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— The San Diego Union-Tribune has launched what its top brass is calling a "major initiative" to boost circulation at the paper, which serves America's sixth-largest city but barely makes the top-20 list nationally in terms of readership.

The drive, one of four separate efforts now underway in the U-T's Mission Valley offices to rethink the way the paper does business, doesn't sound terribly audacious. Gene Bell, the newspaper's president and CEO, says that over the next three years he hopes to boost daily sales of the paper to 400,000 from 380,000 and Sunday sales to 500,000 from 455,000.

But in an industry where readership has fallen steadily over the past 30 years, the initiative is quite ambitious -- especially since key details of the program, including precisely how the paper plans to win new readers, haven't been worked out yet.

Sources say that hasn't stopped Bell and his management team from turning the drive into the paper's new organizing principle, circulating a six-page mission statement to employees, building special suggestion boxes around the office, handing out coffee mugs emblazoned with the campaign slogans, and appointing steering committees to get the ball rolling.

The materials, however, paint a somewhat troubling picture of one of San Diego's oldest and most influential institutions, one where top managers -- the county's key opinion-shapers -- seem to be groping to answer one simple question.

Does anyone know what we're doing?

"Why 400,000/500,000?" the company says in a handout distributed to employees to kick off the campaign. "We want to thrive, not just survive." It continues:

We want to become a growth organization rather than a business in decline. We want to get ahead of threats to our industry, to protect our franchise and our role as a news and information source.

The percentage of San Diegans who read our paper has declined over the past couple of decades -- from over 60% in 1974 to under 40% in 1999. While some in the industry accept readership decline as inevitable, we're not ready to wave that white flag.

We're proud of what newspapers have meant to culture, countries and communities. We want to be essential to our community. We want to provide a better market for advertisers. We want to be a model for the industry.

400/500 is more than just a nice round number. It represents us regaining penetration and readers. It represents all of us creatively striving to reach an ambitious but attainable goal. As a newspaper or industry, we cannot shrink our way to greatness. We need to build on our current successes while we are financially healthy. Now is the time.

That's the good news. The rest of the six-page overview raises more questions than it answers. About the newspaper's content, for instance, it asks, "How do we get our newspaper talked about by everyone, everyday [sic]?" "What is it that we deliver to the reader?... How can we grow readership among and better connect with [minorities]?... Should we have a regular Sunday 'trademark' such as an investigative piece? Should our Sunday paper have a distinct personality from the daily?"

But the question many staffers want answered first is more fundamental. Whose bright idea, they ask, was it to launch a huge marketing campaign when the paper doesn't even have a marketing director? Rick Ott, the last man to hold the job, left the U-T last year, and his replacement still has not been named.

"It looks like they're going into battle without a key general," says one perplexed staffer who, like everyone interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified.

How serious, others wonder, is the U-T about seeing the 400/500 program through? A few years ago, they say, Bell and his top lieutenants were touting the precepts of Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) as the paper's new organizing principles. Today, says one editor who lived through the fad, "Covey's dead."

How vulnerable is Bell's circulation drive to volatile variables like a rise in newsprint prices (the paper's second biggest expense after payroll) or to a strike by the paper's press operators?

"If we have to raise the price of the newspaper to cover higher costs," one newsroom veteran says, "subscribers will cancel like crazy and you can kiss that circulation increase good-bye. We'll be losing readers, not gaining them."

Another question among bureau reporters is this: Will management use the campaign to refocus on East County and South Bay, regions that have been underserved by the paper as it concentrated on wooing affluent suburbanites in North County?

"They've written them off for a long time," one staffer says, "and readers are realizing that. All the resources are going north. For a long time now, they have had only one assistant metro editor running both the east and south bureaus. Can you imagine that?"

Reporters and editors say they're also confused about how the 400/500 drive fits in with other existing company-wide corporate-improvement campaigns, including the GE Work-Out program, a Quality Circle campaign, and the Partners 2000 program, which was profiled in last week's Editor & Publisher.

"These things overlap a lot," says another reporter, "and the problem is you don't know which one is for real and which one is the flavor of the week."

The sheer number of new titles being handed out leaves little doubt: 400/500 is definitely for real, for now. As part of the effort, Bill Gaspard, the senior editor who helped turn the U-T's graphics, design, and photo staff into an award-winning team, has been press-ganged out of visuals and recommissioned "Senior Editor/Readership." Coffee mugs bearing a logo that reads "400/500: People, Passion, Principles" have been issued to employees. The back of the mug reads:

400/500 B.H.A.G.S.

(Big Hairy Audacious Goals)

To thrive, not just survive

To better reflect our community

To be a model to our industry To take charge of our future

The U-T's management is so excited about the program that it issued a press release -- an unusual move from the taciturn flagship of the Copley Press.

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