It's a Wrap

On Monday, March 19, Arizona Republic subscribers across the Valley picked their newspapers up off the driveway, slid off the protective plastic bag, and then, surely, started shaking the paper — looking for its missing sections.

There was no Valley & State. No Business section. As a reader in Peoria would later complain in a letter to the editor, there wasn't really anything to pass across the breakfast table. The local news had been shoehorned into the first section, along with business. And while there was, indeed, still a sports section and a features section, now called Simple Arizona Living, the guts of the paper were gone.

In their place was a letter from the Republic's editor, Ward Bushee.

"Today, we introduce a new kind of Monday newspaper designed for busy people on the busiest day of the week," he wrote. The front section of the paper had been "reported, edited and designed for time-efficiency and looking ahead to the week."

The missing sections, as it turns out, had been inspired by the best market research money can buy: focus groups, surveys, and direction from a whopping 1,100 readers.

The Republic heard from even more readers after the launch. The newspaper's Saturday mailbag roundup noted that the paper received 168 letters on the subject.

The paper ran only one of the letters. But the reaction seemed pretty close to unanimous.

People hated it.

Reporters say they were swamped with angry calls from sources and friends. (Even the mailbag write-up admitted to an "ouch!") Regular readers seemed especially insulted that the Republic was claiming they wanted the changes. The changes, they argued, had been clearly designed to save the newspaper money.

For the first time in years, people were actually talking about the Republic. Too bad for the newspaper that it wasn't exactly . . . positive.

Two months later, people are still complaining. One lifelong Republic reader — whose hobby lately has been tracking the paper's ever-shrinking editorial section — is, well, hurt.

It's one thing for the Republic's owners to try out different experiments, he says. But to pretend this is what people in Phoenix really want? "What, do they think we're boobs?"

This man, a business leader, used to admonish his employees by saying, "Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the Valley & State section." But now, on Mondays, there is no Valley & State section.

The thing is, the "Simple Monday" Republic is clearly here to stay. And it's not even the biggest change at the paper these days. To see that change, you don't need to drop 50 cents into the paper box.

Instead, just log on to www.azcentral.com and glance at a few headlines. Then, come back a few hours later.

Do it often enough, and you can read all of tomorrow's newspaper.

As the Republic's mailbag indicated, there still are a lot of people who don't want a sleeker, briefer newspaper. (Sometimes, 1,100 reader surveys can be wrong.) It doesn't matter that news updates are free all day long at azcentral.com. There's something about the printed page.

Like newspapers everywhere, though, the Republic is convinced the future lies in a different direction.

Newspapers have been hemorrhaging ad dollars in the Internet age, and though the Republic has been more financially successful than most, it's not immune to the pressure. Nor does it want to be left behind as Wall Street increasingly viewed printed newspapers as dinosaurs.

Even as the paper was getting ready to roll out its new Monday edition, its parent company, Virginia-based Gannett, issued an annual report for 2006 that makes it clear: For Gannett's papers, including the Republic, the future will be digitized.

Under the new "Information Center" model that all Gannett papers were mandated to roll out by May 1, the newspaper is no longer the focus. Instead, the focus is "content" — and Web and print are equally important "platforms" for "content delivery."

Only Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss could top Gannett executives when it comes to the unironic use of corporatese. To translate the idea into English: Azcentral.com is now just as important as the newspaper that arrives on your doorstep.

That means five reporters who used to cover suburban news beats are now "mobile journalists," writing Web-ready briefs and posting digital photos from their cars instead of working the phones at the office.

It means all reporters are expected to break news online during the day, rather than wait to polish their copy for the next day's printed newspaper.

It means that the Republic prints endless reminders each day to mosey over to azcentral.com to read more. Or vote in a poll. (At azcentral.com, there's never an admonition to go buy the printed paper to get the rest of the story.)

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske