"We're in this for the long haul," Dean Capone wrote last October in a prototype edition of his new St. Pete Weekly. By Jan. 18, however, the inconsistently distributed newspaper was "outta ink," according to a message posted on the St. Pete Weekly's Web site. "St. Pete Weekly has suspended operations while we seek a new round of financing," the paper's home page read that day. A later message said online publication will resume this month.
The money ran out at St. Pete Weekly long before the ink.
If Capone does resuscitate his tabloid, many of the advertising sales and news employees he hired for the first round won't be answering the bell for Round Two. Trevor Aaronson, the paper's former managing editor, is one of several who claim Capone owes them back wages or promised them jobs that didn't materialize. Aaronson has filed a small-claims action, trying to get $4,950 in allegedly overdue pay from Capone.
"We had our dreams dashed," said Aaronson, who now freelances for other publications, including Weekly Planet.
Capone pledged to resolve the pay disputes during a Jan. 24 interview with the Planet.
"This is not Enron, though it may look it," said Capone, 36, who held the title of publisher. "People will be paid as money becomes available."
St. Pete Weekly's pitch to potential advertisers last fall promised that 15,000 copies would be distributed for free in Pinellas County as well as in Tampa, Bradenton and New Port Richey.
Brigit Books was a local business with an ad in a November edition of St. Pete Weekly. That was news to Helen Roman, owner of the feminist and metaphysical bookstore on 11th Avenue North. After hearing how the ad copy read, Roman said St. Pete Weekly must have downloaded it from the Web site of Brigit Books.
Roman said she paid nothing for the ad and St. Pete Weekly didn't ask her to buy it or inform her that it would run in the paper. "I find it fascinating that we got a free ad and nobody told me," Roman said last week.
How many readers saw the ad is another question. Capone's paper was difficult to find even within blocks of St. Pete Weekly's office, a small, windowless room that he sublet from a downtown investment firm.
The paper should have been called "St. Pete Monthly." After the mock issue, dated October 2001, Aaronson said he knows of only two other issues that actually went to the printer in November and December. Aaronson said he worked on two other issues that never hit the streets.
Journalists and media sales personnel contacted Capone after he hyped his new paper in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times, where he used to write. Times business columnist Robert Trigaux, who profiled Capone's fledgling paper last October, came back with a dressing-down of the St. Pete Weekly publisher in the Jan. 25 edition of the Times. Trigaux scolded Capone for duping him and the people who figured his earlier Times column bestowed some credibility on Capone.
Ex-St. Pete Weekly employees now suspect Capone lured them with full knowledge that he lacked the dough to pay them.
"I'm fucked," said Christian Czerwinski, who quit a paying job as a feature writer for a small upstate New York daily after Capone offered him $30,000 a year to be St. Pete Weekly's music editor.
A week before his Jan. 21 starting date, Czerwinski was informed there was no job for him in St. Petersburg. Czerwinski said he already had reached into his own pocket for about $3,000 to cover the cost of airline tickets, lodging during his job interview and deposits for an apartment and utilities. He doesn't expect to see any reimbursement from Capone.
"I don't have a job and I'm out three grand," said the 25-year-old Czerwinski.
Before suspending publication, Capone received more exposure in Editor & Publisher, a national newspaper trade journal. E&P reported Jan. 11 that St. Pete Weekly would operate an alternative journalism Web site in conjunction with another startup paper in New York City.
For now, Capone said he is concentrating on finding money to placate disgruntled ex-employees. "I'm trying my best to make people happy," said Capone. "You don't want a bunch of journalists in the same room, cat-fighting. It's not pretty."
Capone's track record doesn't inspire confidence that they will be smiling soon.
As doubts grew with the broken promises, St. Petersburg writer Lynn Waddell dug into Capone's background. Waddell, a former Planet staffer who was owed $500 by St. Pete Weekly, discovered that last August a Pinellas judge entered a $13,908 judgement against Capone and his defunct software concern, Xeosoft Corp.
According to the judge's order, Capone failed to answer a lawsuit that accused him of accessing and using one of his client's purchase orders in 1999 to buy $17,981 worth of computer equipment for Xeosoft. The client had to fend off a lawsuit from the company that filled the fraudulent order and wound up having to pay $7,500 to settle that litigation, according to the lawsuit against Capone.
Court documents show that a year ago, Capone was served with a summons in Pennsylvania, requiring him to respond to the lawsuit filed against him by his client. He took no action. When a process server returned last July with legal notice that his client was moving for a default judgment against Capone, a property manager at the address said Capone had gone back to Florida three months before. The property manager informed the process server that the building owners "are looking for" Capone too.
Add the Internal Revenue Service to that list. Before Capone scooted up north, the IRS filed two liens against him down here, seeking $6,850 in delinquent federal income taxes.
Capone said he has negotiated a repayment plan with the client and intends to do the same with Uncle Sam. The fraud judgement as well as the tax liens remained in full force as of Jan. 22, according to county records.
While in Pennsylvania, Capone tried to start a newspaper in Allentown, about a year before his St. Petersburg venture. That publication never made it to press, according to Capone, who cited prohibitively expensive printing estimates.
Aaronson, the former St. Pete Weekly managing editor, said he received assurances that Capone's next paper in St. Petersburg had two years of working capital when Capone hired him last Halloween. Later, as that looked increasingly shaky, Aaronson said Capone told him that an expected windfall from a dead relative's estate was tied up in court.
Before the collapse of St. Pete Weekly, Aaronson said Capone paid him $550 in cash. Capone offered to sign a promissory note for the rest of the money owed Aaronson, according to court records. Before Aaronson signed, he asked a lawyer to look over the document from Capone. Aaronson told the court that the lawyer warned that he would be signing away his right to the remaining back pay.
Capone denied attempting to trick Aaronson. Capone, who isn't an attorney, said he borrowed the language for the note from an Internet site of standard legal documents.
The ex-Capone workers still believe St. Petersburg has shed the green benches-and-blue hair image for good and needs its own scrappy paper. They think the Times, The Tampa Tribune and what Capone considered the Tampa-centric Planet don't entirely satisfy the educated 21- to 49-year-old readership that the St. Pete Weekly promised advertisers.
To their chagrin, the ex-St. Pete Weekly workers found out too late that Capone couldn't deliver such a paper. Dean Allen Capone was in it only for the short haul.
Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].