Since January, however, it's been another story. First, the Northwest Explorer shortened its name and began covering the Catalina Foothills School District. Then, the Arizona Daily Star launched a photo-driven weekly section in the area. Earlier this summer, one of Gannett's multitudinous subsidiaries launched a slick monthly magazine. Now the word is getting around that Lee Enterprises also has designs on the 'Hills with a slick haute cuisine and "how the posh shop" magazine.
With that kind of situation, you couldn't blame Desert Leaf publisher Mary Swiergol for pulling a Garboesque "I vant to be alone" vamp. But that's not her style. In a recent interview, Swiergol was both upbeat and gracious about the sudden swarm of competitors.
"Well, the Explorer has a small part of the 1-8 ZIP code (which covers much of the Foothills), but we've been in a small part of Oro Valley for about 10 years," Swiergol said.
"Let the best publications win," she said, adding that she hopes the 18-year-old publication's local ownership and unique content will help retain reader and advertiser loyalty. "I hope we'll still be OK. But it's hard to know which way the tides will turn."
The problem, in a way, is that while all the publications are competing for the advertising dollars, everyone's working a specific content niche.
"We're all different in our own ways," she said of the situation. "We're not a newspaper. We're not a magazine. We don't really follow any rules."
She said the publication will roll out a new format in January and will be going to a coated stock paper. The Desert Leaf won't be going to a full-color glossy book, because "there are plenty of magazines around. I thought Tucson Lifestyle and the Tucson Guide were quite sufficient."
And, she suggested, the newcomers might be in for something of an economic surprise.
"I don't understand the Tucson economy, the housing prices," she said. "But I think money's tight; advertising budgets are tight. People are cautious, and people are getting hungry."
Hungry enough in some cases, she said, that some of the community's smaller publishers have been sharing information and discussing the "what-ifs" that arise while you're trying to keep your business going in the shadow of a pair of national giants.
If that's the case, sometimes it works probably a little too well for Gannett's liking, considering something we saw the other day in a local convenience store.
A customer laid out his purchases on the counter, including a copy of USA Today. Because of some promotion, the clerk asked the customer if he wanted the newspaper. The customer said he already had one. The newspaper was the last item rung up, and the display read "$0.35."
"But I have a USA Today," the customer said, pointing out that "The Nation's Newspaper" costs 75 cents.
"It's that blue," the clerk said. "Every time I see that blue, I ring up the Citizen."
Diogenes would have been proud.
It's true that the Star's signature columnists--Richard Ducote, Greg Hansen, Bonnie Henry, Ernesto Portillo Jr.--frequently offer up their opinions. And when that happens, an "opinion" bug is warranted.
But most columnists who work outside the op-ed pages land those jobs because they're solid journalists with something extra--a writing style that enables the reader to feel some empathy toward the subject, an unusual eye for the details that make a story more than recited facts. As a result, columns sometimes have no opinion at all. It's like Michael Keaton told Randy Quaid in The Paper: "You're not a columnist. You're a reporter (who) writes long."
The readers suggested that completeness, rather than length alone, should be the newsroom's concern.
Some reporters live to write. Some reporters prefer to dump their notebooks into the story, rather than sifting everything to help the reader understand the story.
All in all, it seems that story count is out, and word count is in. One of my mentors is prone to grumbling that he's tired of seeing a newsy headline atop a story where the news remains invisible until the seventh paragraph. There's a way to resolve it: It's called Feldman's Koan, espoused by Dave Feldman, a long-ago UA journalism prof and former Arizona Daily Star copy editor.
It was a simple thing. Sometimes he'd make a class assignment without a story length. At some point, a hand would go up, and a plaintive voice would ask: "How long do you want this story to be?"
Feldman would stand quietly for a moment, then ask the class: "How long is a piece of string?"
A silence usually ensued. Finally he'd explain: "Just long enough to tie up the package. Too short and you have to cut more string. Too long and you're wasting string."
And another roomful of college students would nod sagely, stick another sheet of copy paper in the Underwood, and start banging away at a story in the basement of the old Liberal Arts Building.