Shrinkage at the Trib and the Times

The dailies get smaller. Can they still satisfy readers?

click to enlarge HEAD TO HEAD: Tampa Bay's dailies are shrinking their staffs and their newspapers. - Lindsey Turner
Lindsey Turner
HEAD TO HEAD: Tampa Bay's dailies are shrinking their staffs and their newspapers.

These are not happy days for journalism in Tampa Bay, either for the journalists or for the (apparently) declining numbers of people who enjoy the feel of paper and ink between their fingers in the morning.

Both daily newspapers here — The Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times — are undergoing major changes.

First, the Times. The largest daily in Florida recently informed its readers of the outcome of its in-house Project Flagship committee, which studied how to change the paper to accommodate a 21st-century audience and declining advertising revenues. In a blog post by media reporter Eric Deggans and a Sunday piece by Executive Editor Neil Brown, the Times revealed the changes that took effect this past Monday, most notably the elimination of daily stand-alone Floridian and Business sections.

Brown summarized the changes this way: "In a Starbucks world, it is the venerable Dunkin' Donuts that sells more hot cups of coffee than anybody in America. Even as the Starbucks 'experience' transformed the coffee-drinking marketplace, the 58-year-old Dunkin' chain found a way to soar, having grown its revenues roughly 50 percent in a recent three-year period. How? Rather than hunker down it adapted to changing tastes: more high-quality coffee, fewer fattening doughnuts.

"This seems an apt lesson for newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, as we consider how best to deliver distinctive journalism and useful advertising in a time of profound technological change and extraordinary economic turbulence," Brown said.

So far reader response has been light and understandably mixed, but Managing Editor Stephen Buckley said in an interview with CL last week, "As you can imagine when we launch Project Flagship on Monday, we expect there to be a torrent of feedback."

The Times is not just cutting the size of the newspaper. It's also shrinking the staff, from 400 people in editorial two years ago to a number somewhere around 340 — and maybe beyond. Buckley would not discuss specific personnel plans but did say, "It will clearly take a smaller staff to produce a smaller newspaper, across the entire organization, and we've been very open about that within the organization. We will do that as gracefully and carefully as we can."

Whatever the staffing level or print configuration, the Times will still sell itself as "Florida's Best Newspaper."

"We genuinely believe the St. Petersburg Times will be a better read day in and day out," Buckley said. "That's why we're doing this."

Over at The Tampa Tribune, things are worse. Much worse. So much so that one staffer describes the atmosphere as "toxic."

Last month, Media General offered buyout packages to half of its converged staff (the Trib, Newschannel 8 and of 1,326 a month ago; two newsroom sources tell me that only about 20 or so people opted to volunteer for departure. Management hasn't told staffers exactly how many of the 650 buyout-targeted positions will really be cut, but the consensus among Trib workers who would discuss the matter on background is that the number is in the area of 150. (Note: Most accounts of the upcoming buyouts are making the mistake of thinking that all 650 positions will go. The Trib's parent company might be freakin' about the flow of red ink in Tampa and the hostile proxy fight by minority shareholders Harbinger Capital, but it isn't crazy enough to slash the occupied seats at the News Center by half.)

So when does the ax fall? The staff has not been told, but based on the terms of the buyout (those accepting the deal have several weeks to change their minds), it seems that late June or early July would be the first that we could hear who goes and who stays.

The Tribune last year cut back its stand-alone business and features sections, similar moves to the ones the Times now undertakes. Industry goodwill toward the privately owned Times and its nonprofit business model is reflected in reactions on media blogs and around the industry. When the Times gets rid of employees, the action takes place largely below the radar screen and is viewed as selective pruning. But when the Tribune gets rid of workers, the word is "layoffs." When the Tribune cut back on its news sections, the move was viewed as a retrenchment; the Times changes are more likely to be characterized as innovations in print journalism.

Then there's the interesting question being whispered by daily journalists on both sides of the bay and articulated directly (if somewhat acerbically) by a reader of our Political Whore blog in an e-mail:

"With only a fraction of the fiscal resources of Media General, et al., what do you speculate will happen to the independent-and-certainly-answering-to-no-one St. Petersburg Times?"

In other words, despite the very public fiscal twisting in the wind at The Tampa Tribune, owing to its public ownership that requires its finances be splashed across SEC filings, is the Times actually the product that is in bigger trouble? The Trib, after all, could be carried either by profits at Newschannel 8 or other chain papers for a while, but the Times has no such broadcast cross-ownerships or other profitable dailies to fall back on. Nor can it compete as effectively across several cities and platforms for large national ad accounts.

So how are things here at home? Creative Loafing has not been immune to the drop in advertising revenues in Tampa Bay. This newspaper has not experienced layoffs in the past four years, although it eliminated an editorial assistant position more than a year ago and a midlevel advertising managerial slot before that. But we have reduced the number of print copies distributed free each week over the last few months. At the same time, a slow but steady rise in website page views and ad sales suggests strong potential for CL's online arm.

Whether you work at a weekly or a daily or are just a consumer of the news, Neil Brown's breakfast pastry analogy will apply: We're all in for a steadier diet of basic cake donuts and far fewer manager's specials with sprinkles.

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