Layoffs, buyouts and a DUI in Tampa Bay media news

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click to enlarge St. Petersburg Times Editor, CEO and Chairman Paul Tash - Courtesy Of St. Petersburg Times
Courtesy Of St. Petersburg Times
St. Petersburg Times Editor, CEO and Chairman Paul Tash

The St. Petersburg Times isn't a public company, so it doesn't have to bear all the SEC-required disclosures and subsequent negative headlines that the Media General-owned Tampa Tribune does.

But that doesn't mean that the Times isn't hurting, perhaps just as badly, as the Tribune is financially.

The Times told its employees (and its online readers) last week that the newspaper is making some more quiet cuts/adjustments to its bottom line. Most significant on the list: the media company's employees who didn't take last year's buyout offer will be asked again to consider the package.

In addition, the Times is ceasing its contributions to employee 401(k) plans, freezing pension credits for those longer-term employees still eligible for pensions (the company stopped offering pensions to new hires some time ago) and extending a 1-year wage freeze that was set to expire on June 1 for another year.

"This is a lot to absorb, especially combined with all the other news of general economic turmoil, and you may wonder what conclusions you should draw about the Times and your place in it," Times Editor, CEO and Chairman Paul Tash wrote. "Every day, the Times relies on talented and dedicated professionals who pull together on behalf of their company and in service to the Tampa Bay region. On hard days (and lately there have been a couple), your commitment stokes my confidence about our future. We will get there together, and each day brings us a little closer."

Media General, the owner of Newschannel 8, TBO and the Tampa Tribune, publicly announced similar benefit cuts in January.

The Times was only one of a handful of Tampa Bay news operations that made news in the past week, including:

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune joined the layoff squad, announcing it was getting rid of a total of 47 more employees. Its companywide staff now stands at 350, or 40 percent lower than its real-estate-boom height just three years ago.

The Herald-Tribune reported: "Like other businesses contending with the deep recession, the Herald-Tribune Media Group cut more jobs on Tuesday and said that it would end home delivery in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda in March. Forty-eight Herald-Tribune employees were laid off, including 31 SNN News 6 staffers who received severance packages Tuesday after being furloughed a week ago."

The Herald-Tribune has stopped negotiating the sale of its 24-hour cable operation SNN to the station's general manager, who wants to restart it as a separate company. The new company's financing was not in place in time for a deal.

Creative Loafing has been offered $13.3 million to sell its six-alt-weeklies chain to a Tennessee developer and investor in rival Sunday Paper in Atlanta, where CL was founded two decades ago. Former CL Atlanta staffer Steve Fennessy broke the offer in his Atlanta mag blog:

"For those who think I've let lapse my casual obsession with the Creative Loafing Inc. bankruptcy, rest easy. There's more news! Turns out that Brian Conley, who once owned the alternative newspaper in Knoxville, TN, and is now helping to finance the Sunday Paper's expansion into other cities, has offered to buy all six papers in the Creative Loafing chain. Offer price? $13.3 million.

"In a response to an email I sent him, Ben Eason, Creative Loafing Inc.'s CEO, said his company's financial adviser, Bryan Crino, has been in touch with Conley. However, Eason wouldn't characterize what reaction, if any, he has to the offer. 'You can read any and all about CL on our websites when there is something to report,' he wrote in the email."

Then there's the non-fiscal bad news of the past week, starting with the arrest of a former Tampa Tribune employee. Charles Wilson was a credit manager at the Trib; according to a federal complaint, it seems Wilson and his wife, Lynda, may have been improving their own credit.

They were charged with paying off mortgage and car payments, a golf club membership and private Christian school tuition with more than $1 million in checks fraudulently obtained from Media General and its advertisers via the couple's home-based collection company.

(One media report added this piquant detail: Wilson is currently a consultant for Gannett Media. And his wife works in the pre-suit litigation department at personal-injury giant Morgan & Morgan.)

And Fox 13 anchor Russell Rhodes has another woe to add to his list in the wake of a violent and weird encounter with an off-duty sheriff's deputy in a Channelside parking garage. Prosecutors added a DUI and resisting an officer without violence to his misdemeanor charge of obstructing an officer without violence.

Rhodes has not been on-air since his initial arrest on Jan. 16, when a deputy tried to stop him in the public parking garage. Sheriff's reports say Rhodes was driving his BMW erratically, and he emerged from the car his pants unbuckled and unbuttoned (but up). The deputy said Rhodes ran and started flailing his arms, so the deputy took the Good Day Tampa Bay anchor to the ground. Rhodes suffered cuts and bruises (his booking photo looks like somebody dropped a cinderblock on his face) and the sheriff's office is doing what it calls a routine internal investigation into the arrest.

David Warner contributed to this report.

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