Media Watch

MORE-NEWS NEWSPAPER: Things may be looking up for hard-news junkies dismayed by the Arizona Daily Star's softening content during the past 10 years. Interestingly, the changes are being driven by readership studies, which inspired the "happy-talk" turn the Star took in the mid '90s.

Back then, Star management interpreted the results of reader surveys and focus groups to mean that people were tired of traditional government and cops-and-courts reporting, and would rather read "good news" and stories about things directly affecting their own lives. Thus, the Star launched a campaign to cover neighborhood doings formerly deemed too trivial for more than cursory mention. It also moved the non-news-driven but interesting feature stories that used to dominate the Accent section forward in the paper (leaving Accent to flounder as a low-cal, wire-dependent version of People magazine).

Now, Star management is interpreting new studies done by the paper and the Readership Institute to mean that people want real news after all. Early this month, the Star announced in its pages several little "improvements," many of them fairly cosmetic--except for two roundtables per month featuring comments by "local experts on national or international issues." This will be a welcome change from the vox-pop pieces that have been littering newspapers around the country. Outside the letters to the editor, newspapers don't need to devote space to uninformed opinions; that's what talk radio and the Internet are for.

But the Star has not publicized some changes that Metro editor Tim Konski outlined in a staff memo last month. Most of the Metro changes, he wrote, "are intended to enhance our Sunday content to help meet the newsroom-wide goal of producing a newsier Sunday paper." Perhaps the last straw was the embarrassment of having Lord of the Rings splashed all over page A1 on a Sunday that turned out to be a very heavy news day.

Potentially good changes include what Konski calls "people-focused news ... telling stories through the perspective of someone who is affected"--rather than focusing exclusively on the canned blather of bureaucrats and politicians. Of course, this could result in more crank stories, like the one about the bicyclist who was pissed off because he was ticketed for speeding in a school zone.

Also, Konski promises a different focus for coverage of police, crime and the judicial system. "We will put a new emphasis on shorter stories about individual crimes and round up more of them in briefs packages," he writes. Now, the word "shorter" could mean that cops and courts will end up with fewer column inches than they have now. But it's also possible that concision will allow more of these stories to get into the paper, free of the usual comments from neighbors and bystanders who didn't actually witness anything.

But news junkies shouldn't get too excited just yet. Konski's memo announces the introduction of "a miniprofile on someone who is driving the news," but his examples--which I'll keep vague since this is coming from a leaked internal memo--are a local non-controversial novelist and a collector of unusual artifacts. These would be great features in the old Accent section, but are their subjects truly "driving the news"?

These announcements come after the latest disheartening circulation figures for the Star. According to Pulitzer Inc., the paper's parent company, daily circulation (Monday-Saturday) was down 0.8 percent in 2003 compared to the previous year, and for Sunday, the paper's biggest day, circulation dropped 0.4 percent. Circulation revenue for 2003 was down nearly 1 percent compared to 2002. This, alone, is nothing to panic about, but it's one pixel in a larger and worse picture.

The Star's low market penetration--the percentage of local households getting the paper--is alarming. The paper's circulation is not even remotely keeping up with Tucson's population growth. By one estimate, whereas the Sunday Star had something like 60-percent market penetration a decade ago, now it's down to around 40 percent.

So the Star has a financial interest in boosting readership--even if that means edging back toward traditional news values.

DOWN AND OUT ON KXCI: For the second time, KXCI-FM 91.3, is airing The Homelessness Marathon. Every year, in the dead of winter, a fellow going by the name of Nobody stands outdoors overnight running a national radio call-in show about the homeless, with comments from advocacy groups and the homeless themselves. (If you're homeless and have access to a phone, you can participate in the show by calling 866-533-8688.)

At the bottom of each hour, KXCI will feature local advocacy groups, including Casa Maria, the Salvation Army, the Community Food Bank and Brewster Center. If you're reading this after our publication date, you've unfortunately missed the show; it starts at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12 and runs to 7 the next morning.

Also, KXCI is celebrating Black History Month with Moments to Remember, one-minute modules in which scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses past and present African Americans who have served vital roles in politics, science, entertainment, the arts and other fields. Four different modules air every weekday, at 7:43 and 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 5:15 p.m.

And although Black History Month too often ghettoizes African-American heritage into the shortest month, leaving us free to ignore it the rest of the year, KXCI is going to work Moments to Remember into its ongoing module mix starting in March.

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