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Tucson Up Front

Last week, the Tucson Citizen launched a "Tucson first" redesign--basically a reorganization that moves all the local and state news to the front, relegating most national and world coverage to the "B" section. This may seem like a triumph of parochialism, but it's actually part of publisher Michael Chihak's careful plan to save his job, and those of his nearly 80 employees.

The Gannett-owned paper, like most other afternoon dailies, has been watching its circulation plummet for more than a decade. For years, local newsies have been expecting the corporate honchos to relegate the Citizen to the recycling bin once and for all. That would be the financially smart thing for Gannett to do; under the terms of its joint operating agreement with Pulitzer Inc., which owns the Arizona Daily Star, Gannett can continue to suck its share of revenue out of Tucson even if it closes its own paper and eliminates those pesky personnel and newsprint costs.

According to Pulitzer, which maintains figures for both local dailies, the Citizen's average daily circulation last month was down to 33,353, a 6.6 percent drop from February 2003. Advertising for the two papers (basically, the same ads run in both publications) was down 5 percent compared to February 2003.

With numbers like those, you'd think Chihak and his crew would be busy updating their résumés and booking the next flight out of town. Speculating on what Gannett will do with the Citizen, and when, has become a popular pastime among local journalists. Will Gannett just shut the paper down? Will it buy the Star from Pulitzer, which doesn't seem to have the heart for print journalism anymore, and consolidate the newsrooms? Will it scale the newsroom back to a Southern Arizona bureau for the Arizona Republic, which it would then market as a statewide newspaper? (Republic telemarketers were busy trying to drum up Tucson subscribers late last year.)

"I've heard those rumors and a lot of others," Chihak admitted during a long chat with me in January. "I honestly don't know what the long-term game plan is; I was given no timeline and no specific goals when I came back here in 2000."

So Chihak, rather bravely, has elected not to be a mere caretaker for a hospice-patient newspaper. He's behaving as if the Citizen might actually survive, but only with a great deal of hard work and hard choices.

"We have to stop thinking like a general-interest newspaper," he declared. "We're trying to be more of a niche product, figuring out our target audiences and their needs, and concentrating on certain areas" of news and feature coverage.

The potential readers Chihak has increasingly focused on during the past three years are young adults, Latinos and families. Now, these are not groups traditionally associated with high newspaper readership, so Citizen editors have little by little been tailoring their coverage to meet those people's perceived needs.

The Latino and family niches overlap significantly; they can be served, in part, by increased coverage of family issues and household management--like Polly Higgins' January series on personal finance, which was also aimed at 20-something readers.

Chihak also has big plans for serious border coverage, which is already more aggressive and plentiful in the Citizen than in the Star.

"The border is the biggest ongoing story around here, except maybe for water and development," Chihak said. "Immigration is changing the economics, the socialization, even the language of this nation. It's an important issue for us, not only to attract Latino readers, but to do our due diligence to tell everybody what's going on."

Chihak's border strategy involves collaborating on coverage with other Gannett papers in the Southwest; using stories filed by the Republic's Mexico City correspondent, former Star reporter Tessie Borden; and having a Gannett News Service reporter in D.C. keep an eye on immigration issues in Congress.

Young readers will be a more slippery group to attract and hold.

"The Calendar section gives us a good shot at young-adult readership," Chihak said. "Now the core product needs to be bent more in that direction."

Acknowledging that it's difficult to impossible to get many 18- to 24-year-olds to read the paper, Chihak said that the Citizen hopes to reach them with richer Web content (see Media Watch, March 4) and affiliations with local radio and TV stations--hence the new, twice-weekly report from the Citizen newsroom at 6:45 a.m. on KOLD.

"Maybe we can do a joint project or two," Chihak said, "but the needs, audiences and newsroom culture of a newspaper are different from a television station's, so that could be tricky."

Chihak emphasized that the Citizen will not abandon all the traditional news beats that don't conveniently fit into one of his niches.

"The University of Arizona is very important in this community, not only as an educational institution, but as an economic engine that drives things here," he said, explaining why he split the UA beat between reporters, one covering science and research, another handling economic issues.

"We need to do a better job of covering government," he continued. "We need to be better at finding out what's going on behind the scenes, and be aware that when an issue shows up on a City Council agenda, that issue really started way back somewhere else. We need to be there at the beginning."

Chihak also talked about experimenting with grassroots, hard-news neighborhood stories and doing a better job covering entertainment and popular culture.

"The toughest thing in this scheme," he said, "is figuring out what not to cover."

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