St. Mary's tabloid draws readers by shouting the news

September 10, 1990|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

LEXINGTON PARK -- DRUNK DRIVERS RAMPAGE ON COUNTY ROADS! STATE TO BLOW TAX MONEY DOWN THE DRAIN! DWI HIT PARADE EACH WEEK!

Screaming headlines that often take up more space than the overblown prose that follows. An eye-boggling layout that is almost impossible to decipher. Page after page of photos of auto accidents and police officers arresting suspects in various crimes, especially drunken driving.

It's St. Mary's Today, a tabloid that erupted this summer from the ashes of a failed printing business to anger government officials, embarrass nearly anyone arrested for drunken driving and unabashedly huckster for the political favorites of its publisher, Kenneth C. Rossignol.

He and a staff of three full-time and two part-time reporters work almost around the clock monitoring police radios, covering accidents, burglaries and convenience store stickups.

The paper also publishes a weekly list of suspects charged with driving while intoxicated and prominently displays pictures of those arrested.

"No news is too trivial for St. Mary's Today," Mr. Rossignol said.

Critics call the paper trash at worst and the National Enquirer of St. Mary's County at best. Yet they concede that it has a wide readership.

"I don't know if people are taking it seriously, but they are enjoying it," added J. Abell Longmore, owner of the Ben Franklin store in Leonardtown.

"People are calling it trash, but they're picking it up and reading it," said James Banagan, campaign treasurer for William Edward Bailey, the only incumbent county commissioner Mr. Rossignol is supporting.

Critics complain of the heavy emphasis on crime and car crashes, the fawning coverage of candidates Mr. Rossignol is backing and the blatant shots at those he opposes.

Representative Roy P. Dyson, D-Md.-1st, a favorite of the paper who is in a tough primary fight for re-election, "gets mentioned more often than in his franked mail," noted a reporter who covers the congressman.

Mr. Dyson's news releases are generally printed verbatim.

The pronouncements of Don Purdy, running to unseat incumbent Sheriff Wayne Pettit, are prominently featured in nearly every issue, while Mr. Pettit appears most often as the butt of jokes in cartoons.

Mr. Rossignol "has yet to call me and ask me if there's another side to the story," the sheriff said.

And an article in the most recent edition charged that Mark R. Frazer, a Calvert County commissioner running for the Republican nomination for Congress, has been arrested twice on drunken-driving charges, most recently in 1982.

The article, which contained comments from each of Mr. Frazer's primary opponents but none from him, concluded: "Frazer's heavy drinking at many political events has led some sources to speculate if the Calvert County commissioner has had a drinking problem or if he has one at this time."

"People here are just waiting till he gets his a-- dragged into court," drawled Robert T. Jarboe, an incumbent county commissioner who has been all but ignored by Mr. Rossignol.

"This is what newspapers were like at the turn of the century," responded Mr. Rossignol, who publishes the weekly tabloid and four small, monthly magazines from a cluttered storefront in a shopping center just north of here. "They were tough and straightforward and used language people understood."

Mr. Rossignol uses language such as boozedroids, nerds and heathens to refer to the subjects of some of his stories.

He accuses state officials of planning "GIANT FRAUD ON TAXPAYERS" in one headline and Delegate Barbara O. Kreamer, D-Harford, one of Mr. Dyson's primary opponents, of getting "NASTY IN RADIO DEBATE."

"Editorial?" Mr. Rossignol repeated in response to a question.

"There are editorials all through this paper. Is there a book somewhere that says editorials have to be on the editorial page?"

Mr. Rossignol, who ran two mobile-home parks and a mobile home sales business before opening the printing business that led to the newspaper, proudly concedes, "I don't know anything about journalism."

But he argues vehemently that St. Mary's needed a local newspaper.

The Enterprise, published twice weekly here, is owned by an outside firm -- Chesapeake Publishing -- and it's boring, Mr. Rossignol said.

In fact, he added, most U.S. newspapers are boring. "We're not boring."

Critics, however, say the paper is an election-year ploy, designed to push candidates such as Mr. Dyson and Mr. Purdy.

"There's a tradition of this kind of thing in St. Mary's County," said Judy Pedersen, a county spokeswoman and former employee of Mr. Rossignol who has been the target of several attacks in his paper.

"New papers crop up in election years, and it's all to forward

somebody's agenda."

Mr. Rossignol brushes aside such suggestions.

But he also prominently displays campaign posters for his favorite candidates in the windows of his office and passes out their bumper stickers from a table inside.

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