A controlling interest in the "Columbia Flier," a lively and bulging community weekly that began nine years ago,as an irregularly published eight-page advertising throwaway, has been sold for a reported $3 million to the Whitney Communications Corp. of New York.
The sale of the paper published in the Howard County "new town" underscores the financial potential of community-oriented weekly with income derived solely from advertising. The paper is distributed free to 22,000 households in and around Columbia.
"I think a good newspaper anywhere attracts a market," said Jean S. Moon, Flier editor and general manager who will retain a five percent ownership of the paper. Publisher and founder S. Zeke Orlinsky will have a 15 percent interest, with Whitney Communications owning the rest. The New York-based media conglomerate is headed by John Hay Whitney, former ambassador to Great Britain and publisher of the now defunct New York Herald Tribune.
"Weekly newspapers don't really suffer in a competition with the dailies if they are not good and really community-oriented," said Moon, who will keep her old job, as will Orlinsky.
In a "publisher's note" in this week's "Flier," Orlinsky suggested the sale would make possible "expansion of the Flier's success and concept to other communities." No specifics were cited. However, the Flier has been providing services for The Annapolis Post, a new paper in the state capital which published it sixth edition this week.
"I think the constituency there is not that dissimilar from Columbia," said Moon. "The demographics - education, income - are very similar."
The experience of the Annapolis paper, however, points up the potential pitfalls in such a venture. Last week, after one month of weekly publication, the front-page promotion that promised delivery to 28,000 homes, 1,000 businesses and 90,000 readers disappeared from the tabloid-sized Post.
"We're not going to promise something we can't deliver," said Allen Jack Lewis, the president and publisher.
Since its first issue Oct. 6 bannered Chesapeake Bay Bridge suicides and a soaring Annapolis birth rate, Annapolis' self-described "New Voice" has shrunk from 64 to 20 pages. Its staff has been cut by a third. Its distribution system, which is supposed to provide saturation coverage within a ten-mile radius, has been virtually non-existent.
"If we're still in business by the first of year, we're in business," said Dr. Stuart M. Christhilf, Jr., a controversial local gynecologist and former mayoral candidate who is chairman of the board.
Several blocks away from the converted insurance office that houses the Post, the Evening Capital, the town's only daily and other weekly, the Anne Arundel Times, are keeping close tabs whicle disavewing any concern over the new paper.
Allen C. Jackson, owner of the Times, said there is "no void" for the newspaper to fill in a city serviced by "two fine Washington dailies, two fine Baltimore dailies, the Evening Capital and the Anne Arundel Times."
"A lot of people felt there was room for another paper here, that the town needed another voice," replied Lewis, 66, whose background includes newspaper reporting and playwrighting in New York and advertising in Washington.
The paper's content is heavy on soft, timeless features aimed at what editor Ruth MacLauchlan calls "the more sophisticated Annapolitans . . . the young singles, the young marrieds." Early issues have included pieces about sexual swinging, midwives and the conversion of old historic buildings into min-malls.
Lewis said the $250,000 raised so far among about a dozen investors from New York and Annapolis "has been enough until now. We'll probably have to raise more. We're not over-rich."
The problems of establishing a new paper in this seemingly fertile marked were further highlighted last week with the sudden demise, after 15 years and 823 issues, of "The Arundel Observer," the weakest link in the suburban Sentinel newspaper chain.
At the end, publisher Leonard Kapiloff said, the Observer was distributing 15,000 copies, most of them free, blanketing the Severena Park section north of Annapolis. "It's a damn good market," said Kapiloff, whose chain is headquartered in Gaithersburg."We were too far away. We just didn't have the management or the time to make it a productive paper economically."
"Management structure is the key," said Jean Moon of the Flier, whose economic success is evident. In announcing the sale yesterday, however, the Flier was scooped by its competition. "The Columbia Times" had the story first.