What will happen to the Tampa Bay Times?

They are barely noticeable on the cream-colored wall of the seventh floor executive suite at the Tampa Bay Times: nine simple wood-framed announcements signed by the president of Columbia University and one emblem, lined up in two modest rows—Pulitzer Prizes, the brass rings of journalism. The newspaper, still widely known outside Florida as the St. Petersburg Times, its name until a 2012 rebranding, has scooped up four of those 10 Pulitzers in the past six years, and been a finalist five more times in that span.

The Times is a venerable newspaper with an ownership structure that guarantees its independence, a liberal voice on Florida’s conservative west coast, a writer’s paper where great reporters both stayed and made careers or left and jumped directly to the top of the journalistic pecking order. If Pulitzers are the measure, it is enjoying the most accomplished run in its history. And it achieved all this from a hometown best known for old folks, shuffleboard, and sunshine.

But the Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, has been in financial free fall for those same six years. From a peak of 406 full-time news personnel in 2006, it now has half that. Across all divisions, about 200 full-time employees left last year alone. Regional sections now appear once a week, not every day; pay cuts have been instituted, retiree health benefits were eliminated, and severance pay has shriveled. And it is still fighting what may be the longest ongoing newspaper battle in the country, a nearly three-decade war of attrition with The Tampa Tribune that it literally cannot afford to lose.

In the past 18 months the descent has been particularly steep: two sets of buyouts and layoffs; another 5 percent pay cut; a $28 million short-term, high-interest loan, borrowed partly to pay back an earlier bank loan; the sale of a second employee parking lot, no longer much needed; and, in what seemed an inevitable culmination, the January announcement that it would sell its flagship headquarters, driven in part by the need to pay off the short-term loan, which is due by the end of next year.

“If this long, difficult stretch has tested your commitment to the Times or the newspaper business, this is a good time to consider your options,” the paper’s CEO, Paul Tash, wrote in a September 2014 memo to staff announcing the latest buyouts.

Those words raised the specter that the Times’ days as a major publication were numbered—and not just among the paper’s employees. “Editors around the country began calling,” recalls Bill Duryea, a former senior editor at the Times who left in December to become enterprise editor at Politico. “It was a fire sale.” By year’s end, at least half a dozen of the paper’s most lauded reporters and editors had decamped for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Politico.

‘Are journalists good businessmen? I think that’s a fair enough question to ask.’

In one sense, this tale is unremarkable. The internet and the Great Recession wreaked havoc on an entire industry. If the Times’ has fallen harder, it is because it started at such a lofty height.

But the Times is a singular journalistic institution—a paper that has long stood out for its culture, its independence, and a sense of its own history as much as for the quality of its work. Its unique structure has given the paper’s leaders extraordinary latitude to chart a path through the crisis, and they placed a bet that the Times could survive, even prosper, without radically remaking itself. Maintaining the paper’s tradition of high-impact prestige journalism remained at the forefront; so did the largely print-based rivalry with the Tribune, across the bay. Meanwhile, the paper was by many accounts slower to turn its focus to the internet as a place where it must compete for readers’ attention and, ultimately, generate revenue.

That approach means that, if the Times can at last find a way to achieve financial stability and accelerate its digital transition, it may yet come through the current crisis with its editorial identity intact. The paper’s leadership believes the outlook is brighter than it has been in years. Recent departures provided between 10 and 20 percent more in newsroom salary savings than had been anticipated—“room under the cap,” says Neil Brown, the editor and vice president. Tash says he is “bullish” on 2015, and the paper is hiring again—in part to fill some key positions lost in the buyouts—and still producing prize-winning journalism.

But senior management has been optimistic before. “I will say that each of the last two to three years, we thought we’d turned the corner,” concedes Brown. Now, he says, “Our analysis is that the cuts we made can be reconciled with the revenues we expect in 2015. And we’re more clear-eyed about them today than we might have been about them two years ago.”

it wasn’t supposed to be this hard. A little less than a decade ago, as it had become apparent that running a newspaper was no longer a license to print money, a string of profiles in other publications—Forbes, the Financial Times, The New York Times— looked to St. Petersburg and asked whether it might offer salvation. The Times was expected to turn a profit, but its owner was the nonprofit Poynter Institute, not a publicly traded company with rapacious shareholders demanding ever-higher margins. Poynter and the Times are connected by a tightly knit, even overlapping corporate structure. Directors of the Times Publishing Company—the entity that directly owns the Times, the website Tampabay.com, and a few affiliated publications—are nominated by the paper’s CEO, who is also the board chairman, and all the regular directors are employed by the Times or Poynter. The CEO is also the board chairman at Poynter. The paper, in effect, owns itself.

That structure, which stems from former owner Nelson Poynter’s vision of newspaper ownership as a “sacred trust,” has protected the paper’s status as a journalist-centered enterprise: Tash, like his predecessors, spent his career in the newsroom. The setup freed the Times to reinvest in itself when times were good, and initially to make smaller cuts than much of the industry when times turned bad—even, beginning in 2011, foregoing its annual dividend payment of millions of dollars to the Poynter Institute, which is facing its own financial struggles.

The paper had strategic reasons, too, to avoid the wholesale cuts most chain newspapers made as industry-wide revenues plunged sharply. The Times was fixated on building market share across Tampa Bay, and eventually putting The Tampa Tribune out of business—an approach that depended in part on keeping quality high. But, while the Times has made headway, the Tribune is still there, taking a critical share of the advertising market with it. And having chosen to cut more slowly than other publications, the paper has had to keep chasing revenue declines.

The Times’ balance sheet is closely guarded—at a company forum last year, staff were shown separate bar graphs without percentages or numbers comparing year-to-year revenues and costs—but the loss of revenue is reflected in the Poynter Institute’s 990 tax returns. In 2010, income for the Times Holding Company, corporate parent of the publishing company, was $159 million. By 2013, the figure was $140 million. In 2014, the company is expected to post revenues of roughly $130 million, with the bulk of that from newspaper operations. That trend is roughly consistent with revenue declines at metro papers more broadly, pegged at 4 to 7 percent annually by analyst Ken Doctor, though the Times Holding Company also saw its assets decrease from $83 million to $65 million between 2010 and 2013. (The only other public information is the salaries of senior executives. Tash’s total compensation in 2013 was $516,040; he notes he is now making 85 percent of what he was earning when he started the job in 2004, and, he says, “I’m not bitching about my pay.”)

That challenging period has revealed some downsides to the Times’ vaunted independence. At the most basic level, the paper enjoys few economies of scale; it cannot consolidate back office functions as chain papers increasingly have, in search of savings. Everything from customer service to advertising to finance, production costs, and IT is handled in-house. Independence can also be isolation: There are no corporate cousins with whom the Times’ leaders can share financial metrics.

The deeper questions, though, are about whether the Times’ unique structure is well-matched to the scale of the challenges it faces.

“Are journalists good businessmen? I think that’s a fair enough question to ask,” says Neville Green, who joined the paper in 1981, now edits the tabloid tbt*, and sits on the board of the Times Publishing Company. “The CEO of the paper has been the editor of the paper. That allows for dynamic leadership. But it does mean the structure is very much looking up to the Pope, and that can lead to people waiting for that Pope to make decisions that in a more corporate kind of structure are not so much centered on one person.”

A staffer who left the newspaper last year and is now at another publication makes a harsher point: “We were told, ‘You see what’s happening at Knight Ridder, we’re not going to have shareholders tell us what to do.’” The former staffer continues: “Yeah, shareholders can be bad, but accountability can be good, too. If this were a publicly held company, the second year the CEO doesn’t turn a profit, he’d be gone.”

Confronted with these critiques, Tash bristles. Decision-making has become far more collaborative than it was a few decades ago, he says, and it is condescending to assume a journalist cannot run a news operation.

“If you think I should have been fired, then yes, our system does not achieve that result so easily,” he adds. “On the other hand, it provides for great and sustained continuity and effort over a period of time.”

the times has long been an innovator. Nelson Poynter, who ran the paper for four decades until his death in 1978, was one of the earliest users of color and graphics. The paper was one of the first to establish zoned editions, spending heavily to move up Florida’s west coast in the 1970s and ’80s and open fully staffed bureaus, including ad sales people, as far as 100 miles away. More recently, it created PolitiFact.com, the factchecking operation that won a national reporting Pulitzer in 2009 and has become a well-known digital franchise licensed by other publications. The free tabloid, tbt*, launched in 2004 to reach younger readers, boasts an impressive pickup rate and a Friday press run that tops 100,000, and it is profitable. The paper has adopted new tactics as it retrenches, too: A Tallahassee newsroom operated jointly with the Miami Herald since 2008 provides solid statehouse coverage; a successful Kickstarter campaign covered the cost of PolitiFact’s live factchecking for the 2015 State of the Union.

But the Times has often been slow to adjust to the Web, perhaps the biggest innovation of all.

Tom Scherberger, the director of media and public relations at Eckerd College, ran the paper’s Now! Desk for breaking news from 2008 to 2012. He remembers having difficulty convincing colleagues to post breaking stories online. “People wanted to break stories in print, because scoops would sell the paper,” he recalls. “‘Why put something on the Web if nobody else has it?’ people would say.” (Brown eventually “laid down the law” about breaking news online, he says.) The Web was an afterthought in other ways, too. About four or five years ago, Tash says, “we very purposely asked ourselves: ‘If we are one of the 10 best newspapers in America … then why don’t we have one of America’s 10 best Web experiences?” He adds, “It was the first time I framed the question to myself that way.”

The Times remains among the diminishing set of newsrooms where reporters are not judged at least partially by the number of pageviews their stories attract. That has made it easier for the paper to stay consistent in its editorial priorities—and to refuse to “do violence” to its brand, as Brown puts it. But there are tradeoffs.

“Only in the last eight months have I actually heard someone start to say: ‘Wow, that tanked online,’ a recognition of the importance of metrics and that they really don’t have unlimited resources,” says Wayne Garcia, the associate director of the school of mass communications at the University of South Florida, who worked for both The Tampa Tribune and the then-St. Petersburg Times and maintains ties to current and former reporters. “All this work into one of those beautiful narrative website features—and nobody came.”

For ambitious journalists who were attuned to Web analytics, meanwhile, modest online readership could be discouraging. Five thousand hits was considered a good number for a story read by a local Tampa Bay audience. “These are like end-of-the-world numbers, especially for a young person who understood Web traffic at other places,” says a former staffer who now works at another media company.

Today, the paper’s leadership is proud of the “reimagined” website, featuring responsive design, that launched in 2013, and the Times, like any news outlet, has embraced strategies to spread its stories online. Reporters are encouraged to write Web-friendly headlines and develop social media followings. Web specialists promote content, and Web producer vacancies are being filled. “We’ve come a long way, and we need to go a lot further,” says John Schlander, the digital general manager, who notes that search engine and social referrals to Tampabay.com each rose more than 20 percent in 2014, and that video on the site is “growing like crazy,” with about 725,000 views in January.

By other metrics, the digital audience looks less strong. The Times averaged about 3.5 million unique visitors from all devices to its website through the second half of 2014, jumping to 4.5 million in January. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which serves a metro area of roughly similar size and has a comparable print circulation and a digital paywall, draws 5.5 million monthly uniques to its desktop site; mobile Web and app traffic bring that to about 8 million. The Denver Post, another comparable publication, was at 6.6 million monthly uniques for all digital traffic in late 2014, rising to 7.1 million in January.

Of course, the demographics of every market are different. The Times isn’t directly competing with those publications, and as Schlander points out, The Tampa Tribune has about half the Times’ unique visitors. It is also not obvious that more Web audience alone would have made much difference to the bottom line—as the industry has learned, raw traffic can be difficult to monetize. Still, the paper lags many of its peers in developing digital dollars. Digital subscriptions and ads account for between 5 and 10 percent of revenues, according to Tash. Industry-wide, total digital revenue—ads, circulation, and other sources like marketing services—accounted for about 12 percent of total revenue in 2013, according to the Newspaper Association of America. The Times figure, says Tampabay.com publisher Joe DeLuca, “is on the low side, but not dramatically below, and that’s a good thing, because that means there’s opportunity there.”

With digital readers increasingly moving to mobile devices, the paper is just now preparing to launch what Brown calls a “bona fide app you get from the app store.” A soft paywall was put in place in the fall of 2013; the paper has netted about 4,500 digital subscribers so far. This spring, the Times plans to introduce bundled print and Web subscriptions—a fairly basic feature that has been “a technical obstacle for us to date,” Tash says.

“I wish we were farther along than we are right now,” he acknowledges. But, in his mind, the collapse of print advertising looms much larger than any missteps in the digital transition—if there were missteps. “I’m not sure that means we were slow,” he continues, “and I’m not sure ultimately that that difference in pace accounts for much of the strain we’re seeing now.”

one point of contention within the newsroom is the sense that management has not been forthright about the scope of the paper’s problems. “If there’s a complaint I hear,” says Garcia, “it’s why have we been told, ‘With a trim here, a trim there, we can make it’? That’s caused a lot of frustration.”

In part, that’s because Times executives believed—justifiably or not—that the recession would end sooner than it did. And because by cutting but not slashing, they could continue their push across the bay and be that much stronger once things picked up again and their nemesis, The Tampa Tribune, was gone. The rivalry with the 120-year-old Tribune has animated many of the Times’ business decisions since 1987, the year the Times invaded neighboring Hillsborough County. That strategy accounts for the 2012 name change (an earlier effort in the mid-2000s was blocked by a Tribune lawsuit) and a $30 million stadium naming-rights deal, struck in 2002, that cost the paper $2.5 million a year.

For the Times, the Tribune’s demise has long since ceased to be a simple point of honor. “I’m not sure there is enough revenue to support two organizations of the size and scale of these two,” says Tash. And any revenue pickup from the Tribune’s decline is almost pure profit, he adds, since “we already have the basic cost of serving the market covered.”

That focus on the Tribune may miss a bigger point: “The competition that the paper has to vanquish is not the Tribune,” notes an observer who has closely followed the paper’s financial travails. “The real competition is [for] people’s attention, people’s time, and interest. That’s a much more complicated problem than The Tampa Tribune.”

In any case, the Tribune has refused to die—though the Times has made gains. When the stadium deal was canceled in 2014, Tash noted that the paper had achieved its goals: Times daily readership has grown more than 40 percent in Tampa’s Hillsborough County and is now about equal to the Tribune’s. Leading the charge is the former top advertising executive at the Tribune, Bruce Faulmann, whom Tash helped lure to the Times Publishing Company in 2008.

Indeed, just under three years ago, it looked like a full victory was in hand. The Tribune’s owner, Media General, had put its entire portfolio of more than 60 print outlets on the market, and Warren Buffett paid $142 million in cash to acquire every one—except the Tribune and its associated publications. When the news broke, recalled the former staffer now working at another media company, “the Times upper management was giddy.” But the Tribune survived, snatched up five months later by a Los Angeles-based private equity firm, Revolution Capital, at the rock-bottom price of $9.5 million. The company continues to publish the paper with a greatly reduced staff, including a Pinellas County edition called The St. Petersburg Tribune.

“What are they up to?” says Tash. “I can’t tell. I just don’t know what they are doing.” Tribune publisher Brian Burns did not return two messages seeking comment.

the times is, in many ways, a diminished version of itself. But, in a period when some metro papers are struggling through fitful reinventions, it is still recognizably itself, and its journalistic ambitions remain high.

A two-part narrative feature in late 2014 took stock of a dramatic forensic investigation on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys; richly illustrated and spiced with multimedia, it earned praise from journalists around the country. The paper still maintains separate investigations and enterprise teams, and earlier this year, it brought on Newsday’s Adam Playford, who helped that paper become a finalist in last year’s public service Pulitzer contest, to lead a new data team. The Times has at least three major investigations in the works for 2015; the investigative team is run by Chris Davis, who helped lead the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to its first Pulitzer in 2011. Reporter Alexandra Zayas, a 2013 Pulitzer finalist, says the chance to work for Davis is a big reason she is staying at the Times, “despite opportunities to work for some of the most exciting newsrooms in the country, both legacy and digital.”

“If the Tribune goes out of business in the next year or two, and the Times figures out this digital thing, and gets all the national advertising for this market, Tash may turn out to be a genius,” says Rob Hooker, the paper’s unofficial historian and former deputy managing editor, who was laid off in 2011 after 40 years at the paper.

Those are big ifs—and more than management’s reputation hangs in the balance. One of those Pulitzers, bestowed last year, was for a seven-part series exposing the misdeeds of a prominent slumlord who was also a major Republican fundraiser. Another, a year earlier, was for a series of 10 editorials that helped reverse a decision to end fluoridation of the local water supply. “It’s not just about what [that journalism] did for us,” says Tash. Rather, it is “about the difference that work made in Tampa Bay.”

“What’s the point of a newspaper continuing if we can’t do that kind of work?” he adds, his voice rising. “What’s the point?”

T.R. Goldman is a freelance journalist in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The Washington Post and Health Affairs, among other publications. He also worked as a reporter at the then-St. Petersburg Times in the early 1990s. This story was published in the March/April 2015 issue of CJR with the headline, "The fight of its life."