united states project

My take: The end of an era in Tampa

The Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune say goodbye to talented journalists
November 21, 2014

MIAMI — The sad news out of Tampa just keeps trickling across my Facebook page.

This week it was the fact that Tampa Bay Times’ Bill Duryea and Michael Kruse were leaving for Politico. Last week, it was long-time sports columnist Gary Shelton penning his last goodbye to the Times while the crosstown Tampa Tribune laid off a political columnist, William March, a 30-year veteran his competition called “venerable” and “annoyingly tough.”

Before that, my Facebook feed saw farewell parties for the Times’ delightful culture columnist, Jeff Klinkenberg, and others who took early retirement as part of the paper’s downsizing announced two months ago. While the bad, sad news has been coming mostly from the Times recently, the Trib had its share of tribulations over the summer, with far too many photos of going-away cakes flitting across my feed.

I’ve worked in Florida journalism for nearly 17 years. In the 1990s, I worked at The Palm Beach Post, at a time when we proudly thought of ourselves as a “writers’ paper,” a smaller version of the Times. From 2003 until 2009, I worked at The Miami Herald, a time when we recognized that the Times was probably better at nurturing writers, but we had more fun and so did our readers. (The Herald, after all, produced Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen. We took journalism seriously, but were never as serious as the Times.)

The two Tampa papers have always been viewed with a bit of romance, even awe by my cohort of Florida journalists. The Times was just so good, and it seemed protected from the market forces that battered so many other newspapers. Owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, it didn’t have to please shareholders or lay off great reporters and photographers in order to carve a profit out of shrinking advertising. (A 2001 CJR article about the then-St. Petersburg Times was headlined “A Happy Newsroom, for Pete’s Sake.”) Meanwhile, the Trib was just so scrappy, holding its own against the competition the Times dished out.

The Tampa papers have won 11 Pulitzers. The Times won most of them, including an award for local reporting earlier this year, but the Trib had one back in the day, too. There is a tradition of good, hard-hitting journalism in that town.

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There will be some more good journalism in the future, but the era of romance is over. Poynter is losing money. The Times took out a loan last year that looks like the corporate version of a payday loan, and it’s got to be paid back next year. Both Poynter and the Times are selling off property.

You can read all about the Times’ troubles in the Trib. Meanwhile, I’ve heard friends at the Tribune wonder how long their paper will survive. They’re heartbroken because they have enjoyed being the scrappy rival to the Times’ impressiveness. There was always something a little pugnacious about the Trib.

I know reporters at both papers. I recognize the demoralized tone of their voices, the frustrated complaints they trade about management decisions, the talk of exit plans and new career paths and reinventing themselves when they don’t want to. My own job at The Miami Herald was eliminated in 2009. Just a year before, I said to a friend that if someone had told my 20-year-old self that I would get to do all the things I had done in daily journalism and it would be over in 20 years, I would have gone for it. I only got 18 before I had to reinvent myself as a freelancer.

At the same time I lost my job, the Herald announced two-week furloughs, plus a 10 percent salary cut, for the survivors—including my husband. It all sounds so familiar as the survivors at the Times take a 5 percent salary cut and wonder how long they will each last before the next round of cuts.

The downsizing of American newspaper journalism has been going on for years, and the Tampa papers have shed staffers before, of course.

But many other papers seem to have stabilized recently, in part by pooling resources and pulling out of direct competition. Here in Florida, The Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun Sentinel essentially pulled out of each other’s territory and began sharing content, something that would have been unheard of a decade ago, when the Herald didn’t even share content with its sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, though El Nuevo staffers worked in the same building and we all printed on the same presses.

The Herald and the Times also combined forces to staff a powerhouse capitol bureau, preserving solid statehouse coverage while ending what had been a feisty competition in Tallahassee between the state’s two largest papers.

It’s hard to see how a similar arrangement between the Times and the Tribune would work in Tampa, and there’s no sign of any interest in one. The Times couldn’t pull back to its former namesake, St. Petersburg, leaving the region’s largest city to the Tribune. Neither paper is in a position to try to buy the other, and a formal joint operating agreement doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar.

And so the bleeding in Tampa continues.

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