It's a Wrap

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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.


Arizona Republic

"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.)

It means more interactivity, with readers urged to write funny captions for photos, post snapshots of their weekend, or sound off in forums.

And if none of that sounds particularly new in this digital age, consider this: The readers' work isn't just being posted on the Web. Some percentage of it, including excerpts from the online forums, now runs in the newspaper. In fact, readers' postings now air in the important left-column real estate that used to be reserved for the omniscient voice of the newspaper's editorial board.

It's, perhaps, the strongest sign that in Phoenix, at least, the age of print dominance is over. Welcome to the Internet, baby.

Of course, this isn't going on just at daily newspapers. Even New Times has invested lots of resources into making an online model work. And, because we've got 15 sister papers, whatever happens here is usually happening in 15 other alternative weeklies across the country, too.

We may publish the most ridiculously long stories in journalism today — but now, we also have bloggers who post stuff daily. (Because we're living in a glass house, we may as well acknowledge that our Web site also doesn't always work the way it's supposed to.)

But back to the Republic. The newspaper's transition to an integrated online/print hybrid has been far from seamless. Many of the paper's best reporters have fled, convinced that the new "Information Center" has no interest in their meaty journalism.

In the past year, the newspaper lost Mark Shaffer, whom many Republic reporters credit as one of the paper's best. (He took a job as communications director for the state's Department of Environmental Quality.) Bilingual immigration reporter Susan Carroll, a two-time Virg Hill Journalist of the Year, is now at the Houston Chronicle. Billy House, the paper's Capitol Hill reporter, now works for the Tampa Tribune. Veterans Jon Kamman, Janie Magruder, and Linda Helser have left. The team that covered the Capitol for six years, Robbie Sherwood and Chip Scutari, fled for jobs in public relations.

After his column was cut, columnist Jon Talton gave his notice, too.

To get a clear picture of what's going on over on Van Buren, New Times interviewed readers, observers, and people who study journalism for a living, including some former media executives. Perhaps more importantly, we talked to nearly a dozen reporters and editors — some who still work for the newspaper, others who've left. Almost all requested anonymity. (Hey, journalists know how the game is played.)

It's clear that many current and former reporters have doubts about the new model. And even those who like the idea of a faster, Web-centric enterprise say that implementation has been rocky — and that morale is perilously low.

There's no indication that the Republic plans to change course. Bushee, the paper's editor, says that he believes readers have grown to like the new slimmed-down Monday edition. He thinks they'll enjoy the Information Center, too.

Bushee paints the morale issue as one of reporters needing to face new realities.

As the editor wrote in an e-mail to New Times recently, the paper's leaders "know that this new world will not be to everyone's liking. We expected some people to leave and some have."

But the results, he says, have been extraordinary.

"Our online traffic has been spiking higher each week as we place more breaking news and entertainment information on azcentral," Bushee writes. The Republic and its companion tabloids, like the Mesa Republic and the Scottsdale Republic, he adds, "have been enriched by more expansive local news and deeper connections to readers."

Reporters aren't so sure. Some worry that the serious news coverage that was once the paper's forte may be a thing of the past.

It may not have been the most hard-charging investigative newspaper in the country, but the Republic covered the important stuff, from courts to City Hall.

It's hard to do that well in briefs.

"Maybe we're just too set in our ways," one says. "But for myself and a lot of people, this is not what we signed up for. We wanted to do strong reporting, strong storytelling.

"And if the industry has passed us by, and the things we thought made up good journalism are wrong, maybe it's right for us to get out."

There was a time when the Arizona Republic was awash in money. Of course, we don't know the specifics, because the newspaper was privately owned at the time — owned, in fact, by the Pulliam family, the same clan that gave America Dan Quayle.

But it was obvious that times were good. After a flight heading for Phoenix crashed in the Midwest in 1987, for example, the paper had no fewer than 60 staffers on the story, including a number who were flown to Detroit to cover the wreckage. Then-publisher Pat Murphy says he made the decision without bothering to submit a budget to the paper's owners first.

"We spent thousands of dollars, and I never even checked it with the front office," Murphy marvels.

The Pulliams could afford to be cavalier about expenses. In their heyday, daily newspapers everywhere were flush. And when it came to print advertising, they were practically the only game in town. Big businesses, from car dealers to department stores, were more than willing to pay steep prices for the privilege of advertising on their pages.

The 20th-century Republic marinated in its own clout. It had an agenda, and it didn't hesitate to push it — sometimes with front-page editorials. Phoenix didn't have freeways through the middle of town for years simply because Nina Pulliam, the wife of the paper's publisher, was dead set against them.

When the paper didn't like politicians, they knew it. Evan Mecham, the nutty car dealer turned governor, wrote in his autobiography about Publisher Eugene Pulliam "relishing his 'star is born' capabilities."

"Pulliam's money and power had accustomed him to making public policy by shaping and paternalistically 'speaking his mind' through the printed word directly to politicians," Mecham wrote. "Politicians could either broadly grin and mend their ways while bearing the pressure, or be forever disowned and punished by Pulliam."

It's no wonder the Republic was the paper that people loved to hate.

It had reach: statewide distribution, with bureaus in Prescott and Flagstaff and Tucson and Yuma and Nogales and even Globe. It also had two reporters in Washington, D.C., to cover national politics. The paper sent a reporter to Afghanistan long before the United States dreamed of getting involved there militarily. And when Governor Mecham began to self-immolate, and was eventually impeached, the paper put as many as five reporters on the beat.

"If it was a good story," Murphy says, "we were on it. Whenever it came to spending money, we spent it if we thought it was good for the newspaper."

For the 21st-century Republic, however, everything has changed.

It's not just that the newspaper is now determinedly, often boringly, objective — and much more likely to support the status quo than press an agenda. It's also that most of the bureaus have been shuttered. And the Republic didn't send a reporter to Iraq, even as much smaller papers, from the South Bend Tribune to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, did. A smattering of layoffs earlier this year did nothing to help morale.

The newsroom staff isn't significantly smaller, but it hasn't grown with Maricopa County. The Republic's top award-winner these days is Chris Hawley, who covers Mexico. Hawley was the Arizona Press Club's 2006 Journalist of the Year — a tribute to his talent, to be sure, but also an honor that suggests that no local reporters are getting the space or time to compile such a body of work.

Many of the Valley's most prominent public bodies, including the county Board of Supervisors, rarely get a reporter at their meetings.

Phoenix's once swaggering, agenda-setting hometown paper feels downright neutered.

It would be easy to blame Gannett, the company that acquired the Republic from the Pulliam family in 2000. Publicly traded companies like Gannett have shareholders to satisfy and quarterly numbers to watch. It takes a tight bottom line to keep profits going up.

But blaming Gannett would be ignoring a much bigger trend. Every major metropolitan daily in America is suffering.

Tim McGuire, a professor at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism who studies the business of newspapers, says that the big local advertisers, like car dealers and department stores, pulled back in the '90s. Few people noticed, however, because the booming economy had sent demand for help-wanted ads soaring. Those ads became newspapers' new bread and butter.

Then came the rise of free Internet classifieds, and help-wanted ads migrated en masse to sites like Craigslist.org and Monster.com.

"That's when they knew they were in trouble," McGuire says. After all, department store ads had dramatically eroded. Car dealers weren't buying so many ads, either. The new superstores, Wal-Mart and Target, preferred to run inserts in the Sunday paper instead of full-page ads. Those inserts, McGuire says, are significantly less profitable for newspapers.

The revenue loss was just one part of a devastating double whammy. It wasn't just advertisers who were enjoying other opportunities.

It was readers, too.

Cheaper printing technologies made it easier to start a newspaper or a magazine. Although few are moneymakers, you can find dozens of glossies and community papers throughout this city alone: Think 944, or Phoenix Metropolitan, or even Java.

And, of course, there's the Internet.

It used to be that if you wanted to know what was going on, you had two basic reading choices: an afternoon paper, or a morning one. Today, you can visit any number of news Web sites: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, even the Times of London. And you don't even have to go to a newspaper Web site. Plenty of sites, like the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, or Yahoo! gather the top stories for you. Almost all those stories are 100 percent free to the reader.

And so the daily newspaper is increasingly not The Big Player. It's just one more option — for both readers and advertisers. Major metropolitan dailies have seen their market share erode more every year. They're still the biggest game in town, but with readership fractured into a thousand smaller niches, that game looks more like the minor leagues than Game Seven of the World Series.

Of course, it's not just newspapers. As Chris Anderson explains in his book The Long Tail, new technologies have had similar effects on television, books, CDs, and movies.

In the Internet age, people aren't stuck with the same 10 choices; thanks to Amazon.com, they can order books that are out of print, movies that failed to get distribution deals, and albums that never reach critical mass. And as we head out in a million different directions for content, the market share for bestsellers, and daily newspapers, is dropping precariously.

Consider the Republic. The state's population has grown a staggering 20 percent in the past six years. In that period, the Republic's circulation has actually dropped nearly 11 percent.

What's really crazy: That's not bad by industry standards. If anything, the Republic is doing better than most major dailies. Last year, the L.A. Times lost 8 percent of its circulation in just six months.

In 1953, 1.23 newspapers were sold per household across the country each day, according to the Census Bureau. Today, that number hovers around just 0.5.

The Philadelphia Inquirer laid off 17 percent of its newsroom this winter. The San Francisco Chronicle is about to cut 25 percent, and that's after years of economic reductions.

"Newspapers are now where the film industry was in the 1990s," observes Greg Patterson, a former member of the Arizona Legislature. (His blog, www.espressopundit, has been highly critical of the Republic — and has scooped it more than once. ) "People still take pictures; they just don't use film. Purists will argue that film is a better product. Mainstream journalists will argue that newspapers are more accurate than blogs.

"Tell that to the guy who invented the Betamax."

In 2000, the Pulliams sold their newspapers in Arizona and Indianapolis for $2.6 billion. Since then, everything good and everything bad about the Republic has been Gannett.

Based in McLean, Virginia, Gannett is a media juggernaut: 89 daily newspapers, more than 1,000 nondailies, and 23 TV stations. The company's papers, which include USA Today and the Detroit Free Press, have a paid circulation of 7.2 million.

Gannett still can't seem to get any respect.

Perhaps that's because the company's big metropolitan papers, the Free Press and the Republic, are still fairly recent acquisitions. For decades, Gannett mostly ran its presses in small towns you wouldn't want to visit: Chillicothe, Ohio; Wausau, Wisconsin; Utica, New York.

Even today, the Republic is the chain's second-biggest newspaper, topped only by USA Today.

As much as geography, though, it's the newspapers themselves that get journalism snobs sneering. To some, USA Today, which Gannett launched in 1982, exemplifies everything that's wrong with modern journalism in America. It's all about short stories and even shorter tidbits, colorful graphics, sports statistics, and celebrities. It's "news you can use" — not "all the news that's fit to print."

Really, it wasn't the Internet that first perfected the art of short, pithy journalism. It was Gannett.

A great example? There were two big stories on the day USA Today launched: Lebanon's prime minister was assassinated, and Princess Grace of Monaco died in a car crash. Most big newspapers, naturally, led with the assassination. That was the important news — the significant story.

But as Peter S. Prichard recounts in his book The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today, Gannett's CEO, Al Neuharth, stopped in a bar around 6 p.m. to take the country's temperature.

"The Lebanon thing didn't get a spark out of anyone," Neuharth reported, according to Prichard. "So I went back to the newsroom and told everyone, 'No question, the lead story has to be Princess Grace.'" The Lebanon assassination ran as — no joke — a brief on A-1.

That's Gannett.

Some journalists sneered at that decision: Who cares if the barflies are talking about Princess Grace? They should care about the Lebanese president.

There's a reason, however, that Gannett has been a solid hitter on Wall Street even as more "respectable" media companies are in a death spiral. Maybe USA Today dumbed down the country. More likely, it published the stories that a big chunk of the nation wanted to read. Who's even heard of Bashir Gemayel today? (And there's no question that, if the two deaths occurred today, Web sites everywhere would lead with Princess Grace — and register thousands more hits.)

Clearly, Gannett pays attention. No matter what the problem du jour in the newspaper business, you can bet Gannett is studying it, setting up focus groups to talk about it, and writing up plans to help its newspapers deal with it. And any time one newspaper comes up with something that works, that becomes codified as a "best practice" for the other newspapers to follow.

In its seven years of Gannett ownership, the Republic staff has lived through plenty of corporate enthusiasms.

In 2001, it was Gen X: the kids want stories with attitude and good graphic design, Gannett's focus group concluded. ("Attitude," reported the task force's square-as-could-be chairwoman, "is bold personality, the willingness to take risks, be confident and be smart while maintaining credibility.")

The next year, it was the "Local News Initiative," which stressed the stories about meeting agendas, garbage pickup, and cheerful senior citizens who volunteer. Look at the inside page of the Republic's Valley & State edition pretty much any day of the week. Those boring community stories — a Tempe group is trying to reduce airport noise! The Fountain Hills Fire Department got an $8,000 grant! — are a Gannett mandate.

After local news, it was "convergence," which meant putting print reporters on Gannett-owned Channel 12. That was scrapped when studies showed no increased newspaper pickup after a story was promoted on TV, Republic reporters say. (If you happened to catch any of the reporters' pained performances on Channel 12 during that unfortunate period, you would know why.)

Then came baby boomers: Forget about Gen X attitude, reporters were told. It's boomers who actually read the paper. And the "minority source list": In an effort to quote more people of color, journalists were urged to compile a master list of black and Hispanic sources.

To reporters who've seen so many plans come and go, the "Information Center" is just one more rotation on the same carousel.

"Every couple years, there was a new initiative," says one reporter. "And with every initiative, we would be told, 'Newspapers are declining, you're not going to have jobs in the future — this is all so horrible that we're willing to try anything.'"

But "anything" never seemed to last more than a year.

"They spend so much money to launch something," the reporter says, "and then they'll spend even more money on a cake to say goodbye to it."

Ward Bushee, the Republic's executive editor, has a well-earned reputation as Gannett's golden boy. Unlike the Republic's first editor under Gannett, Tom Callinan, reporters say that he's personable and friendly.

Callinan, or so the joke goes, wasn't even willing to go to the bathroom, because that might mean having to say "hi" to people on staff. Not so Bushee; on his first day, he went around introducing himself to people, stunning the newsroom in the process.

The son of a small-town newspaper editor, Bushee, 58, was a reporter and sports editor at several small California papers before working his way up the Gannett ladder. He was the company's top editor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Reno, Nevada, before Gannett sent him to Cincinnati in the wake of that paper's Chiquita scandal. (A reporter had illegally hacked into the banana company's voice mail, causing a major uproar.) Three years later, in 2002, Gannett sent him to Phoenix.

Each year, Gannett honors its top five editors with something called the "president's ring." The rings have existed for 16 years; Bushee has won 12.

The Republic may get ridiculed around town, but Gannett thinks the paper is great. Even the hated Monday edition, Bushee reports, has been picked by the corporate office as a "best practice" for other papers to emulate.

Reporters don't have a bad word to say about Bushee. They do wonder, though, whether he and other top editors at the Republic actually have a vision of their own.

"I don't think they've spent five minutes thinking about what the paper ought to be," says one reporter. "They think what Gannett tells them to think."

To hear Bushee tell it, though, the Information Center plan is at least partially homegrown. It comes from conversations that began in Phoenix four years ago, he says. Sue Clark Johnson, the former Republic publisher who now runs Gannett's newspaper division, based the Information Center on ideas that percolated during her time in Phoenix.

It's now a company-wide effort. A dozen Gannett papers, including the Republic, spent 2006 working on partial "pilot projects" for the plan. And three Gannett papers took the plunge and became "Information Centers" last year, according to the company's annual report.

Bushee's task was still cut out for him.

It's one thing to reorganize a staff of a dozen reporters and editors. The Phoenix Information Center, Bushee says, is "larger and more complex than others because of the scale of organization" — more than 400 reporters and editors.

There were numerous meetings to explain the new changes, and more than 90 training sessions over an eight-week period. Staff photographers were enlisted to teach writers how to take pictures: Part of the new game plan called for everyone to do a little bit of everything.

There were also sessions on "management/people skills."

"To be successful in the kind of massive organizational change we are attempting requires skills related to the work we produce," Managing Editor Randy Lovely wrote to the staff in March, "and the way we work with each other."

For all the planning, though, there was chaos. Despite the plethora of meetings, no one ever made it clear exactly how, or even if, new Web-based briefs were to be edited before posting. And the Web team was in despair over a plan that split them up and assigned them to work directly with "content managers" — formerly known as editors.

Across the Republic, both reporters and editors were asked to log on to an internal Web site to reapply for their beats. The idea was that everyone had a job, but that assignments might change drastically. (Reporters selling themselves for a new beat were given just 750 characters to explain their strengths.)

In the end, when the changes were announced in March, reporters estimated that at least 80 percent of the paper's reporters stayed on the same beat. But there were enough changes that, one reporter says, it wasn't uncommon to find people consoling each other after a good cry in the bathroom.

The changes seemed designed to keep things short and sweet.

In 2006, the Republic sent features writer Barbara Yost to Europe to cover the development process of Sam Fox's new Scottsdale hotspot, Olive & Ivy. At 5,000 words, the two-part series ran nearly to New Times length — and won Yost a coveted James Beard Award. Yost deserved the assignment; she's long been regarded as one of the paper's best feature writers.

In the new Information Center, Yost has been switched to a beat covering "Scottsdale events." It's a far cry from a European assignment.

Karina Bland is a respected award-winning news reporter who, in 2002, spent nearly a year covering problems at Child Protective Services. Her work single-handedly made the agency one of the biggest issues in that year's gubernatorial race.

In the new Information Center, Bland is the Republic's "busy mom reporter." She now writes occasionally for the printed newspaper but blogs regularly on a new Web site for young mothers. (That site, www.az central.com/families, is closely based on one that originated last year at Gannett's Indianapolis paper.)

Five of the Republic's news reporters are now mobile journalists, or "mojos." And two of the paper's five columns — the ones by Jon Talton and Richard Ruelas, both left-leaning by Republic standards — were cut.

Ruelas was shifted to a job writing features, which at today's Republic is the equivalent of interning at Ladies' Home Journal. (Ruelas used to be one of the only Republic reporters willing to dog Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Instead, his big story last week was called "Keep Your Cool: Five Ways to Prepare Your Home for the Hot Times Ahead.")

Offered a reporting gig, Talton chose to quit.

"Gannett and the Republic took a lot of heat for me, but they supported me for six and a half years," he says. "They offered me a different job, but it's not why I came here. I wish them well, but it's not what I came here to do."

A hometown boy, Talton returned to Phoenix after a long, successful career as a reporter and editor. (Talton also writes mystery novels.) He's skeptical that shorter stories and mobile journalists are the best way for a newspaper to weather the Internet age.

"There's an amazing amount of group think in this industry that values stories that are shorter and dumber," he says. "You could argue that in the age in the Internet, you have to do more in-depth, more authoritative coverage. But newspaper executives don't have a variety of ideas of how to succeed, because they're so used to monopoly markets."

Faced with slumping ad revenue, newspaper executives sought salvation in Web-based advertising, hoping they could make enough money to compensate for the printed paper's circulation losses. After all, many people who don't subscribe to the printed edition now read it online for free. Online ads, some newspaper executives assumed, could reap the benefit of their page views.

But it hasn't been that easy.

Newspapers' share of local online advertising has actually shrunk in the past two years, according to the consulting firm Borrell Associates. That's happening even as newspapers have invested more money into online products — and more time into figuring out how to make the Web pay off.

An Inland Cost and Revenue Study, which appears to have been first cited in the Wall Street Journal, found that each subscriber is worth $500 to $900 in advertising revenue for a newspaper. But a unique visitor to a Web site, the study found, is only worth about $10, if the paper is lucky.

Tom Mohr, former president of Knight Ridder Digital, spent last year running ASU's New Media Innovation Lab, a public-private partnership aimed at helping the Republic figure out how to make money online.

He knows that's a difficult task. "In 11 years of newspapers being on the Web, there hasn't been a single success story from a product coming out of newspapers," he says.

And that's because the model has shifted, he says. It's not about local ad reps persuading local businesses to buy online ads on the local newspaper's Web site. People don't go to azcentral.com to buy plane tickets — even tickets out of Sky Harbor. They go to national travel sites, like Orbitz.

Mohr believes that, for the Web to become a real revenue source, newspapers will have to form a national consortium and force search sites like Google to cut them in on their ad profits. For all his excitement about the idea, he knows it's a tall order. "It requires the newspaper industry to do something it's never been able to do: work together," he says.

Until that happens, papers like the Republic are going to have to tough it out — or find their own way. Bushee gets that. "It will take time for the online revenue to grow to the level that print has enjoyed for many years," he acknowledges.

But Bushee doesn't seem to question whether hyping the Web is the way to go.

"Journalism has always resisted change," he says. "The most scary thing would be to do nothing. I think we all wish we had started five years ago rather than five months ago. We had to start catching up."

The question is whether the Information Center is moving in the right direction to do that.

Jon Talton, the paper's former columnist, remains unconvinced that briefs are the way to attract dedicated readers, the kind willing, perhaps, to subscribe to an online newspaper.

"The Wall Street Journal is able to sell its content online, and the New York Times is able to sell some of it because they have superior journalism that you need to read," Talton says.

"If a newspaper is recycling press releases, writing one-source stories, or putting out cheerleader stories about how great everything's going — nobody is going to pay for that."

Everybody's talking about the death of printed newspapers. (Well, everybody at printed newspapers is talking about the death of printed newspapers.) But for all the layoffs and financial turmoil, rumors of the industry's demise appear to be greatly exaggerated.

Thanks to the Internet, we can read pretty much any newspaper we want, any time we want — for free. The Republic's content has been online, and free, for 12 years.

We still keep buying the paper.

The Republic had a circulation of 418,344 at the end of 2006, growing to 525,967 on Sundays.

It's worth remembering, in the end, just how big the Republic is, even today. For all the worries about saving a sinking ship, for all the examples of its shrinking influence, it's still the biggest game in town.

And though Bushee says that a half-million people now check out azcentral.com at least once a week, that's still a smaller number than the people who read the Sunday paper alone.

"People are really concerned that newspapers are losing 3 to 4 percent of their circulation each year," McGuire says. "But you're still talking a huge market share. You look at products from laundry detergent to toothpaste — nobody commands that percentage of a local audience. It's still big.

"Everybody focuses on the future, because that's how Wall Street judges things," McGuire says. "But the fact is, the present ain't chopped liver."

Still, you can't blame Wall Street for wondering: Are all those subscribers going to stick around when even the newspaper itself seems to be saying its best days are over?

Bushee says that the skinny Monday paper, for example, didn't result in cancelled subscriptions. But it's hard to imagine it added many, either.

And the changes to the printed paper that have resulted from the new Information Center model are a mixed bag, at best. What comes off as snarky and amusing online, and perhaps, even makes sense in a small-town newspaper, seems odd in a major metropolitan daily.

When the editorial page has already shrunk to three-quarters of a full-page spread on most days, it's appalling to see a whole corner devoted to an unflattering picture of a politician and reader-written captions. And forum posts seldom seem all that illuminating, even when they're onscreen.

In the paper, they can seem downright stupid.

Maybe the Republic is giving readers what they want. Bushee certainly seems to think so.

But maybe not, says David Leibowitz, a former Republic columnist and current vice president of Moses Anshell advertising agency.

He still subscribes to the paper and is happy to list its strengths.

But he's skeptical about its plans for the future.

"Nobody's ever going to say, 'I want a long, complicated narrative about the way things work in the world,'" he says. "But given the chance to read a compelling story, people may jump at the chance. The problem is, they don't often get the chance."

Leibowitz has frequently worked with focus groups. In the advertising world, they have their benefits. But they also have their limits, he warns.

"That stuff can work to your detriment because it relieves you of the responsibility of making a decision," he says. "If you get it wrong, and you've spent thousands of dollars to retrofit a newspaper to the Web — well, it's nice to be able to blame it on what the 'research' said."

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