Letters

A Letter From the Publisher

Friends:

Over the past week, we began a series of changes in the Planet that will make it a more vital paper in our community.

First, we have appointed a new editor, Jim Harper, who grew up in Tampa and has covered everything from police news to classical music during his 24-year career as a reporter, editor and columnist at the St. Petersburg Times. He has written about local politics, higher education, racial issues and just about everything else a good newspaper covers. Over the years, he won awards for general excellence in criticism, feature writing and public service.

We're excited about the energy and intellect that Jim's going to bring to the paper. Look for a renewed commitment to civic issues and ideas, more voices from the community, including Jim's own, as well as a continued commitment to hard- hitting investigation.

We are also excited that Susan Edwards, who has been the editor of the Planet for the past two years, is going to write a weekly column looking at the varied culture of the region. As senior editor of the paper, she will head up our arts and culture section and continue adding energy to our criticism.

We're going to unleash Eric Snider back into the paper to resume his writing after a stint as the editor for the arts and culture section. And we're going see some more stuff from Scott Harrell, who has a gifted pen in the music arena but also in a few areas that readers may not have noticed.

There were some tough decisions, too. Our changes also included cutting of three folks from our editorial staff — News Editor Fran Gilpin and writers Rochelle Renford and Trevor Aaronson. We have always devoted significant resources to news and commentary, but we still have to live on a budget.

The Planet has always taken pride in reporting on itself and on giving readers the benefit of knowing what's going on inside the paper. We've reported the good, the bad and the ugly. We don't like to let the daily newspapers define what we are trying to do through their filters. The Planet continues to take advertising dollars away from the dailies and our circulation is at record levels. The recession has been tough on everyone in the media, but we're pleased to be growing and not shrinking.

The cuts in our editorial staff were announced after we went to press last week. The articles in the local dailies created consternation among our readers that we are abandoning our commitment to local news and politics. For all of our efforts to tell their reporters it wasn't so, that was the theme dominating their stories. But even as we reduce the staff, we have strengthened the leadership of our paper and will have more writing from our most experienced journalists.

Jim's experience is a clear sign of our intentions for the paper because he has a strong record in both news and cultural issues. He has a degree in English and American literature from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn. He studied cultural patterns in American politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, under a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1985 he won a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied art, music, history, philosophy and modern dance.

Back at the Times, he wrote a column that sought to draw connections between cultural events and real life.

Jim worked several years as an editor in the Times' Tampa edition. More recently, he was responsible for exposing the cover-up of a series of sexual assault complaints involving a star basketball player at the University of South Florida; for helping to broaden his newspaper's coverage of racial issues after a controversial police shooting in St. Petersburg; and for challenging the media's initial coverage of USF professor Sami Al-Arian.

Jim also was among the first mainstream newspaper reporters in America to write publicly as a gay man, something he considered necessary in order to cover a major social movement both honestly and intelligently. "I believe journalists change the world by confronting things head-on," Jim said.

So take a close look at the Planet over the next couple of months. Jim's first day is Feb. 3. Send him a note on the skinny that you think we ought to be putting in the paper. He is at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com. For anything of a cultural bent, you can reach Susan at [email protected]. And stay tuned. We'll still be kicking butt, and the Times and the Trib will still pretend not to notice.

—Ben Eason, Publisher

A Letter From the Editor

By now, many of you have heard that Weekly Planet is laying off its news staff. Three of the people you've come to know through their writing will soon be gone from these pages.

Trevor Aaronson's wry humor, nose for news, utter fearlessness and good old fashioned iconoclasm may one day lead him toward a reputation like the one enjoyed by the much vaunted, dearly departed and ever pugnacious John Sugg.

We sicced Trevor on the media beat, and he went after it like a bloodhound, revealing the strong-arm tactics of the St. Petersburg Times in trying to get rid of Alfred Whitted Municipal Airport and the slightly seamy underbelly of the glossy Tampa Bay Magazine, among others. He worked here for less than a year, but in that time, he made a big impression on readers.

You also won't be reading Rochelle Renford anymore. Her caustic, articulate and impassioned voice and keenly alternative viewpoint will be sorely missed. Whenever we kicked around story ideas, she was always the first to ask, "how is this an alternative story?" She's a true believer in the power and responsibility of the alternative press — even as it bows to the demands of the market and the voracious appetite of the corporate machine.

Perhaps more than any writer I have ever seen, she cares deeply about the things she writes about. Her stories about Sami Al-Arian and Jeb Bush generated more letters and spirited debate than almost anything we've published since I've been editing this paper.

Most local media people and politicians know or know of our departing News Editor Francis X. Gilpin. Even if they don't like him, they usually respect him. He's an old-style news guy who knows the ins and outs of government and all the players — a dogged reporter, stubbornly fair-minded and balanced in his approach to a story. He does not form an opinion until he has all the facts, and even then, he likes to let the readers decide, based on the facts, what to think about a story.

Fran's sense of integrity far surpasses his sense of self-preservation. He never shied away from stories that he knew would offend people in a position to do him harm. Whenever an ethics question arose, Fran was the one we turned to for advice. His strong sense of ethics and reporting skills are what made me beg him to be our news editor. He didn't really want to do it — his real love is investigative reporting — but he finally succumbed to my pressure.

Coaching young reporters and covering the news with a small staff take a lot of time. Still, Fran found the time to do prodigious amounts of research and bring us stories like the one about Florida Power's dirty tactics in keeping a small town under its thumb.

He also found the time to serve on the local board of the Society of Professional Journalists and put out special news sections. He was often at his desk when I left at night and again when I arrived in the morning, making me wonder if he had spent the night there, poring over records in search of the story.

There has been some protest about the layoffs from our readers — those who feel we have done a good job of presenting the other side of the news. ABC Liquors was so incensed that the retailer told our circulation director the stores would no longer carry our paper. We've been thrown out of distribution sites before — for our racy ads and content that offended someone in a position of power. But I believe this is the first time we've been ousted for an anticipated lack of content.

Things change. Power shifts. People move on. Businesses either become corporations or are devoured by them. Some people hate change, resist it with every fiber of their beings. But that doesn't stop it from happening.

Four years ago, I came to work for a lean and scrappy independent alternative paper. A small business run by people we saw every day. Now, I work for a corporation run by people who probably could not put a face to the names of the artists and journalists who have lost their jobs in the past year or so: Todd Bates, Chrissy Stevens, Stella Moore, Paul Pavlovich, Susan Dix, Melissa Caban, Andrea Brunais. And now Rochelle Renford, Trevor Aaronson and Francis Gilpin. They've all taken a piece of the soul of this paper with them.

The question is, can those of us who remain salvage what's left and move on. The answer is, we'll do our damndest.

Many alternative papers are run by distant corporations now. Artists, writers, sales people and support staff are literally numbers to them, payroll costs to be balanced against advertising income. It's a fact of life, and no amount of hand wringing will change it.

You're going to see some major changes in this paper. Some of you will hate what we do next; others will love it. Same as it ever was. But I ask you to keep an open mind.

I am voluntarily stepping down as editor to return to what I know and love best: culture, which I honestly believe is important. I don't for a second believe that cultural coverage can or should take the place of hard news. I'm not here to put a good face on the loss of our news staff. I'll let those who made that decision explain themselves to you.

What I do want you to know is that there are still people here who believe in the power and responsibility of the alternative press. And we'll do our best to keep the flame alive.

—Susan F. Edwards, Editor

Requiem for Our News Staff

Why on earth would Mr. Eason be so inhumane and callous as to fire three people, then insult them in the newspaper because they haven't been able to keep the John Sugg flame burning? Never mind the fact that Sugg was the worst "journalist" to ever work in Tampa. The only good news in the story in the St. Petersburg Times is that the three people he fired won't have to work for an asshole like him any longer.

—R.D. Hawood, via e-mail

I was so sad to hear that you had fired your news reporters. When a newspaper can shield itself with freedom of the press yet provide nothing more than entertainment advertising, I lose a little more hope for America. The Weekly Planet did a great service to the community when its news writers took on government and other big brother institutions in a fair and unbiased manner. Yours is about the only publication that can do that. Now, you are going to be of less intrinsic value to the community than the Walgreen insert in the Times.

—Glenn Anderson, St. Petersburg

I was a features writer at a bitchin' alternative newspaper once, one that didn't have a buncha soporific eggheads from think tanks and boring-ass publications playing Wizards of Oz. As anyone who was there when I was will attest, I couldn't have given a crap about news. But I was glad it was there. The paper I'd've humped were it human is now run by status-seeking, unimaginative fat cats who are not so slowly turning an edgy tabloid with ideals and a playful spirit into a generic small format, written by uninsured freelancers and designed by faceless drones in another state.

I'll bet the salaries of the three shitcanned staffers — immense talents all — don't add up to the salary of ONE portly wannabe Trump around there. You know, those 'tards with bombastic words like "corporate," "chief," "executive" and/or "officer" in their titles. Who'd have thought fucking up would pay so well? If only I'd spit on the fat cats' cars more. (Yeah, that was me.) Readers, don't be fooled: You're getting a product, not a paper.

—David Jasper, former Planet writer, Bend, Ore.

Since Weekly Planet is seeking new voices in the Tampa Bay area, I would like to be the first to provide my commentary.

It is troubling to hear that Creative Loafing Inc. has laid off its entire news staff at the Planet.

Last year, the company, under Mr. Eason's direction, fired the entire design staff. Tampa's local alternative weekly now has all their ads designed at Creative Loafing in Atlanta. Centralized production was a move for the CL papers that they thought would make the company more profitable, but it has turned out to create major problems.

Do you plan on centralizing news content? In the past year the Weekly Planet has had a number of hard-hitting local stories. Do you now plan on running only syndicated content and listings from your advertisers? How a paper can stray so far from its roots is beyond me.

—Paul F. Blake, former Weekly Planet Sales Representative, via e-mail

As a regular reader of ONLY the political commentary and investigative reporting in the Weekly Planet (I will no longer have a reason to pick it up, unfortunately), I read with dismay the article in the St. Petersburg Times proclaiming the release of the likes of Trevor Aaronson. His writing is insightful, funny and revealing, with obvious dedication to serious research when writing about a topic. As a community activist, I view his dismissal as a serious loss to the TRUE flow of information in the Tampa Bay community. I wish him, Rochelle and Co. the best, and can only bewail another corporate rollover for the sake of profit. What a shame.

—Lorraine Margeson, via e-mail

It really is difficult to believe the reason stated for the news reporting cut back. Your revenues, based on the number of consistent ads that run every week, must be at least respectable, if not significant and very profitable. So what's the real reason for the cutback?

—Dan Calabria, South Pasadena

March on the Politicians

Does anyone belonging to the Florida Alliance for Peace and Social Justice or who read Rochelle Renford's piece on protesting MacDill realize who makes the decision to go to war? Well, it isn't the men and women stationed at MacDill, who have chosen a career to protect the rights of our country, who uproot their children every two to three years to be relocated to another base, who risk their lives to ensure the security of our nation.

It's the job of the elected officials that WE chose. If anyone is unhappy with the plans, go to the source: Washington, D.C. Maybe the FAPSJ could adopt a new cause and rename themselves the Florida Alliance of Peace and 100 Percent Voter Turnout. Blame it on Congress, blame it on the eligible voters who didn't show up at the polls, but please don't stand outside their workplace and blame it on the people who serve our country.

—Michele Collins, via e-mail

Happiness is a Warm AK-47

I enjoyed your article on U.S. arms dealers. I liked the picture of the AK -47 so much I hung it on the wall of my garage. It's one of my favorite weapons! I know, I know, filthy Americans arming the world. We even armed the terrorists with airliners on Sept. 11 right? Will Weekly Planet EVER write/publish a pro U.S. article? Maybe between your praise of Al-Arian and Bush bashing, you could print something positive about America? Or maybe you could move your coalition of "rainbow-reporters" to a nice South American country where they can teach you a lesson in freedom ... ya know, show you what free press is all about. It's hard to lend credence to a publication that writes about human rights and freedom while at the same time sells cheap porn from its back pages.

—Greg Doran, Largo

I can agree that people who violate gun laws to the extent that they export large quantities should get more than a slap on the wrist. Nevertheless, this article is aimed at gun ownership generally, as evidenced by the remarks at the end about the Second Amendment. The fact remains that there are huge quantities of military weapons already on the black market.

I find it ironic that those who oppose an individual's right to bear arms are usually the strongest supporters of a so-called right to abortion — something never mentioned or contemplated by the writers.

—Leonard Martino, via e mail

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