Media Watch

SHOP TALK: It's been around for 25 years, but the Tucson Shopper is calling itself new.

"We've turned it from an old-style shopper into a shopping magazine," says publisher Jim Gressinger, who, with J.R. Matthews, bought the ailing publication last October. "As far as I know, it's the only weekly shopping magazine in the country."

Virtually every mailbox owner in Tucson knows the Shopper, but for a long time, most of us have regarded it as little more than Thursday's junk mail. Its 48 or so weekly pages of classified and display ads have had so little impact that the publication had been in foreclosure, kept in print by Wells Fargo until a buyer could be found.

And that turned out to be Gressinger, the former publisher of the Maryland Pennysaver Group, with a weekly circulation of 1.2 million; two dailies and five weeklies out of Costa Mesa, Calif.; California Business Magazine; the Houston Business Journal; and, among still other things, the Phoenix Business Journal (1985-86).

"My expertise happens to be in turning around broken publications," he says. "We will turn this one around by May." He couldn't yet offer any revenue projections, though. "At this point," he admitted, "we don't even have a real budget."

So what's new since Gressinger revamped the Shopper Jan. 14? For one thing, he says, advertisers who've been testing the waters are now getting response from their Shopper ads, and are signing on for longer-term contracts. That suggests that people are actually looking at the thing rather than tossing it straight into the recycling bin.

"We have put an enormous investment into radio and television advertisements to get people to look at it again," says Gressinger, "because now it has really good editorial content; it's interesting, and it's useful."

New, short features include a gardening column, restaurant reviews, a shopping advice column and an events column called "Tucson Live" by long-ago Tucson Weekly editor Howard Allen.

Says Gressinger, "Our entire focus is driving readership into the magazines." Magazines, plural? Technically, yes. Each week, the Shopper distributes 20 slightly different editions, advertising-wise, to as many zones across the city. The two daily papers have done the same thing for years, but on a much more modest scale.

And it's thanks to the dailies' declining market penetration that Gressinger believes the Shopper can live again. "On weekdays, 200,000 households in Tucson don't get the daily paper," he says. "I like the Star, but it's no longer an efficient advertising vehicle.

"My bet," he declares, "is this will be the fastest turnaround I've ever done." His previous record? Nine months.

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