In S. Md., a Battle For News Loyalties

(By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006

There's a newspaper war brewing -- with enough finger-pointing and name-calling to make Rupert Murdoch proud. But whereas media catfights might be the norm in a metropolis like New York City or London, this spat is occurring in the unlikeliest of places: rural St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland.

A softer, kinder paper has just joined an occasionally salacious local tabloid and a mainstream paper in the crowded St. Mary's media scene, intensifying the battle to attract the county's 98,000 residents. Nobody seems to have told folks in St. Mary's that this is the era of declining circulation and dying small-town papers.

The new paper on the block, run by the patriarch of one of St. Mary's most prominent political families, was launched last month after its owner got sick of being mercilessly mocked by the tabloid, whose editor takes pride in his ability to tell juicy stories, National Enquirer-style. Besides, at 87, James M. McKay said he wants to read feel-good stories about heroic pets or kids doing community service -- not exactly the titillating kind of material found in the scandal-hungry pages of the tabloid.

"Am I out to destroy anybody's business? No," McKay said recently. "Would I shed any tears if that publication disappeared because of competition from real newspapers? Not a chance."

McKay's paper, the County Times, is certainly the underdog in a county that always seems to be under a microscope because of the presence of so many different publications. As many as five reporters have been known to attend the same routine county commission meeting. The length of the sheriff's press contact list rivals that of Montgomery County, which is 10 times the county's size.

McKay said he plans to ignore the weekly tabloid St. Mary's Today, refusing to subscribe to it or even acknowledge it as a legitimate newspaper. But his son, Thomas F. McKay -- a former county commission president who lost an election for a state Senate seat in November -- took his jabs at the tabloid in interviews after the campaign, saying its screeds were a major factor in his loss.

"McKay's Degree Self-Taught," screamed a giant St. Mary's Today cover headline shortly before the election, a reference to the revelation that the politician did not have the bachelor's degree his biography had claimed.

"Thumped," an even larger headline gleefully proclaimed after McKay lost by a 2-to-1 ratio. The younger McKay now works as an executive for his father's paper.

Kenneth C. Rossignol, St. Mary's Today's editor, publisher, secondary reporter, page designer and ad salesman, delights in the biting coverage he has devoted to Thomas McKay. Rossignol had no experience in journalism when he started the paper in 1989, but he takes accountability and entertainment as equally important tenets of what a newspaper should be.

He said he sees no need for a division between news and opinion in the pages of his tabloid, a philosophy that feeds a constant stream of attacks on local political figures, especially during campaign season. Two days before the November elections, the paper printed an article about a debate between the incumbent sheriff, David D. Zylak, and his challenger, Tim Cameron -- Rossignol's choice to replace Zylak.

"Cameron Demolishes Zylak," the headline read.

Most famously, Rossignol chose Election Day 1998 to resurrect a decades-old statutory rape conviction against the Republican candidate for state's attorney, with a banner headline declaring him "Guilty of Rape." A group of sheriff's deputies working for the candidate bought every copy of the paper they could find in the early morning hours the day the polls opened, prompting a First Amendment lawsuit from Rossignol. After a federal judge ruled that the candidate and the deputies were liable for civil damages, Rossignol settled for a $435,000 award.

The editor said his mission is to look out for the interests of average taxpayers in the county; something he accuses other papers serving St. Mary's of failing to do. Besides, he said, as soon as a politician starts making backroom deals and ignoring his constituents, he should have free rein to criticize -- even cook up stories about him. In 17 years of business, he has never been sued, a fact that amazes many county residents.

"The great thing about 'Cheap Shots' is that I can just make it up," he said, referring to a column in most issues of the paper and pointing to a recent fabricated essay in which Thomas McKay begged his father to make him the County Times's Annapolis reporter now that he is out of a job.

"The McKay paper is trying to be officious and pompous, and it turns them into a snooze paper," Rossignol said.

Rossignol has his defenders, including state Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D), who writes a weekly column. But other county leaders said the paper goes too far launching ad hominem attacks and concocting stories.

"There are things that are said in its pages that don't seem to serve any civic purpose except to be mean," said Zach P. Messitte, a political scientist at St. Mary's College of Maryland who specializes in Southern Maryland politics. "And sometimes that has a chilling effect on civic life."

James McKay, whose family has been one of the primary recipients of such "meanness" over the last four years, said his fledgling paper -- which is funded out of his own pocket -- is designed to be the opposite of his rival's.

Bryan Jaffe, the paper's managing editor and a former reporter for St. Mary's Today ("I've repented for that experience," he said), is passionate about producing the type of feel-good news that is rare in the tabloid's pages.

"It's a grass-roots representation of St. Mary's County in a way that no other publication is," said Jaffe, 30. "It focuses on the fact that there are 98,000 stories out there waiting to be told."

McKay's staff mails 10,000 free copies of the newspaper to subscribers every week, a number he said he hopes will grow to 12,000 paying customers for a twice-weekly edition in the next two years. Yet several county residents expressed doubts that the County Times would last long in competition with St. Mary's Today and the Enterprise, a twice-weekly community paper run by a local chain owned by The Washington Post Co. The Post also covers St. Mary's news in the twice-weekly Southern Maryland Extra and in the daily paper.

"I already read The Post for major news, the Enterprise for community news and occasionally St. Mary's Today for the gossip," said Julie Hughes, a Lexington Park resident who was scanning the local headlines outside a shopping center along Route 235. "I don't think I can handle another paper, especially one that doesn't seem to do much differently than the Enterprise."

But the County Times does have an unlikely cheerleader -- Rossignol.

"I hope it does succeed," Rossignol said of his frequent target's new paper. "At least it's independent and locally owned, and we'd love some real competition on the juicy stories."

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