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Slouching Toward Bethlehem

It's been known for some time that Gannett's Tucson Citizen has been taking a hard look at its future.

We speculated a little on it back in August. For example, one thought floating around is that maybe the Citizen would go tabloid. The trigger for that was the hiring some months ago of page designer Jennifer Judge Hensel, who'd been designing pages for Mark Evans at the EXPLORER.

Taking the Citizen tabloid could get interesting, especially in the advertising offices at Tucson's Newspapers, which handles advertising, business, circulation and production services for the Citizen and the Arizona Daily Star. That's because one of the advantages to life in the world of joint newspaper agencies is that it's supposed to be really convenient for advertisers: one rep, same column widths and page formats, and you could pick the ad up from one and run it in the other.

To give you a rough idea of how the tabloid approach could be a problem, think of what that would do to a grocery ad that would run as a full page in the Star. Somehow, that ad would have to be resized and repriced for the Citizen, and still retain legibility. Or maybe just run sideways.

Some other ideas about the Citizen's future, or lack thereof, were based on scenarios that have happened elsewhere in the industry. For example, when we write about joint operating agreements--such as the Tucson deal, in which a stronger paper is legally required to keep the weak one financially alive--we usually count only "active" ones, the ones where there are still two newspapers.

We seldom count "ghost JOAs"--the ones in which the weak newspaper folded, but its owners get a piece of the action for years beyond. And it would make some economic sense if Lee and Gannett agreed on such a deal. Lee probably would like to make more money in Tucson, especially with the line of credit it set up for the Pulitzer takeover.

That said, there's a faint glimmer of news on the street. Folks in the newsroom have been told that the Citizen's planned January "repositioning" is being postponed to early March.

But that's all the rank and file in the newsroom know about the deal. And we all know how it feels when we have an itch we can't reach to scratch.

The supposed reason for the delay is that someone somewhere--either in the wonderful world of focus groups or in Gannett's McLean, Va., puzzle palace--didn't like what they saw. So things are being reworked.

The real unhappy moment came not long ago, when an imported writing coach was given a gander at some of the plans and told some staffers that what was on the drawing board looked great. But when pressed for details, the coach clammed up.

Now THERE's a motivational moment.

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