In Tampa Bay, a singular newspaper kills off a rival in a bid for its own future

The Tampa Bay Times announced Tuesday it had bought the Tampa Tribune; the next morning

When the Tampa Bay Times announced this week that it had bought and closed its rival The Tampa Tribune, friends of mine who had worked at the Trib were saddened, and some were angry at how suddenly the paper was shuttered. But, many of them said: If only one newspaper could survive in Tampa Bay, better that it be the Times.

The Times has long been viewed with a certain romance in journalism circles, a beacon-on-the-hill sort of place where a unique ownership structure, set up by a revered newsman, ensured that the task of reporting was not held hostage to corporate profit margins—or hedge fund operators’ murky plans. Its lofty approach could rub competitors the wrong way, but it was also an object of admiration. Now, the heirs of that tradition have killed off a 123-year-old member of the journalism family, with its own significant history. It was a bid to preserve the future of the Times, and it may have been necessary, but it’s hard to cheer.

When the sale was announced at 3pm Tuesday, the Tribune ceased to operate as an independent publication more or less immediately. Its website redirects for now to the Times homepage; starting Wednesday morning, Tribune subscribers got the Times on their doorstep.

Paul Tash, the Times chairman and CEO, presented the sale as saving journalism in general in Tampa Bay by putting the Times on “solid financial footing.”*

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“[T]he continued competition between the Times and Tribune was putting both in peril,” Tash said in a column announcing the news. “In today’s economy, you can count on one hand the number of cities that can sustain more than one daily newspaper, and the Tampa Bay region is no longer among them.”

Tash also said this week that some of the 265 Tribune employees would be hired at the Times, but that at least 100 were likely to lose their jobs. From what I’m hearing, only a handful from the Trib newsroom have been asked to stick around at the Times. The rest will be given two months’ severance.

The outcome is, from one perspective, a vindication of the Times’ singular structure. Nelson Poynter bought the Times from his father in 1947 and set up what became the nonprofit Poynter Institute in 1975. He willed his controlling interest of the paper, then called the St. Petersburg Times, to the institute when he died in 1978. His goal was to preserve the independence of the paper, and over the years the Times did succeed in fending off at least one corporate raider.

Under Poynter’s successors—most notably Gene Patterson, a civil rights crusader and one of the South’s great newsmen of the 20th century—the Times also invested in journalism, as its 12 Pulitzers, including two just last month, attest.

And in the 1980s, it started to stake out its territory across the bay, beginning what would be a nearly 30-year battle with the Tribune. It was a move that might have seemed outlandish a decade earlier when the Tribune was one of the largest papers in Florida, but by then the Times was widely recognized as one of the best papers in the state. Patterson’s paper was doing impressive journalism, while so many other papers, including the Tribune, were treading water.

Howard Troxler, a metro columnist who worked at both papers, noted the Tribune fought longer and harder than anyone really expected. “If you could go back and tell the Times people back then, ‘30 years it’s going to take you,’ they wouldn’t have believed it and they might not have done it,” he said. 

My own fondness for the journalism being done in Tampa Bay comes from spending most of my career in Florida reading the great investigations and beautifully written features the Times churned out, and watching the scrappy Tribune just refuse to stop fighting. It also comes with a family connection. My father, Jeff Nesmith, got one of his first jobs stringing for the Tampa Tribune in the late 1950s. His job was to check police reports in Gainesville on Sunday nights, back when one of the largest papers in the state kept an eye on the news more than 100 miles away.

Dad recalled a Tribune that was regional powerhouse—in fact, from about the 1920 to the ’60s it was probably the best paper in the state, the historian Gary Mormino told me. But my dad also worked for the Atlanta Constitution in his early career, when that paper was the most important one in the South. There, Patterson and publisher Ralph McGill faced down white supremacists during the Civil Rights Movement, offering inspiration to a generation of idealistic reporters, and a vision of journalists as community caped crusaders. Patterson brought that crusading sense of mission to the Times. 

Patterson, that champion of American journalism, was also in charge when the Times expanded into Tampa in 1987 and began its battle against the Tribune. It was a business decision. To survive even under the ownership of a nonprofit, Times leaders felt they needed to control the entire Tampa Bay market.* Now, they have it—though the act of killing off a rival, even if it had come to seem inevitable, sits a bit uneasily with the whole paper-on-a-hill mystique. 

“It may not be what Poynter would have wanted,” said Philip Gailey, a former vice president of Times Publishing, “but it may save his newspaper.”

For an undisclosed price (though it can’t have been much), the Times essentially bought a list of subscribers it will need to convince to stay on, along with some advertising contracts and maybe a little bit of leverage over future ad prices. It also bought the freedom to no longer worry about local competition—and, perhaps, to focus more single-mindedly on the transition to digital.

In advance of the deal, the Times itself has reported, the company took on new debt, borrowing against properties it owns. The paper’s debt has been a source of concern in recent years—though the Times was also able to pay off a good chunk of what it owed recently with the sale of its own headquarters. It reportedly owes less now than it did a few weeks ago. (The Times has also reported that the deal for the sale was actually agreed to back in February, when an agreement to have the Times print the Tribune was announced, and Trib brass were still talking about the viability of their paper.) 

Among media watchers down here, I heard little consensus about the outlook for the Times in the wake of the purchase. Wayne Garcia, a veteran of both newsrooms and now the associate director of The Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, was in the pessimistic camp, given the state of the industry. “I don’t know that this sets them up for the future,” he said. “Can any market really support one newspaper? That question is still unanswered.”

Like many current and former Tribune reporters, he also wished the paper’s end had come differently. “If a paper’s got to die, I’d like to see it die on its own, rather than putting a bullet to its head with no last edition,” Garcia said. 

I talked to Tash Thursday afternoon, and asked about that. “These are changes that were carefully planned,” he said, noting that the Times will maintain the Tribune brand and its banner on twice-weekly local editions in Tampa.

The Times also plans a special section this Sunday as a tribute to the Tribune. On the issue of not letting Tribune reporters do that themselves, Tash said: “I’ve been involved in long goodbyes and short goodbyes in my life, and the long goodbyes are always more difficult.”

“Sure it’s sad,” he said. “Sometimes there are sad things that have to happen for good things to happen.”

Tash caries the extraordinary legacy of people like Nelson Poynter and Gene Patterson on his shoulders. Let’s hope he’s right about this one.

* Corrections: This post originally misstated the title of Paul Tash, the Times chairman and CEO. Also, one line has been revised to clarify that the Times is owned by a nonprofit organization; it is not itself nonprofit.

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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.