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— As a catalyst to developing the initiative, a number of Union-Tribune employees gathered at a recent Readership Conference to listen to innovative, challenging ideas from industry thinkers both outside and within the Union-Tribune family.

Concepts from that conference have been gathered under a few umbrella topics that will get considerable discussion and action at all levels of the organization in the next few months.

Who? What? When? Where? Why? The release never says. This continues with a quote from editor Karin Winner.

"The coming months will be full of change, rapid and exciting, as we head into the next year," Winner is quoted as saying. "For our newspaper to grow and become indispensible [sic] to the region, we have to elevate the quality, earn the trust of our readers and be more responsive to their needs. The better we are, the more our constituents will want to read us. It's a win-win for everybody, but especially for the community."

Problems of credibility and distrust are hardly unique to the U-T. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is conducting a three-year study looking into the problem of public distrust, which affects papers nationwide. An ASNE-sponsored study last year, for instance, found that, nationwide, readers think papers are filled with errors, condescending, biased, and divorced from the communities they purport to serve.

The U-T, of course, has all those problems and more, including some that could have a real impact on circulation and imperil the 400/500 campaign, sources say.

There's the paper's still-unresolved labor dispute with its pressroom workers, who are said to be in the process of asking their union for permission to begin strike preparations. A full-blown strike in that department could not only prompt a boycott of the paper but disrupt the smooth flow of papers and complicate customer retention.

There's some evidence -- including a recent front-page note from Winner to readers, apologizing for late papers -- that some of the pressroom employees are getting cute and engaging in unsanctioned slowdowns to protest management's recent treatment of the union.

Back in the third-floor newsroom, meanwhile, the effort to get reporters and editors to pull together may run into some trouble. In less than 45 days, the Newspaper Guild, which was thrown out last June by a narrow margin, will be allowed for the first time in 12 months to try to reorganize the newsroom. Though sources say the effort is unlikely to bring the Guild back anytime soon, it could be polarizing, reopening old wounds and undermining the spirit of cooperation the 400/500 plan needs.

Sources question the timing of management's campaign for another reason: Within the past few weeks, three veteran reporters -- Uri Berliner, Rex Dalton, and David Harpster -- have left the paper, compounding the disruption caused by the reassignment of more than half a dozen key editors, including Bill Gaspard, Rick Levinson, R.B. Brenner, Lori Hearn, Aida Bustos-Garcia, and Suzanne Choney.

"I don't think we've had this many bodies in motion since the [1991] merger [of the San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune]," says one old hand. "Does anybody know where the paper's headed? The staff doesn't know."

Of course, if the 400/500 campaign were to fall short of its goals for any reason, Bell could always just goose the numbers and declare victory. One way to do that would be to include "total circulation," which includes heavily discounted and complimentary copies not normally counted in the current paid circulation figures, in the U-T's readership calculations. Usually the Audit Bureau of Circulations only counts copies sold at a discount of 50 percent or less off the newsstand price. But nowhere in the materials does Bell mention ABC-audited readership.

James B. Kelleher is a former assistant business editor at the Union-Tribune.

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