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The Inside Scoop From Outsiders

Sure, they might have a formula for success, but Santa Monica isn't the easiest place to launch a daily newspaper.

January 09, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The corpses of dead dailies litter this country like the battlefield at Antietam, but in cafes, sidewalks and, yes, the cyberspace ether swirling above Santa Monica, it looks like a newfangled newspaper war could be brewing.

Run by a trio of Colorado carpetbaggers, the freebie Santa Monica Daily Press sneaked into town in mid-November like a guerrilla, materializing out of the newsprint jungle.

In a politically progressive town whose residents are starved for news about themselves, the flimsy tabloid--a compendium of wire stories, a few locally generated pieces and advertising--has a certain appeal. And a goofy charm.

The brains behind the operation, a Boston-born Aspen man named Dave Danforth, lists himself cryptically as "Test Subject" on the masthead. The paper's interim motto: Serving Santa Monica for the past (today's count: 58) days.

Danforth's partners are publisher Ross Furukawa, a 31-year-old San Diego software entrepreneur, and editor Carolyn Sackariason, a 33-year-old native of Minneapolis, who writes most of the paper's local stories. They met at the Aspen Daily News, a paper co-founded by Danforth in 1978, and the progenitor of a string of similar dailies.

Santa Monica, an affluent, educated city of 84,000, has not had a daily newspaper to call its own since the 123-year-old Outlook was shuttered by its owner in March 1998.

The absence of a daily paper in Santa Monica is notable, given that the famously rent-controlled coastal city makes national news, routinely passing some of the most progressive legislation in the country--banning ATM fees, strictly regulating the environment, trying to force businesses to pay resort employees a living wage.

"We have our own police system, our own bus system, and we are a very self-contained community," says Kevin McKeown, Santa Monica's Mayor pro tem. "But in terms of the Los Angeles Times and other major media outlets, Santa Monica is seen as just another suburban area. People forget there is a community in which they can play a part."

Since the demise of the Outlook, a glut of publications has rushed to fill the vacuum. But success in Santa Monica has proved elusive, even for large papers. Within the last two years, as part of a shift in the paper's business and journalistic strategy, the Los Angeles Times closed both of its neighborhood supplements that focused on Santa Monica.

The city is now served by three weeklies--the Santa Monica Mirror, Santa Monica Bay Week and the Santa Monica Observer. The Marina del Rey-based weekly, the Argonaut, also covers Santa Monica. The Santa Monica Sun, a monthly, focuses on entertainment. Until the debut of the Daily Press, only two publications--both electronic (www.surfsantamonica.com and www.oceanparkgazette.org)--offered a daily news report.

The Santa Monica Daily Press, which does not publish on Sunday , is printed in Gardena, has a press run of 4,000 and six full-time employees (only one of whom, Sackariason, is a full-time reporter). As of Tuesday, the city has approved a total of 54 news boxes, which are scattered throughout the city.

Jeff Hall, publisher of the Sun, once tried to get all the publications to join forces, but, he says, the experience was "like getting the Afghan tribal leaders together to create a country. Santa Monica, he adds, "is a very tough environment for newspapers. Everyone in the world wants to own a newspaper in Santa Monica. This is like the Holy Grail."

Going Against

Conventional Wisdom

Dubbed the "father of the micro-daily" by the San Francisco Chronicle, Danforth, 51, has helped launch seven free daily papers since he co-founded the Aspen Daily News in 1978. He has managed to make nearly all of them profitable by ignoring conventional newspaper wisdom.

That wisdom says newspapers have been a mature industry for more than a century, and that the industry has been subject to consolidation so massive that most American cities are now monopoly markets for a single morning paper.

Furthermore, the development of other media such as radio, TV and now practically hourly updates on the Internet, continues to erode the security of even the most successful newspapers.

"If we had known that you can't start a daily newspaper anymore we wouldn't have done it," Danforth says. Like his businesses, Danforth is lean, with a runner's body. He enjoys needling reporters from big papers whom he regards as fat and complacent. He likes to make jokes and talks about how much fun he's having with this whole micro-daily venture, but it's clear he is dead serious.

The way Danforth tells it, his first foray into the news business happened by accident. The Aspen Daily News (Motto: "If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen") debuted as a one-page wall poster, stuck on bulletin boards around town. The paper began accepting ads to cover its printing costs. Eventually the paper grew to 28 pages.

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