Daily Tribune suspends publication

January 17, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

Edward G. Pickett tried to do the next-to-impossible but failed.

He announced yesterday that his fledgling Columbia daily newspaper has suspended publication indefinitely, likely for good.

Little more than three months after the first issue, Mr. Pickett's ambitious goal of starting a new newspaper has all but failed, he acknowledges, the apparent victim of poor distribution and too little start-up capital.

Under the best of circumstances, his enterprise would have been an uphill battle.

Few daily newspapers have been started in the United States in recent years, and Mr. Pickett acknowledged yesterday that his is not likely to resume publication.

"We did not live up to our promises," he said. "We told our advertisers that we would have free home delivery to 30,000 Columbia residents on weekends, and we didn't do that.

"Our advertisers felt we didn't live up to that, and we felt a sharp drop in our advertising commitments as a result," he said.

Others -- including former members of the staff -- said the distribution problem was just one symptom of a broader disorganization that pervaded the Columbia Daily Tribune from the beginning.

From bounced paychecks to unpaid printing bills to a constantly changing staff, the newspaper never managed to gain a strong financial foothold, staff members said.

For example, high school students working on a free-lance basis for the paper said they routinely were asked to hold onto their paychecks for "several days" until Mr. Pickett's former business partner, John Keller, told them it was OK to deposit them. One said a $235 paycheck bounced in November.

Other former staff members report outstanding debts for bounced paychecks or checks never received, ranging from $500 to more than $2,000. They say they're considering uniting for some type of legal action against the newspaper company or Mr. Keller, who signed their checks. Mr. Keller declined to comment.

The newspaper was on its third printing company, each time being forced to switch because of unpaid bills, sources said. Mr. Pickett usually was required to pay his printers before nightly press runs, they said.

The newspaper also experienced high staff turnover. The managing editor left before the first issue was printed Oct. 9. The news editor departed in early December after a paycheck bounced.

When the newspaper's production manager departed in December, the paste-up of the entire newspaper was left in the hands of a Centennial High School senior.

Both its sports editor and Mr. Keller, the business partner, left the newspaper around Christmas, when the newspaper suspended publication for a week to reorganize. The paper's sole full-time news reporter left last Friday, the day of its final issue.

"When I work, I like to get paid, and I wasn't sure that was going to happen," said Chris Dickerson, the paper's former news editor.

Just before he left, Mr. Dickerson said, he had been asked by Mr. Pickett to take a pay cut from $22,000 per year to $250 per week and reduce his role from being an editor to writing a column and news features.

When he started the newspaper, Mr. Pickett told his staff and a Sun reporter that he had enough capital to operate for several months without any paid advertising -- a statement he denies making.

The rule of thumb in the newspaper industry is to expect that a new publication will accumulate losses for at least six months, analysts say. Even then, it is a difficult business. Since 1992, only eight new daily newspapers have been started in the United States, while twice that many have closed, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

The Daily Tribune relied on ad revenues from the very beginning, Mr. Pickett said, revenues that at first looked promising.

"Our first issues showed we had revenues to sustain a daily publication," Mr. Pickett said yesterday.

"But when our distribution failed, our advertising dried up."

Mr. Pickett claimed to be printing 30,000 copies on weekends and 7,000 copies daily. His goal was to deliver to every home in Columbia on weekends and to leave piles of free copies at local businesses and stores during the week. But sources put the daily count closer to 1,000 to 1,500, a figure that Mr. Pickett denies.

"I wouldn't be surprised if that number were closer to the truth," said Mr. Dickerson, who said the staff was kept in the dark about most financial matters.

"The biggest complaint I heard was that no one could ever find the newspaper," Mr. Dickerson said. "I don't know where it was put."

Despite the financial failure, Mr. Pickett, Mr. Dickerson and other staff members said they believe that their efforts proved that a new local newspaper could succeed in Columbia, despite the heavy competition from two major metropolitan dailies, The Sun and the Washington Post, and a free weekly, the Columbia Flier.

"I think it was a good idea," said Melinda Nerber, the newspaper's only full-time news reporter.

"Columbia needed a daily paper to focus on Columbia and Howard County, but unfortunately this one wasn't as well thought out as it should have been."

Although the Daily Tribune claimed a number of editorial successes, it became better known among the county's movers and shakers for its occasional -- but significant -- mistakes.

For instance, a November article stripped across the top of its front page warned of a "big cutback" in the work force at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory -- just two days before the county's largest employer renewed its $400 million annual contract with the U.S. Navy.

Mr. Pickett said he will try to re-start the newspaper, although he acknowledged it is a "formidable task to relaunch a newspaper once you stop publishing."

"I'm very disappointed that we failed," he said. "But it seems to me that it was better that we tried to do this than never bothered to try it at all."

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