the “northwest” part of the title was dropped, making the paper The Explorer.
In the early days, Brashear said they printed the paper from his garage for about 14 months.
“The main goal was to inform people about the area,” he said. “It was all about informing people and keeping the dollars local. These newspapers are important because they tell the local stories that national news and local dailies really don’t even consider.”
Even now, Brashear, who remains in Oro Valley, said he continues to pick up the newspaper every week, admitting that he quickly looks to see how many pages are printed each week.
“I was the money guy when I was there,” he recalled laughing. “I’ve always got to count the pages. My 15-year run with the newspaper was a good experience even though I never would have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be a newspaper man.”
When it comes to The Explorer being free, Larson said she used her marketing background to make the decision. It wasn’t about money as much as it was about getting as many readers as possible.
“I wanted as many eyeballs as possible,” she said. “It wasn’t just for the editorial, it was also for the local businesses. We focused on listening to the community and listening to local businesses. The Explorer staff always worked as a team because they knew they were part of something bigger.”
Even now, Miller said The Explorer’s focus remains on covering local news and always seeing that the bigger picture means printing important news, stories and bringing attention to local businesses for many more years to come.