Last fall, things looked as bleak as they ever have when it became publicly known that the Tampa Bay Times, like so many newspapers around the country, was struggling financially.
“If you are uncertain about your standing with the Times, this is a good time for a frank conversation with your supervisor,” Times CEO Paul Tash wrote in a memo to staffers last September. “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.”
A mass exodus of prominent reporters and editors followed in the aftermath of the Tash bombshell. Esteemed reporters and editors like Michael Kruse, Bill Dureya, Will Hobson, Susan Thurston, Peter Jamison and Janet Keeler were just some of the prominent staffers who moved on. And while the paper has continued to lose some prime talent this year (Sean Daly and Ivan Penn are the latest to move on), the Times’ has been on a hiring spree of late, bringing in quality reporters like Steve Contorno covering Hillsborough County government and Justine Griffin on retail.
So while it looked like the tide was flowing positive again for the Times, last week’s announcement that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. had filed a lien against the Times Publishing Co, was a warning sign that all is not completely well with the paper on the financial front.
As first reported by the paper’s real estate reporter Susan Taylor-Martin, the PBGC placed a lien against the Times Publishing Co. for $30.5 million in missed pension fund contributions and related interest and penalties. The Times Publishing Co. is the parent owner of the Times. The lien was also filed against The Poynter Institute for Media Studies Inc., Times Holding Co., Trend Magazines Inc. and Tampa Bay Newspapers Inc., all of which are associated with the Times Publishing Co. Pension Plan.
The lien was placed specifically on the Times’ headquarters on First Avenue South in St. Petersburg, a building that is currently on the market. Earlier this year the Times announced it was selling the building to help pay down a $28 million debt owed to Crystal Financial, a finance company based in Boston. It was appraised at $18.5 million in 2014.
A spokesman for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. says that while it’s a “reasonable question” to ask whether the Tampa Bay Times can sell off its headquarters in St. Petersburg before paying off its pension obligations, he can’t talk about it.
“Other people have wondered about that same issue,” spokesman Marc Hopkins told Florida Politics last week, but he said he could not elaborate. The PBGC is a federal agency that insures corporate defined-benefit plans.
The lien is “the difference between the pension plan’s current assets and the calculation of all future benefits,” according to Jana Jones, vice president and CEO of the Times Publishing Co., in a statement distributed to SPB last week.
In December of 2013, the Times entered an agreement with Crystal Financial for a $28 million loan. On September 14, 2014, the Times modified its agreement with Crystal, borrowing an additional $2.5 million, increasing the amount borrowed to $30.5 million.
Since that time, the paper has sold off some properties, including the Tramor Cafeteria building on 123 Fourth Street South for $2.7 million last October. Those sales allowed the paper to begin making payments to Crystal, and by last month the loan had been reduced to $22.19 million.
But surprisingly, on June 23, the Times amended the loan with Crystal once again, borrowing an additional $2 million, and raising the amount that it owes the financial institution to $24.19 million. Six days later, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. put a lien on its corporate headquarters.
When asked for comment last week, the Times produced a statement by Jones that was provided to other members of the news media who inquired. She gave assurances that those employees in the pension plan program had nothing to worry about, emphasizing that the assets in the Times plan exceed $100 million, “considerably higher than the balance when the Times first received permission to delay contributions.”
The paper’s loan with Crystal Financial is due at the end of 2016.