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Homey tabloid is talk of town

For the three decades she has lived in Sulphur Springs, Hazel Scaggs has been picking up the Penny Saver. The smudgy tabloid that sells for a dime at grocery stores and local shops has become a community journal for the longtime seamstress and her neighbors, a way to find out about charity auctions and community picnics, about what local politicians are talking about and how they are voting.

"I work the puzzle," said Scaggs, who sews in her small shop at the Sulphur Springs Harbor Club. "Then I read all the news. And I don't read any of the ads."

Longtime residents of the old community along the Hillsborough River in north Tampa have been perusing the Penny Saver since 1943. But like the neighborhood, which in recent years has struggled against drugs and decay, the hometown tabloid has seen some changes.

The power behind the 16-page newspaper, with its homey homilies mixed with political news, is Linda Hope, a longtime resident and community activist who is also president of the Sulphur Springs Action League.

Hope, 47, says it seemed almost inevitable that she would return someday to the newspaper that provided her first real job when she graduated from Hillsborough High in 1959 _ writing a column called "The Teen Scene."

After moving away and raising a family, Hope returned to the Springs and was dismayed at what she saw.

The businesses that once made up the bustling town center were gone. Drugs had turned the streets into a war zone. And it seemed as if people had given up.

"I said, "My God.' People here were so discouraged by what had happened here. It just broke their hearts," she recalled.

The Action League, formed by Hope and a core of longtime residents, has made a difference. Today a community police officer who patrols the neighborhood by golf cart and knows its children by name can be reached by beeper. There are well-attended meetings, cleanups and protests. Mostly, Hope said, there is optimism.

At a recent community meeting in nearby Seminole Heights, in fact, Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman praised Sulphur Springs as a community that has banded together and refused to let the neighborhood die.

At least some of the credit goes to the Penny Saver, a weekly publication with a circulation of 8,000 and a knack for getting people talking, Hope said.

Hope decided to buy the paper with her daughter Gail four years ago, making subtle and not-so-subtle changes along the way.

In the most recent issue, mixed in with longstanding columns such

as "Around the House" and "Gardening in Florida" are offerings by a state representative, civic club announcements and event listings, an essay on safety for convenience store clerks and plans for a protest against prostitutes who plague the neighborhood's main thoroughfares.

"That's our drive," Hope said. "Something that'll give them something to talk about and maybe make a difference."

The 7,900 non-daily newspapers in the United States fill a void in neighborhoods, dealing with issues as local as a pothole in front of someone's house _ important to the residents on the street, maybe, but not the public at large.

"A good community newspaper usually has carved a niche," said David C. Simonson, executive vice president of the National Newspaper Association in Washington, D.C. "If the newspaper allows people to cope with that community, they're going to read it."

The Penny Saver seems to have done that.

"The PTA cleanups, the neighborhood meetings, the things maybe the bigger papers aren't able to cover, they've got," said City Council member Ronnie Mason, a loyal Penny Saver reader. "If it relates to drugs, if it relates to code enforcement, it's there. And when (Hope) has any business at City Council, she covers it well."

Although the topics can be decidedly political, Hope says her philosophy is to remain informational, not confrontational.

"I think most of the time you can get more done by negotiating and trading information," she said. "When you're obnoxious, they tune you out. And the issues are too important."

"I think that little paper is important to the neighborhood," Mason said.

With a staff of four sharing a cramped office with a Catholic bookstore on Waters Avenue, it is Hope who serves as reporter, editor and publisher. If the much-loved manatees are making an appearance at the Florida Avenue bridge, she is the one angling on her Kodak Instamatic for a shot.

Sara Denton, director of the community center in Seminole Heights, said, "When I have special classes starting, I mail out (announcements) to about 50 newspapers, radio stations, TV stations. The Penny Saver will always print it."

The paper makes no bones about its small-town flavor. There is the "Looking Back" series, a weekly photograph of old Sulphur Springs borrowed from the attics and albums of residents.

And then there are what the staff inexplicably refer to as "doobies."

Tucked onto the bottoms of pages or between ads are the tiny tidbits of information: "In Finland it was once considered a sign of piety to shoot arrows at trees" or "The word "posse' comes from Latin meaning "to be able.' "

"It's funny," Hope said. "People say, "If you ever start leaving the doobies out, I'd probably stop reading it.' "

And then, there are the occasional typos that make their way into print and prompt this homily in almost every issue: "If you find mistakes in this publication, please consider they are there for a purpose. We publish something for everyone, and some people are always looking for mistakes."

"This place and that paper are just a part of my heart," Hope said. "We're just the Sulphur Springs fish wrapper."