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U.K. paper weighs lure of Page 3 girls

Despite all the hype, some things just don't change from millennium to millennium. Bugs. Pesky weather. Men ogling naked breasts.

Jan. 1, 2000, was a much-anticipated day for readers of the Sun, Britain's bestselling tabloid newspaper. Would it continue to run one of the most successful gimmicks in journalism history _ photos of topless models known as Page 3 girls?

Or, as widely rumored, would the Sun bow to pressure from women _ including one of its own key editors _ and bid farewell to a feature that many found sexist and exploitive?

On New Year's Day, millions of Britons hurried to their newsstands to get the answer. There on Page 3 was "Rebekah, Girl of the Millennium" _ and her topless torso gave no doubt as to which side had won.

While some Sun executives "were very keen that the Page 3 girls should go, others were worried that they would lose a lot of male readers," says Chris Horrie, a British media watcher. "It's a classic problem of any newspaper _ how do you grab new readers without alienating existing ones?"

The Sun's dilemma is a familiar one to newspapers worldwide as they struggle to adapt to changing lifestyles. Over the past 15 years, millions of women have joined the work force, leaving them less time to read the paper but making them more appealing to advertisers because of their increased spending power.

"A lot of working women, especially young mothers, are very time-starved, and they have so many obligations that reading newspapers is a luxury," says Mike Smith of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. "Papers have looked at ways to try to become more relevant . . . so that even if women are very busy they would want to have the newspaper in their life."

In few places has the battle for female readers been more spirited than here in Britain. The Sun and other tabloids traditionally catered to men, who wanted something easy to handle as they headed to work by crowded bus or train. But the classic tabloid mix of sex and sports hasn't gone over nearly as well with the growing number of women commuters.

Most papers, the Sun included, have added more women-oriented features. But for the Sun, efforts to lure a bigger female audience come at the risk of destroying a 30-year-old male favorite _ the Page 3 Girl.

As legend has it, a Sun editor was desperately searching for a way to fill space one dreary day in 1970 when he decided to use a large color photo of a topless model. The Sun had previously shown bare breasts but always in connection with a legitimate news story. This was the first time a stand-alone photo appeared, and it proved an instant hit.

The Sun's circulation doubled to more than 2.5-million, and Beverley Goodway, a sports photographer at the staid Times of London, was hired to take pictures full time. Since then Goodway has photographed more than 8,000 pairs of breasts for a feature that has earned the Sun worldwide fame.

By the raunchy standards of girlie magazines, the Page 3 photos could be considered nothing more than soft-core pornography _ the models wear G strings and generally demure expressions. But they have long aroused the wrath of feminists and conservatives.

When a town council in Yorkshire banned the paper from its library, the Sun dispatched a writer and photographer to the scene. Their report pictured the sour-faced, 78-year-old official who had imposed the ban, contrasted with a photo of five attractive local girlsin miniskirts who claimed to be avid Sun readers.

Some critics consider the Page 3 captions, full of puns and innuendo, more offensive than the actual photos. On one occasion, according to the competing Daily Mail, "the paper was infiltrated by a gang of dungaree-wearing radical feminists determined to (confront) the male chauvinist swine" they presumed responsible.

To the intruders' amazement, they discovered the Page 3 captions instead were written by a journalist who had been hired from a knitting magazine _ a petite young woman who offered to make them tea.

In 1986, a female member of Parliament went so far as to introduce legislation to ban the topless Page 3 girls. But the biggest threat to their survival today is pressure from competing newspapers.

With the number of women in the work force increasing 10 percent since 1988, other British tabloids have greatly expanded their fare of female-oriented stories and features. The Daily Mail has gained 17,000 readers in the past year, thanks in part to its "Femail" section loaded with health, fashion and beauty tips.

The Mirror, another popular tabloid, has slowed its circulation losses by also becoming more female-friendly. In the six months ended Dec. 31, the Mirror's circulation dropped by less than 1 percent while the Sun's declined by more than 2 percent. Although it still has 3.6-million readers, the Sun attracts a smaller percentage of women than its two chief rivals.

"The Mail and the Mirror have woken up to the fact that 7.5-million copies of women's magazines are sold each week," a media analyst told the Independent of London. "That's a big market, and the Sun would be wise not to ignore it."

Among those arguing that the Page 3 girls alienate female readers are three women close to the Sun's owner, media mogul Rupert Murdoch. His wife and daughter, along with deputy managing editor Rebekah Wade, say the Sun will continue its slide unless it gets with the times.

For awhile last year, Wade and her allies appeared to be winning. The Sun beefed up its women's section and the topless Page 3 girls were occasionally replaced by those in bikinis or Wonderbras. In November, Murdoch told his News Corp. annual meeting that he was considering doing awaywith bare breasts altogether.

But he added, in response to a question from a nervous shareholder, "Topless Tara" and the rest would quickly return if their departure hurt the company's earnings.

Late last year, the Sun launched a search for the "Page 3 Millennium Girl," and readers were invited to vote for their favorite models, with or without tops. Observers said the appearance of a clothed winner on Jan. 1 would signal a victory for Wade, the female editor.

But in December, the Sun's circulation plunged by more than 4 percent. Apparently unwilling to tamper any more with a proven formula for success, the paper stuck with its topless Page 3 Girl. And _ in what some saw as a dig at Wade _ the winner's name just happened to be Rebekah, too.

Although Wade declined to be interviewed for this story, it is no secret that she thinks the Sun and other British papers are failing to reflect the lives of modern working women. A recent report by an organization she heads, Women in Journalism, concluded that women are the "hidden sex" in the British press.

"Our research shows that women are significantly underrepresented in newspapers even though they make up almost half of the readers," Wade said in announcing the group's findings.

A four-week survey of the Sun and eight other major papers showed that women appeared in only 20 percent of the photos. Moreover, most of the women pictured were actresses and models _ among them a blond soaping herself in a bathtub to illustrate a business-page story.

"The Mirror, the Express and the Sun _ all appear to use women to sell their papers," the report says. "But they seem to be doing so by giving the male reader what they believe he wants to see, rather than catering to women readers' interests."