The National looks for a home run in Baltimore All-sports daily on stands here today

December 05, 1990|By Bill Glauber

The National, a sports newspaper that is incurring financial losses and staff cutbacks in its rookie year, makes its Baltimore-Washington debut today.

The 10-month-old newspaper is bidding to become the nation's first successful all-sports daily. Baltimore-Washington becomes the 10th market for the paper, which was launched Jan. 31 in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Circulation exceeds 200,000, according to newspaper officials.

But start-up costs -- setting up a computerized production system, establishing a distribution network and hiring a staff -- have been high. An initial estimate of first-year losses reaching $30 million has been exceeded, according to a newspaper spokesman. Last month, four top executives were sacked and 18 news employees were laid off.

The National ceased publishing a Sunday edition Nov. 25 and publishes only on weekdays.

Despite the financial problems, Frank Deford, the editor in chief, says the newspaper is making editorial progress, and he remains confident of its longer-term success.

"The technology was more expensive than we had expected," Mr. Deford said. "We won't get to the point of breaking even in three years and into the black in the fifth. That is too rosy. I think the original assumptions are correct. We'll make as much money as anticipated; it will just cost more. I don't think anything has been thrown out of kilter."

Hindering The National's progress has been an industrywide slump in advertising.

"The obstacles are formidable," said John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst at Lynch, Jones & Ryan. "It is an attractive-looking newspaper. I don't want to say they won't make it. Clearly, there are signs of problems -- laying off people, shunting aside the guy picked to run it. These are all signs of an organization not going the way they expected."

Last month, Peter O. Price, the founding president and publisher, was stripped of day-to-day responsibilities and replaced by Jaime Davila. Mr. Davila is a top executive at Univisa, a subsidiary of Mexico's Televisa entertainment and publishingcompany, which is headed by Emilio Azcarraga, The National's biggest shareholder.

The National's circulation director, assistant publisher and finance and administration director also were fired. Layoffs reduced the news staff to 180. "Obviously, it was a miserable thing to go through," Mr. Deford said. "It seems to happen everywhere in the industry. But editorial was left untouched."

Originally, The National sought to establish staffs of 12 employees in each market and to compete against local newspapers, reaching 26 cities by 1992. But the local concept quickly was abandoned. Instead, the newspaper kept its focus national, using slick graphics, large photos and opinionated writing to lure readers and advertisers to the tabloid.

The Baltimore-Washington edition, which costs 50 cents at newsstands and boxes, will have local articles written by Terry Egan, a former sports columnist for the Middletown (N.Y.) Record, and David Steele, a former sports writer with the New York Post.

The paper will be printed in Gaithersburg at Comprint Inc., a plant owned by the Toronto Sun. Initially, it will have a press run of between 30,000 and 35,000 in the area, with deadlines set at12:30 a.m. and 1:45 a.m. A third edition, with a later press run, is planned for January.

The paper will be distributed in downtown Baltimore, downtown Washington and Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia. Executives of The National said they hope to sell the paper eventually in the suburbs surrounding Baltimore and Washington, and on the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Deford, a Baltimore native and 1957 graduate of the Gilman School, said he is excited that the newspaper is finally reaching his hometown.

"People adore the product," said Mr. Deford, who was a copy boy at The Evening Sun and a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. "Everything we know is we have this extraordinarily loyal audience, an audience of young men, which is precisely what advertisers are looking for.

"We have to find a way to have that audience expand. We have not done a good job communicating what our product is. A year ago, I didn't know if people would accept the product. Now, I know they will. That gives me all the enthusiasm in the world."

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