Flash! It's War in Mesa!

The Republic and Gazette's latest attempt to check the Mesa Tribune's growing influence in the sprawling East Valley hit the front lawns of subscribers February 27. But talk of a suburban newspaper war between the Trib and the monolithic downtown dailies already has given way to quiet snickering.

You've heard of USA Today? Meet East Valley News Day--which some people are already calling Mesa Yesterday.

News Day's editor, Dave Sweet, says he and his five reporters--some from the Republic, some from the Gazette--are teaming up to bring more "reader-friendly" hometown news to the Superstition beltway. "I think we're filling a need and putting things back into the paper, and some that never were in the paper," says Sweet, who used to head the Republic's Scottsdale bureau.

News Day, a Monday-through-Friday special section, is distributed with both the Republic and Gazette. (Aren't they competitors?) But Sweet says the notion that the R&G is out to seduce Tribune advertisers never crossed his mind. It's more a question of providing "a venue for smaller advertisers" who couldn't otherwise afford R&G rates. "I don't think of it so much as a newspaper war as giving readers something they haven't had before," says Sweet. "That's my mission: to get more local news in the paper."

The R&G plans similar ventures in other suburban areas, but insiders at the giant dailies are already questioning just how current the news will be. Even top editors at the Republic joke about News Day, which has such early deadlines that it is impossible for the daily paper to actually cover news.

Sweet acknowledges his staff will specialize in not-so-current events. For instance, regular R&G reporters will write stories on Mesa City Council meetings for their own papers. Sweet says his staffers might go to meetings for background, "but we wouldn't be able to get it in the next day's publication. Our role is to do follow stories, issues and trends."

Like a piece on Eagle Scouts that appeared under a double byline in News Day's debut issue. Double bylines are usually reserved for blockbuster exposes or fast-breaking news stories--and, true to form, News Day actually tracked down former Eagles Gerald Ford and Steven Spielberg to get their thoughts on the virtues of Scouting. "We just used good reporting techniques," says Sweet. "All of my people are pros and have been in the business for a while."

So far News Day has specialized in what Tribune executive editor Sandy Schwartz calls "chicken dinner news"--innocuous lighter-than-air features, coupled with school menus and event listings culled from press releases.

Schwartz agrees that "an Eagle Scout story certainly does not put the fear of God in me as the editor of our newspapers." However, the Trib boss refuses to join some of his staffers who privately sneer at the new competitor, among whose journalistic weapons is a front-page color map detailing road construction. (The same map has long appeared in the Republic in black and white, but generally buried on back pages.)

"There are a number of our subscribers who want us to have more Eagle Scout stories," notes Schwartz. Adds the editor, "Even though they have a long lead time on that thing, they're eventually going to have a story we don't have, and that's going to bother me."

In fact, News Day already has featured several stories that didn't quite make it into the Trib. Like the one about the high school geography teacher in Tempe who's attempting to interest his students in current events by having them "scour the daily newspapers for Valley slayings." "Interest in this project flows over into other classes I have," teacher B.G. Jones told News Day reporter Herb Whitney. "Students not involved in the research will walk into the classroom, look at the map and say, `Hey, there was another murder yesterday.'"

The Trib also is devoid of such News Day features as "Your View," a weekly space reserved for readers. "It is your chance to share an opinion, criticism or praise about any subject or issue you think is important," News Day tells its subscribers. "All you have to do is write to us." The paper offers $25 for such stories, but there's one condition: "Feel free to discuss any topic except politics or religion."

Let the fireworks begin!
The Trib isn't losing every round, but it somehow got burned on the gripping tale of Kiwanis Club member John Rutledge's $10,000 score in Laughlin, Nevada. News Day gleaned this nugget from a club newsletter and slammed it on the front page (devoting one sentence to it) without even talking to the guy.

Is the Trib worried? Well, it's the fastest growing paper in the country of its size, claims Schwartz. (Daily circulation is about 81,500; the R&G claims more than 100,000 in the East Valley.) Should the battle for regional tidbits out East ever escalate into a full-scale brawl, he says his troops are ready. But for now, he joins Sweet in downplaying the idea of a daily dogfight. The papers have been at each other's throats for some two and a half years now. And East Valley News Day does not a declaration of war make. "I'm not being flippant," says Schwartz, "but I've got to laugh at that.

 
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