Tomorrow, Ed Pickett and John Keller will venture into unfamiliar territory in modern American journalism: They're launching a daily newspaper.
The demographic target for their effort is one of the richest and most educated in the United States: Columbia, where average household income is $61,000 and 71 percent of residents hold college degrees.
The hurdles they face are high, say media experts, but the two entrepreneurs believe the opportunity is there.
"I really felt this was the right time and the right place for a community daily newspaper," said Mr. Pickett, 54, a reporter for The Sun during the 1960s who has been publishing a free, monthly business-oriented newspaper in Columbia for two years.
He and Mr. Keller, a former co-owner of a chamber of commerce directory publishing company, plan to distribute for free their first issue tomorrow to 30,000 homes in Columbia. The Sunday publication, called the Howard County Herald, will include a local feature magazine, Mr. Pickett said.
Mondays through Fridays, the publication will be called the Columbia Daily Tribune and distributed free to 7,000 homes in Columbia.
Mr. Pickett said the newspaper, which will be tabloid-size during the week and broadsheet on Sunday, will have a mix of news, sports, features and other editorial content, such as comics and crossword puzzles.
The newspaper will start with a staff of nine, Mr. Keller said. On the editorial side, Mr. Pickett will have two news editors and several staff reporters, while also using several college interns and free-lance writers. On the advertising side, said Mr. Keller, staffing will be kept slim and supplemented with independent sales associates.
The partners predict the staff will double within a year. But their optimism is not shared by industry analysts.
"They are definitely bucking the trend," said Bishop Cheen of Paul Kagan & Associates, a California-based media and entertainment properties consultant and appraiser.
Since 1992, only eight daily newspapers have started in the United States, according to the Newspaper Association of America. During that same period, twice as many newspapers have failed.
Columbia may have enviable demographics, but it's also fairly crowded with print media. Competing for readers' attention are two major metropolitan dailies, The Sun and the Washington Post, both of which publish Howard County-oriented sections, and a well-entrenched free weekly, the Columbia Flier, which is distributed to 33,300 homes and businesses in Columbia each Thursday.
"We have a secure long-range plan," said Mr. Keller, 30, who sold his share of a Greenbelt-based operation that publishes chamber of commerce directories to start the fledgling newspaper.
Mr. Pickett and Mr. Keller began work in a modestly furnished office, in 1,600 square feet on the second floor of a building near the Columbia Mall. By the middle of this week, technicians were still linking computers and other equipment together.
The venture has had its share of start-up problems. The first issue was delayed a week, when Mr. Pickett was informed he could not place a satellite dish on top of a building in Jessup, which originally was to serve as the editorial offices. One editor has already left the staff.
Still, the venture's biggest challenge may be a much more basic one: cash flow.
Said John Morton, a media stock analyst with Morton Research in Washington: "I know of other people who have tried this and who were well-capitalized and they were just stunned at how fast their money was sucked up on newsprint and publishing costs. It's a very expensive thing to try."