Free Daily Gaining Ground in Suddenly Strange Santa Barbara

By: Jennifer Saba

While the doors at the Santa Barbara News-Press spin with high-level departures, a relatively new upstart is digging into the market.

The Santa Barbara Daily Sound, a free daily paper that launched in late March, increased its circulation from 3,000 to 5,000 copies last week, said Jeramy Gordon, the 23-year-old founder, editor, and publisher of the paper who moved to Santa Barbara in February.

The numbers are not huge, but Gordon said that people in the community want to find out more about the paper (plus the Daily Sound is covering the saga at the News-Press). “I have never seen anything like that happen at a major paper,” Gordon said about the major exodus of editors who are accusing owners of meddling. “It’s scary.”

Gordon cut his chops at the Palo Alto Daily News — the once derided, now successful free daily paper founded in 1995 — as a 19-year-old stringer. Gordon was hired full time by the time he turned 20, eventually becoming managing editor of the entire chain, which includes free dailies in the Bay Area communities of San Mateo, Redwood City, Burlingame, and Los Gatos.

Knight Ridder purchased the Palo Alto Daily News and its sister publications in February 2005 and Gordon got a taste of starting up a free daily when he helped launch the East Bay Daily News. But that all changed when, 10 months later, a shareholder revolt forced Knight Ridder executives to put the company up for sale. (McClatchy has agreed to sell the Palo Alto papers to MediaNews Group.)

Palo Alto Daily News founders Dave Price and Jim Pavelich left Knight Ridder in December 2005. Gordon followed, but still wanted to be involved in free dailies. So he convinced family and friends to pitch in money eventually raising $250,000 so he could take the concept to Santa Barbara.

The staff is small: Gordon employs three full time employees, a handful of stringers, and one part-time ad salesperson. Depending on the day, the tabloid runs eight to 12 pages.

Distribution was Gordon’s biggest challenge. He and his employees would get up at 5 in the morning to distribute papers by hand, after often staying in the office until midnight. They choose spots on a trial and error basis. The paper just hired a distribution company and is now available in 250 locations throughout the city.

Gordon said that he expects to break even in about six months.

While there has been a rise in free daily papers, it’s still a hard path to hew. “Free dailies tend to work better when you don’t have an entrenched competitor,” said newspaper analyst John Morton. It’s still possible for the free paper to work especially if the community is looking for straightforward, honest news, he explained.

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