National's 17-month season ends in sudden-death, in lost column


David Steele had been reassured by his bosses that The National, the daily newspaper devoted strictly to nationwide sports coverage, would be able to ride out the storm.

The editors of the fledgling paper told Steele, the lone reporter in the Baltimore/Washington bureau, that despite whispers The National would soon be folding, things would turn around.

"They sent out memos to tell us not to pay attention to the rumors and not to pay attention to anything that we heard," said Steele.

But the rumors were true as officials from The National announced that today's editions would be the last in the paper's 17-month publishing history.

And, though he said he expected the end to be bloodless and swift, Steele said yesterday's announcement was nonetheless surprising.

"I had no idea that this was coming," Steele said from the Orioles' Memorial Stadium dugout before last night's game.

"There's nothing I can do. I can take all the bats out of the racks and throw all the gloves out on the field, but that won't change anything. When I wake up tomorrow, I still won't have a job."

It certainly won't bring back the paper, which debuted in late January 1990, originally publishing in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, before expanding into eight more cities, including the Baltimore-Washington area beginning Dec. 5.

Under the leadership of Frank Deford, former Sports Illustrated columnist and Baltimore native, The National was intended to be an alternative to the sports sections of local daily newspapers.

In addition to the staple coverage of area baseball, basketball, football and hockey teams, Deford pledged that The National would provide hard-hitting nationwide perspective to stories as well as aggressively investigate issues.

"The best thing is that if you were a sportswriter at any other paper, this was the place to be," said Steele, 26, a graduate of Maryland.

"At other papers, the sportswriters aren't taken seriously. You're in the toy section, so to speak. It was good to be in an atmosphere where you were No. 1."

The paper attracted some of the country's best known sportswriters and columnists, including Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, Scott Ostler of the Los Angeles Times and Dave Kindred of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and made big money overtures to others.

At its best, The National was able to devote space to coverage of the big events in sports, such as the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Final Four.

There were also thoughtful feature stories on the decline of track and field and on Phoenix Cardinals draftee Eric Swann, who did not play in college.

But the paper was launched at the start of an economic downturn, and had difficulty in attracting advertisers, a common problem in the newspaper industry today. Distribution was a chronic problem and The National never really met its circulation goals as readers remained loyal to their local papers.

As a result, The National lost as much as $100 million, according to some estimates.

The newsstand price was raised from the original 25 cents to 50 cents and eventually to its final price, 75 cents, to bring in more revenues.

Then, in March, Lupica, one of the highest profile columnists, decided to return to the Daily News, sending a clear signal that The National was in deep trouble.

Emilio Azcarraga, a Mexican media mogul and principal owner, decided yesterday to cease publication and cut his losses.

"There was a lot of potential here and when people saw us, they liked us," said Steele. "But we knew what we were getting into."

For Steele, who came to The National from the struggling New York Post, yesterday's announcement was like watching a movie he had seen before.

He had covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a St. Petersburg newspaper that merged into the larger Times paper one week before his birthday.

He said he will receive severance pay from The National, but can't help wondering when he'll be able to work for a paper that has a sense of permanence.

"I had just got out of school when that [the St. Petersburg merger] happened. That told me what I was getting into in this business," said Steele. "One of these days, I'm going to work at a paper that stays in business for a while."

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