Tampa Tribune building

Image courtesy of Poynter Communications

Tampa Bay Times Buys Tampa Tribune;
Ends Two Paper Era

| published May 4, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

It was one of the few major U.S. metropolitan areas still able to sustain two major daily newspapers, and the fact that the market maintained this business competition well into the 21st Century remains a testament to the loyalty of its readers and the quality of the two publications. At least that was the optimistic view.

In the other view, a nearly 130-year-old newspaper—stodgy but resilient and iconic—starved to death in a pointless, ego-driven competition which threatened not only its existence, but also the very business survival of both dailies.

This week, a decades-long competition between two cross-town newspapers has ended. Times Publishing Company and Poynter Communications (aka Poynter Institute for Media Studies), owners of the Tampa Bay Times (for many decades known as the St. Petersburg Times), has purchased the Tampa Tribune outright.

There will be no period of extended life support of long goodbyes; Poynter plans to immediately kill the Tribune, which will have its last press run this week. Subscribers to the Tribune will receive the Times instead starting as early as Wednesday, and the Times, folding all advertising and circulation departments into one, will honor Tampa Tribune ad contracts with same-size ads in the Times beginning May 5.

As many as 110 employees could be cut within days, with further layoffs expected throughout May. The carnage could cost up to 150 jobs before the transition is complete by early June.

Rumors about a possible sale had been making the rounds in newspaper and business circles for many weeks, and though the Tribune’s owners confirmed nothing officially, insiders suggested that the 129-year-old Tribune was facing its most intensive financial challenge yet. Signs of imminent death included the inescapable fact that the investor group who owned the Tribune had already closed deals to sell the land, the Tribune’s building, and even some of its unused furniture. The arrival of analysts looking at the value of ad sales contracts also fueled speculation that the end was nearing.

Among the rumors running rapidly through the halls of journalism throughout late March and early April: the Tribune would simply close its doors and turn out the lights—the variation of the gossip which, sadly, turned out to be close to what has happened.

Though the math gets fuzzy, simply combining the subscriber base of the Tampa Bay Times with that of the Tribune spawns what may be the sixth largest newspaper in the U.S. by circulation. We say fuzzy, because some subscribers to the Times are also subscribers to the Tribune. There is also the issue of those overlapping and complex arrangements with vendors, point-of-sale operations, deliveries to driveways and doors, and the thousands of copies of both papers which appear on doormats in hotels throughout central Florida.

Still, the immediate consolidation is expected to breath financial life and business energy into the Times, which itself found the struggle against the Tribune at times costly, if not downright meaningless in a digital age of social media and instant online news gratification.

Indeed, Poynter, the Times owner, makes no apologies for the rapid shutdown of the Tribune, indicating that the competition—while perhaps noble from the perspective of an Old School newsprint world—was both senseless and self-destructive in a world post-paradigm-shift for newspapers. In an age in which many newspapers face existential threats even in markets in which there is no intra-city competition, a two-daily metro area has become something of an oddity.

“The continued competition between the two newspapers was threatening to both,” Times CEO and editor Paul Tash said on Tuesday. Neither Tash nor anyone at Poynter would disclose the price paid by Poynter for the Tribune. But experts suggest that the Tribune’s deep reservoir of red ink offers the clue that the paper’s private owners wanted to walk away from a venture that may have been hemorrhaging approximately $500,000 per month for several years, and at times as much as a million every 30 days.

Another clue to the asking price: the Times recently sold its clear title ownership of its downtown St. Petersburg building for $19.1 million (it plans to then simply lease the same space from the real estate investors who now own the property), and may have used most—or all—of that cash infusion to purchase the Tribune.

The Tribune’s financial stress was no secret, and in 2012—when Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway division BH Media bought the Tribune’s parent company Media General, which owns dozens of media ventures including television and radio stations—Buffet and his negotiators forced the Tribune from the table completely, shunting its toxic losses off to a separate buyer. That investor, an equity firm with no illusions about the long-term health of the Tribune or the journalistic edginess that comes with a two-paper metro area, began quickly to study ways to profitably dismantle what was clearly a failing business operation.

In the pre-digital age, and the pre-1970s-80s Florida boom years, the livelier but unapologetically liberal Times (then the St. Petersburg TimesTribune competed on the level, as it were, with a massive bay to separate what was generally deemed to be two thinly-connected markets. The Times was a sturdy island of progressivism and investigative journalism locked in a larger near-island of retirees, succeeding—counter-intuitively—despite the fact that Pinellas County was then one of the most densely Republican areas of the nation.

But shifting demographics and intensive growth changed all that, and soon the large body of water between the two cities became largely irrelevant except to commuters at rush hour. Since the mid-1980s, the two papers have been locked in a fierce competition for preeminence within the Bay Area, each vying for the loyalty of readers in the early periods of newspaper circulation constriction and the slow death of second and third dailies across the country. The survival of both well-crafted and well-edited newspapers (both won Pulitzer prizes, though the Times won substantially more over the decades) well into the new century may have enriched readers in a dozen Florida counties, but it strained the financial resources of both operations as advertisers began to flock away from newsprint, most of them questioning the value of spending in one daily paper—much less two in the same market.

Newspaper analysts long expected one of the two papers to meet its death at some point, even as each paper attempted to cut away readers through intensive, head-to-head combat: the Tribune initiating the publication of a St-Pete-only edition crafted for Pinellas County, and the Times aggressively invading the Tampa turf in search of news and advertisers. The former St. Pete Times also fought and won a lawsuit to rename itself the Tampa Bay Times in 2012 after a six-year, complex legal struggle with BH Media and others over control of the words “Tampa” and “Tampa Bay.” Predictably, this mutual arms race over grabbing readers and territory infuriated advertisers and complicated business models at the height of readership migrations toward the internet, smart phones and free news apps.

On social media readers and followers of both newspapers were abuzz all afternoon and late into the night after the deal became official. Many bemoaned the loss of their two-paper arrangement, even as partisans howled about the perceived general liberalism or conservatism of either newspaper. The Times’ livelier and more aggressive form of investigative journalism brought it scores of awards over the decades, even as moderate and conservative readers distrusted the paper’s occasional leftward tilts. On Facebook and Twitter, some were wary of the instant death of the Tribune, and now distrustful of what they say has—overnight—become a metro area beholden to a liberal broadsheet.

Though some cited the usual concerns over dying journalism—by way of an increasingly non-competitive business model—others worried conversely about a one-paper town now in the grip of a print venue filtered through the lens of a non-profit owner. The Poynter Institute controls the majority of the voting stock of the Times, an arrangement which dates back to the death of family editor Nelson Poynter in 1978 (the paper had been in the Poynter family since 1912), when his will transferred control to the educational non-profit—a radical and unusual business transition in its day, but an ironic backstory to the larger tale of newspapers and their slowly dying business models.

Staff of the Tribune will be folded immediately into that of the Times while assets and equipment are moved, sold, or scrapped. Some layoffs may occur as soon as this week and next, and the jobs cuts will likely impact every aspect of both paper’s operations.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Funny Thing Happened on Our Way to the Mainstream Media; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 3, 2016.

How a College Library Thrives in the Digital Age; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 18, 2014.