During its life as a print publication, ABQ Free Press won multiple journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Mexico Press Association
Newspaper Switches to Online-only After Nearly Three Years
Award-winning Journalism to Find a Broader Audience Online
ABQ Free Press has ceased publication of a weekly printed edition and will deliver news exclusively through its website, freeabq.com.
Most of the newspaper’s writers will continue online, notably Associate Editor Dennis Domrzalski, who often has led the Albuquerque news media in coverage of the Albuquerque Police Department, the economy and the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project.
Retired Albuquerque police sergeant Dan Klein, who also writes about APD, will continue online, as will Sayrah Namasté, who writes about events of interest to the Albuquerque activist community.
The newspaper’s arts and entertainment coverage will also continue. Freeabq.com will feature an expanded calendar that readers will find to be the most comprehensive listing of events in the city.
A redesign of the freeabq.com website is underway. New features being planned include more video posts, regular podcasts and periodic email news updates.
Domrzalski, the paper’s news editor, will assume day-to-day responsibilities. Vukelich, the newspaper’s editor and a veteran of 41 years in news, will reduce his daily role but continue to shape news coverage and editorial policy. “Decades of pissing people off does take its toll,” he said.
A growing online audience
Over the years the newspaper’s website has enjoyed a steady increase in visitation, even as the news team’s efforts were concentrated on producing a quality printed product week after week.
Readership of online stories periodically spiked dramatically, thanks to widespread sharing on social media.
The lead story of the April 22, 2015, issue, in which then-District Attorney Kari Brandenburg told us she feared for her safety at the hands of APD, became the top story of Reddit nationwide. Freeabq.com recorded 25,000 visitors to that story in a single hour before the site crashed.
In February of this year, a piece by former officer Klein titled “A Letter from Victoria” written in the voice of murdered 9-year-old Victoria Martens recorded 52,000 visitors in a 24-hour period.
“Before we stopped the presses for good, we were told by quite a few potential advertisers who had abandoned print advertising that they would consider advertising online with us in order to attract millennials,” Vukelich said. “We have that demographic in our readership, as well as the affluent, older college-educated readers that most advertisers want to reach.”
ABQ Free Press launched as a biweekly on April 23, 2014, about a month after the killing of homeless camper James Boyd by Albuquerque police. The newspaper focused on the issue of APD’s unconstitutional use of force and the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights lawsuit against the department, the subsequent DOJ settlement agreement and the fitful ongoing efforts to reform the department.
The newspaper went weekly last Sept. 28. While its circulation varied from 20,000 to 60,000 copies, its average print run was between 25,000 and 35,000 copies. It was distributed at more than 400 locations from Belen to Santa Fe.
Ferguson and Vukelich thanked the merchants who agreed to allow us to place an ABQ Free Press rack in their business.
In its mission statement, the newspaper’s publishers said, “ABQ Free Press Weekly exists to provide another point of view for people disserved by other news media, to expose facts that the powerful don’t want known, to call lies what they are, to stand up for the little guy, to demand fairness, justice, and common sense, and to entertain, inform and celebrate the good and beautiful in our world.”
Vukelich said another explanation of the paper’s role was to provide another voice to counter that of the establishmentarian Albuquerque Journal and, further, “to stand up for the little guy.” The ABQ Free Press team will continue to pursue those goals goal via freeabq.com, he said.
About those covers
The covers of ABQ Free Press varied from news photos to artistic images to photos of celebrities, but by far the most popular and most edgy were cartoons drawn by former Albuquerque Tribune artist Gary Glasgow.
In collaboration with Vukelich, Glasgow sought to capture the essence of issues facing Albuquerque and New Mexico each week. Inside the newspaper, Glasgow regularly skewered the inanity, stupidity and hypocrisy that keeps Albuquerque and New Mexico from realizing their potential. Alongside Glasgow, Tom Tomorrow took regular shots at the idiocy emanating from the campaign trail and ultimately the White House.
After Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, the publishers decided that it would be the style of the newspaper not to allow the name “Donald Trump” to be preceded by the word “President,” so as not to denigrate the Office of the President. That style will carry forward at freeabq.com.
A record of excellence
During its nearly three-year life as a print publication, ABQ Free Press won multiple journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Mexico Press Association, including honors for investigative reporting, editorial writing, news reporting and analysis, and arts writing. In mid-March, it was notified of honors for Domrzalski, Vukelich and Ferguson in the SPJ’s 2017 “Top of the Rockies” competition. Details were to be announced on April 14 in Denver.
Only a few months after ABQ Free Press launched, another biweekly, Local iQ, abruptly ceased publication after eight years, although it still maintains a Facebook presence. In 2008, The Albuquerque Tribune, an afternoon daily for which Domrzalski and Vukelich once worked, closed after years of declining circulation. In 2006, another local paper, Crosswinds Weekly, closed after 11 years of publication in Albuquerque and seven years in Santa Fe before that.
Despite that trend, Ferguson and Vukelich were certain Albuquerque needed a new voice to shake things up. “We’ll be the same outspoken alternative to the status quo but we’ll be speaking out online instead of in print,” Ferguson said.
Vukelich and Ferguson said the unexpected depth and breadth of the recession of 2008 contributed to the demise of ABQ Free Press. Years after the economies of other cities and states began growing again, Albuquerque and New Mexico remain mired in recession. New Mexico currently leads the nation in unemployment at 6.8 percent.
“We faced significant headwinds in the face of declining advertiser interest in print, compounded by the miserable economy which, in my opinion, are directly attributable to the policies of the administrations of Gov. Susana Martinez and Mayor Richard Berry,” Vukelich said.
“Local business people just don’t have the money to advertise their products,” he said. “With Berry in particular, it’s as if he’s declared war on Albuquerque businesses.”
So much for government transparency
Shortly after it began publishing, the newspaper along with one of its freelance writers, Peter St. Cyr, sued the City of Albuquerque over APD’s refusal to release its weapons inventory in response to the newspaper’s New Mexico Inspection of Public records request.
The following year, a Bernalillo County District judge ordered the city to turn over the weapons inventory, which revealed APD had lost track of one of its M-16 assault rifles. The inventory also revealed that APD possessed a supply of .50-caliber depleted-uranium ammunition which, even in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, were rarely employed and required special authorization to use.
In 2016, City Hall cut ABQ Free Press from its media notification list, denying it notice of news conferences and availabilities by the mayor, chief of police and other top city officials. Often, such events led to front-page or lead TV stories in other news media.
Since the freeze-out began, except in rare instances, city spokespeople have not responded to inquiries from the newspaper. ABQ Free Press continues to get ex post facto notice of the mayor’s “Hero of the Week” events and other soft news emanating from City Hall.
Most recently, the newspaper was denied advance notice of an event at which the ABQ BioPark’s new Malaysian tiger, Penari, was introduced to the news media. “I can only guess the mayor’s people were worried Dennis Domrzalski was going to bite the tiger,” Vukelich said.