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EXPANDING EXPLORER

Tucson's northwest side continues to expand faster than Tom Cruise's ego, and the area's weekly newspaper is growing, too.

This month, the Northwest Explorer must find desk space for a total of five full-time reporters. New to the staff are Christina Vanoverbeke, who is covering the town of Oro Valley and Amphi Public Schools, and Dale Quinn, whose beat is the town of Marana and Marana Unified School District.

Vanoverbeke has patiently been working her way west during the past three years. Before arriving in Tucson, she served as an education writer for the Tribune Chronicle in Warren, Ohio. Before that, she covered Hancock County, W. Va., for the East Liverpool Review. She's a graduate of Youngstown State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and education.

Quinn is fresh out of California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo with degrees in journalism and social sciences. He has the difficult job of replacing assistant editor Patrick Cavanaugh, who quit in May to become Pima County Supervisor Ann Day's chief aide.

"He went over to the dark side," grouses editor Mark Evans. "That was a devastating loss. He was the best journalist in the county." In 1999, the Arizona Press Club named Cavanaugh Community Journalist of the Year. Last year, Cavanaugh received the Press Club's Don Bolles award for investigative journalism, after his tough reporting led to the early retirement of trouble-prone Marana police chief David Smith.

Not exactly new to the staff are Chris Wuensch, whose part-time news assistant position has expanded to full-time with the addition of the sports beat, and Laura Marble, who had been covering education but has moved into the paper's newly created full-time photojournalist slot.

So that brings the Explorer's full-time editorial staff to five reporters, one photographer, one designer and one editor. It sounds small, but that's a more solid staffing than that of some other local weeklies we could name.

According to Evans, the paper's circulation is up to 36,000, which is ahead of the Tucson Citizen's alarmingly low average this year of less than 32,000. But then, all but about 5,000 copies of the Explorer are handed out free.

"We're growing tremendously," says Evans. "This is our best year financially ever, in the face of some serious competition from the Star."

Last year, the morning daily started going after the Explorer's readership more aggressively by converting its northwest section to tabloid size and setting up racks to give it away free. "They had a very expensive ad campaign that pimped the product for a couple of months up here," says Evans, "but so far, it's had little to no effect. That's a reflection of our editorial content as well as the quality of our sales team.

"'Community newspaper' is a condescending term within the profession," Evans admits. "It's considered lesser journalism. But that's not us. I don't do the bake sale stories. I take advantage of our lesser frequency to do better stories on bigger issues. In a competitive market where we're up against bigger media, if there's, god forbid, a plane crash on Tuesday after our deadline, and I come out eight days later and say there's been a plane crash, I don't impress anybody. I've got to get a bigger story about the crash, why it happened and how it affects people. We take that approach to everything we do up here, like trying to find out why the Marana school superintendent was forced out. We haven't figured that out yet, but we will.

"The area's growing like crazy and so is the paper," says Evans. "The Star might wish that we weren't here, but we are, and we're not going anywhere. We're going to be the community newspaper of the northwest."


RATINGS RECAP

The spring radio ratings are in, and who's ahead depends on who you ask.

Advertisers slobber over the 18- to 34-year-old audience, which is supposedly free with its money and eager to buy stuff that's pitched in commercials on their favorite stations. So in that demographic, it's no surprise that KFMA, with its steady stream of the Beastie Boys and Modest Mouse, has moved into the top slot, changing places with second-best KRQQ.

But in the other significant age breakdowns (ignoring gender), KIIM, Tucson's lone country-Western voice, leads the pack. It's way ahead among the 25- to 54-year-olds, and maintains a comfy lead in the 18- to 49- and 35-to 64-year-old categories.

That 35 and older audience is becoming increasingly important to advertisers, what with the Baby Boomers getting old but not getting cheap. As long as they consume, pollsters and advertisers will care about them.

That's why it's probably disappointing for KWMT, The Mountain, with its grownup AAA format, to have lost ground after a strong winter debut. In its target 35- to 64-year-old demographic, it's slipped to tie KRQ for seventh place, down from fifth. Among the 25- to 54-year-old age group, it's plummeted from fourth to 10th. The novelty has already worn off.

Among stations that have dramatically risen in the ranks since winter are, among 18- to 34-year-olds, KHYT-FM (fourth, up from 13th) and KLPX (fifth, up from 10th). The folks at KHYT must be heartened by this news, after losing a quarter of their audience over the past year, but the real mystery now is why 18- to 34-year-olds are flocking back to the station's classic-rock format.

What simple rankings don't tell you, though, is that once you get past the top two or three stations in each demographic, there's not that much of a difference in the share of listeners per quarter hour from one station to the next. In most categories, the fourth- through seventh-ranked stations, for example, are pretty much neck and neck.

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