More tough times for The Tampa Tribune

Photo: AP/Chris O'Meara Correction: This story originally misspelled Warren Buffett’s last name.

In 2012, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, in a show of faith in the future of local news, bought a chain of newspapers from Media General. There was just one daily paper in the portfolio that Buffett didn’t take: The Tampa Tribune, the longtime rival to the Tampa Bay Times that traces its history to the 19th century. Things looked bleak for the Trib. Then the private-equity investor Robert Loring stepped in, paying $9.5 million for the paper and promising that he and his partners at Revolution Capital Management were in it “for the long haul.”

Today, the paper’s managers say that pledge stands. But in the eyes of observers both near and far, things still look bleak for the Tribune. In the wake of a fresh round of layoffs last week, a second consecutive year of spring pay cuts, and the recent news that the paper’s waterfront headquarters is slated to be redeveloped for residential use, it seems fair to ask: What will happen, and when, to The Tampa Tribune?

That’s the same question CJR recently asked about the Times, across the bay, and the two publications are in many ways linked—locked in what seems like a death match for years, some would say decades. The battle by the larger Times to take over the entire Tampa Bay area, and the Tribune’s fight to hang on, playing out against the broad collapse of the metro paper business model, has put financial pressure on both publications.

But if the Tribune continues to diminish, or even folds, the editorial loss will be distinct. Once the dominant publication in the region, the paper has retained ardent defenders, readers who considered the Times too liberal or just preferred the Trib’s approach. One of the things the new owners have done is take the Tribune back across the bay into Pinellas County, where the Times is based, reasoning that there were readers there who didn’t like the Times and were ripe for the picking.

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“The Tribune was the paper that covered news from the trenches. The Times covered news from the clouds,” said Kurt Loft, a former science writer at the Tribune who left in 2008 to work for PwC. “One was scrappy. One was lofty. For decades, we had both voices.”

And for now, the Tampa Bay area still does—though current and former Tribune staffers and outside analysts I spoke with for this story all fretted about the paper’s future.

Among the reasons for speculation is the pending sale of the headquarters for a reported $19 million, or twice what Revolution Capital paid for the paper. The paper is one of three in the region to put its property on the market, and the deal doesn’t mean the Tribune is leaving town soon: When news broke that the property was on the market, Loring said any sale would have to include a leaseback option, allowing the paper to avoid a costly move. But it is a sign of physical downsizing. Publisher Brian Burns told me this week he is “actively looking at outside partners to print us and looking at the financial feasibility of moving the presses.”

Then there’s the continued shrinking of the newsroom, where Burns confirmed five people were laid off last week. In addition, at least four reporters have voluntarily left the paper since last August—this in a newsroom that only had about 50 staffers last summer, according to former Tribune reporters. Managing editor Ken Koehn declined to give me the exact number of newsroom staffers, citing the competitive environment.

“If you scratch a PR person in Tampa, you’ll find a Tribune person underneath,” said Kevin Wiatrowski, who left the paper in August to work for Visit Tampa Bay, the marketing organization for Hillsborough County. (Another journalist who left the Tribune for public relations last fall, food writer, Jeff Houck, says people ask him why he didn’t go to the Times. “Their lifeboat is on fire too,” he replies.)

A round of pay cuts last year was the last straw for Wiatrowski, though the cuts were restored at the end of the summer. He can see the Tribune continuing to publish in print without presses on site, but worries the owners may have waited too late to suck the cash out of the property.

“My strategy would have been sell the building, scrap the press, print in Lakeland. It’s only an hour away,” he said. “I think had they done that last year they might be in better shape now. It does seem like the last straw. They have done everything else they can do. What do they have left?”

Koehn, a Tribune veteran of 24 years, told me the positions affected in the latest cuts were the business editor, two copy desk editors, a news clerk, and a photographer. In order to fill the holes, he consolidated two editing positions, putting one editor in charge of the bureaus in Pinellas and Pasco counties so he could bring one of the bureau chiefs back to Tampa to edit business. The layoffs were structured to spare reporters.

“We really need to keep people out there gathering news,” he explained. The paper is still in the mix in Tallahassee, where it has one reporter and is maintaining a partnership with the Naples Daily News, which until recently also had a reporter in the state capital.

In an interview Monday, Burns was upbeat, and a booster for his staff. He was also realistic, acknowledging the pain of the layoffs and pay cuts and the challenges facing the paper.

“We’re in a competitive market,” he said. “We have two daily newspapers in each other’s backyards. We’ve been duking it out for a long time. The market share is only so big.”

Burns anticipates by this summer he’ll be able to restore the 10 percent pay cut leveled company-wide in the spring. He blamed the cuts this year and last on the seasonal nature of the Tampa market, where many northerners—the so-called snowbirds—only winter in the area, returning north and taking their dollars with them every spring. He doesn’t foresee any more layoffs in the near term, he said.

The paper has come through crises in the past, he said. “I heard years ago newspapers are dead, newspapers are dead. Well, they’re not. The news business has changed. The Tribune has been through a lot.”

And, though the paper is in the process of cashing in its most valuable asset, Burns said he believes Loring and his partners at Revolution Capital have no intentions of selling.

“I believe the owners’ hearts are in this for the long haul,” he said. “They’ve said it time and time again.” (Loring did not return my call.)

If that does turn out to be the case, it will break the usual pattern, say industry analysts.

“Three to five years is pretty typical turn-around” for investment firms, said Rick Edmonds, who follows the media business at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. Either turning a business around and selling it, or dumping it if it’s not profitable, is “part of the discipline” of the firms, he said. (Edmonds was careful to note that he used to be the managing editor of the Times, the Tribune’s competitor. He also noted that while relatively few papers have folded amid the industry crisis, “the exception is the smaller paper in a two-paper town.”)

Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst at Nieman Lab and author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, said he didn’t know the Tribune’s finances in detail. But in general, he believes private equity may have made a bad bet on the newspaper industry.

“It wasn’t just because of the recession,” he said. “The recession made it worse, but this is an industry in financial free fall. The smart money made a dumb investment.”

Doctor noted that another equity firm, Apollo Management, recently pulled out of a deal to purchase the Digital First Media papers as a group after digging into the company’s finances. If Loring did want to sell, he would likely struggle to find a buyer, Doctor predicted.

“I think the serious answer is The Tampa Tribune is worth $1, the value of companies struggling for their lives,” he said. “They could be barely profitable. They could be unprofitable. But there is not a forecastable strong positive cash flow.”

One other sign of trouble may be more symbolic than telling: The Tribune’s delinquent property taxes were sold at auction earlier this month. Public records accessed this week indicated the paper owed $88,000, including penalties. For a company negotiating a $19 million property sale, that is perhaps just an oversight, but not an encouraging one.

In the face of all the challenges confronting the paper, Koehn and Burns say they remain optimistic about the future. They seem to have a lot of confidence in each other—and they have high praise for the people still working at the Tribune.

When there are cuts at the paper, “It’s sad for all of us,” Koehn said. “We love what we do. We come in every day so we can go hard every day. I just tell people not to look back, to look forward, focus on that next great story.”

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.