5 things I think I think about today’s Tampa Bay Times

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You won’t read about it in their newspaper, but this past week may have been one of the worst for the Times Publishing Co., in some time. 

On Thursday, media critic Jim Romenesko and a commenter at SportsJournalism.com both blogged about how the Times plans to cut its newsroom staff by ten percent. “In addition, the regional sections will be published only once a week,” the commenter reports, and adds:

[Times staffers] also learned that the paper has hired a consulting firm to help it get through the current financial storm. The consultants reported — almost certainly with executive direction — that the Times’ copy desk is far bigger than those at comparably sized newspapers. …

There’s unconfirmed word that the consulting firm mentioned previously was mandated by the company that gave the Times a $28 million loan in December. Boston’s Crystal Financial LLC — a company that specializes in “making loans to companies who require more debt capital than is currently made available from traditional lenders,” according to its investment profile — provided the loan, which matures in 2016.

The depths of the Times‘ financial troubles are explored further by the Tampa Tribune‘s Richard Mullins, who writes that the Times‘ financial records, loan documents and real estate transactions paint a picture of a shrinking company under increasing financial strain.

Nevermind that the Tribune has its own financial issues, Mullins’ examination of the Times’ struggles makes one wonder if there will even be a Tampa Bay Times in five years. The Times has pledged at least six parcels of land to obtain that $28 million loan from Crystal, including its headquarters. And that loan comes due in December 2016.

What will change between now and then that will make the Times profitable enough to pay off that loan? It’s not as if it will be able to sell more ads or charge more for the declining number of ads it will sell. Will there suddenly be a rush to scale the Times’ paywall? That’s doubtful? And if the Times thinks leasing PolitiFact franchises is its ticket out of the red, the news that the Cleveland Plain Dealer is dropping Politifact Ohio indicates this isn’t a viable business plan, either.

What may be the worst aspect of the Times‘ financial troubles is the terrible job the company does communicating with its readers about the situation. Were the Times any other major local company, the newspaper would be reporting about an eight-figure loan or a ten percent reduction in staff. Yet Times readers have to learn about these development not from the newspaper it trusts, but from outside blogs and rival media outlets. Most Times readers are probably still unaware of just how much trouble their beloved newspaper finds itself.

Then again, it’s no longer a sure thing that the Times airing its dirty laundry would engender much good will from the community at large. The decision to change its name from St. Petersburg Times to Tampa Bay Times has cost the newspaper dearly in terms of community support. Many leaders in St. Pete are still upset by the decision, while few in Tampa — outside of Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s office — have been impressed by the rebranding. The newspaper is still highly respected and widely read, but I’m not so sure it is as beloved as it was even five years ago.

Critics of the Times, including myself, may at first glance rejoice at the news that the Times is struggling. But this hathos is all empty calories. First of all, a ten percent reduction in staff impacts a lot of good people. It’s never a good thing to see anyone laid-off, much less smart, ambitious reporters and writers.

More important, the truth is, Tampa Bay is a one of the most vibrant media market in the country (this is still a two newspaper community, after all) because of the Times. The newspaper going the way of the New Orleans Picayune would be a devastating blow to a community already plagued by self-respect issues.

No, what Tampa Bay needs is a profitable Tampa Bay Times, but one that is chastened by its financial issues. The Times needs to be more open with its readers about its operations. It needs an ombudsman. It’s editors and writers, while they should be proud of their journalistic accomplishments, should be less smug about the Times‘ place in the world. No longer should editor Neil Brown, after the newspaper wins an award, taunt, “If we don’t do this work, if the Times doesn’t speak up, who will?” 

Just eliminate the entire culture of ‘The Timesman’ and return to those heady days when a well-written newspaper delivered to a reader’s doorstep was reward enough.

Speaking of the Times‘ award-winning journalism, congratulations to reporter Drew Harwell for winning the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ top prize in the real estate category for an entry” that included stories about how Wall Street giants were buying up thousands of area homes to rent out. The stories detailed how the explosive land grab had widespread implications for the Tampa Bay area’s slow-recovering housing market.”

Harwell’s win is a remarkable turnaround for one of the newspaper’s bright young stars. If you may remember, Harwell was the reporter who made a “billion dollar mistake” reporting that the New York-based Blackstone Group would be investing a whopping $1 billion in the local real estate market, buying up homes and holding them as rental properties. As the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported, Blackstone would be buying up homes in many markets, but only spending a tiny piece of that billion dollars in Tampa Bay.

I wrote at that time that Harwell was a solid reporter who had obviously been misled by a source and would soon work his way out of the hole he found himself in. 

With Harwell winning the SABEW award, it’s obvious Harwell did just that.

The Times editorial board is getting a lot of run for this broadside against Governor Rick Scott on the eve of the 2014 legislative session. While the Times is right on its facts, the whole ‘Tin Man’ metaphor is off. Correct me if I am wrong, but the Tin Man yearned for a heart, just as the Scarecrow wished for a brain. There simply is no evidence that Gov. Scott yearns for a heart, rather, like the corporate raider he was in his private life, he appears to very much enjoy making the hard decisions he has made the past three years.

 

Dog bites man and so forth, or as the Times/Herald bureau explains in far too many words, campaign cash is important to Tallahassee politicians. 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.