By at least one yardstick, Myra Neben is better off than most other newspaper editors.
Often, if editors get any response at all from their readers, the feedback comes in the form of furious letters, which occasionally look as if they were written by someone who held the Crayola with both hands.
Neben gets cookies.
That's what happens, she says, when you run a paper in a small community where the readers are not only intelligent, concerned and well-read, but also happen to have a lot of time to look over your publication--and to make an occasional visit with an armload of cookies.
Neben is the editor of the Leisure World News, which may be the most thoroughly read newspaper in Orange County. With an audited circulation of 11,500, the tabloid-size paper is a weekly chronicle of both life in the Laguna Hills retirement community and issues elsewhere that affect it, from news of the latest meeting of a bridge club to coverage of the drive for Laguna Hills cityhood.
When Volume 25, No. 1 of the Leisure World News appeared on doorsteps and news racks throughout the community on St. Patrick's Day, it marked the paper's 25th year of publication. The News, in fact, is only about 6 months younger than Leisure World itself.
The front page of that first issue is displayed on a wall in the reception area of the paper's small office in Leisure World's administration building. Three people run the show from there: Neben, one reporter and a secretary.
During most of each week, Neben and her staff sift through stacks of mail, most of which is from the Byzantine network of Leisure World clubs and organizations whose announcements represent the core of the paper's editorial content.
Neben said that about 15% of the stories are "hard news," covering issues and events that "directly affect Leisure World in some way. We don't try to report national and international events unless they do that."
For example, she said, the News ventured into international territory when it carried its own accounts of the 1977 collision of two 747 airliners on the ground in the Canary Islands. Thirty Leisure World residents died in the crash.
More commonly, the paper's hard news content is local. The hot topic lately has been the Laguna Hills cityhood measure that will appear on the June 6 ballot. Neben said the issue, which has divided the community, has inspired an avalanche of letters to the editor, a prominent and popular feature of the News.
"It gets very lively," Neben said. "When I first started here, there was no word limit on letters to the editor, and they tended to run on ad infinitum, just pages and pages. But with the community growing, we just could not accommodate everyone who wanted to have their say. Now the limit is 250 words, on any subject, and they must be signed. We do get letters about Nicaragua and communism and things like that, but most of them have to do with Leisure World topics."
For example, she said that the periodic eradicating of rabbits in the community ignites a flow of letters. "From time to time, maintenance goes on a rabbit eradicating campaign because the (wild) rabbits eat people's strawberries. So we get letters for and against the rabbits. It goes on for a few weeks, and it's always a big topic." Feature stories on residents are frequent, said Neben, as is coverage of open committee meetings within the community. However, the Leisure World News remains predominantly an organ for the publication of news of clubs and other community organizations. Often, she said, their notices about activities must be edited in order to fit around the abundant advertising--much of it purchased by local retailers and banks--that appears in the News.
The News is a moneymaker for its parent company, Orange County-based Golden West Publishing, and much of the revenue comes from advertising, Neben said (rates range from nearly $35 per issue for a business card-size ad running weekly for a year to $1,952 for a single ad taking up two facing pages and running one time only).
In fact, the News is the only one of the company's nine south Orange County community newspapers that is a "pay-to-receive" paper (the others depend on periodic voluntary payments from readers). The paper is delivered to homes in Leisure World for $11 a year and mailed outside the community for $25 a year. Neben said most of the estimated 500 subscribers outside Leisure World are former residents.
"It was our first newspaper," said David McAdam, the editor of Golden West publishing's community papers. "It launched the other papers, and it's been a very steady, popular newspaper both from a readership and an advertising standpoint. It's such a unique product. It wouldn't do anyone any good who lives even a quarter of a mile away from Leisure World, but the package works very well for the people who do live there. I think the paper has to be thought of as being in a class by itself."
McAdam estimated that 85% of Leisure World residents read the News, which he said is an unusually high rate of penetration of a particular market by a newspaper.
Also, he said, many Leisure World residents have--or make--time to "read the paper from cover to cover."
"It's probably the best-read paper in the world," said former editor Annette McCluskey. "If we'd be late in getting the paper out for any reason, if the printer was late by a few hours, we'd get 5,000 calls.
"They want it on their doorstep by 7 in the morning. And you probably get more feedback at the Leisure World News than at any other newspaper. The people really feel like it's their paper."
Sometimes the readers' scrutiny becomes exact. "These are very educated people," said Neben, "and they may have been teachers or grammarians. We have a gentleman who calls regularly to say we misspelled a word on Page 34 or something." However, Neben said, she has become accustomed to working in a kind of small-town newspaper fishbowl--in an office that is an invitingly short walk from most subscribers' homes.
"When I first started here almost 12 years ago," she said, "I figured I'd be here a year and then I'd go on to something else. But this community grows on you. You get feedback you don't get anywhere else. There are frustrations, but it's fun in the long run. And you get cookies. You're well-fed. Where else do you get that?"