Tampa Bay Times sued over loan, capping off an odd year for the paper

Strange times, indeed.

click to enlarge The Tampa Bay Times' Tampa headquarters. - Pexels
The Tampa Bay Times' Tampa headquarters.

Without a doubt, 2018 was another year of change for newspapers, including some in Tampa Bay. On April 9, Creative Loafing Tampa’s parent company, SouthComm, announced that it had offloaded the 30-year-old alt-weekly as part of a sale to Cleveland publisher Euclid Media (hi, boss!). A day later, our friends at *tbt announced that their daily tabloid would return to its roots as a weekly, blaming since-overturned tariffs on Canadian newsprint. And it continued to get even more interesting in Tampa Bay Times land.

As a part of the adjustments to the anticipated tariffs, Paul Tash — CEO for the region’s vaunted daily paper of record — warned of layoffs affecting approximately 50 jobs, including the one belonging to the paper’s longtime film critic Steve Persall, who started at the paper way back in 1993. Then in October, the Times cut 16 jobs, including nine full-time positions in the newsroom and seven part-time positions.

“The reductions are necessary as the Times realigns its business for the future,” wrote executive editor Mark Katches, who joined the Times in August, at the time — adding the paper was also hiring investigative reporters, digital producers and a deputy editor overseeing digital strategy and audience engagement. He described the positions as “mission critical jobs” that would keep the paper moving forward. The next month brought news naming Darryl Shaw as one of the eight anonymous (well, until now) investors who each offered the Times a $1.5 million bailout last year. Shaw is the co-founder of BluePearl Veterinary Partners and the primary landowner for the pieces of property the Tampa Bay Rays wanted to use for a since-nixed Ybor City ballfield. For some, the connection called into question why the paper has been — as some suggest — less than hard-hitting about the proposed new stadium. Shaw, for his part, reiterated his comments about supporting a free and independent press when he spoke with CL, and also said that he and Tash never spoke about real estate deals, including his property acquisitions in the Ybor area.

And then December happened.

Earlier this week, Times Publishing Co. was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Virginia Dec. 6. According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal, a trust controlled by Marion K. Poynter — the 92-year-old widow of late Poynter Institute founder Nelson Poynter — is suing Times Publishing Co. for $7.8 million, plus interest, claiming that the publishing company owes the trust nearly $7.8 million after defaulting on a promissory note.

Nelson Poynter was the longtime Times publisher who developed its current ownership structure. Times Publishing Co. and Times Holding Co. are owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which he created to ensure the paper’s local ownership.

On May 2, 2016, the Marion K. Poynter Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust loaned the Times Holding Co. and Times Publishing Co. $9.1 million, according to the lawsuit. The suit also says that the balance on the Poynter loan is $7.79 million with a 1.42-percent interest rate.

What’s more, it adds the publishing company made all of its payments between June 1, 2016, and April 1, 2018.

“From June to December 2016, the monthly payment was $50,000; it jumped to $75,000 on Jan. 1, 2017,” according to the Times, which wrote the missed payments came as the paper faced newly imposed tariffs on newsprint.

In a statement, Times Publishing Co. Communication and Grants Director Sherri Day said that the trust was created as part of the settlement to end the corporate takeover attempt by Robert M. Bass and preserve the legacy of Nelson Poynter.

“The world has changed tremendously since 1990, and newspaper publishing is a far more challenging business. Even so, the Times has paid approximately $25 million to Mrs. Poynter’s trust — far more than has been paid to anybody else with the company,” the statement reads. “We regret that Mrs. Poynter and her representatives have taken this step, and we still hope that this matter can be resolved amicably.”

But some things are looking up over at 490 First Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. For starters, Tampa-based investors Convergent Capital Partners and Denholtz Associates — which bought the property housing the paper’s headquarters for $19 million before spending close to $13 million on renovations — just sold the building for about $40 million. The sale puts the structure (also home to the Penny Hoarder financial website) in the hands of a long-term holder, Dallas-based Lincoln Property Co. In addition, Convergent partner Nik Sachdev told the Times another large tenant has recently signed a lease agreement that would bring occupancy in the buildings to almost 90 percent.

Then there’s the journalism. Earlier this year, Times and WTSP reporters teamed up to report on zombie money that campaigns spend long after they end or the candidate dies. In August, reporters discovered the Hillsborough School District found lead in its water and didn’t tell parents for a year. Last month, an extensive report called out the alarming death rate among patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute; top executives at the hospital resigned in the aftermath. Features reporter Christopher Spata continues to pick up meaningful pop culture and human interest stories that make me laugh and cry.

So, yeah, things are weird, but papers continue to do their jobs in the face of an uncertain future. We may poke fun and prod the Times when we think it reports with kids gloves on, or scratch our heads after reading about Tash’s latest plans. The truth is, though, that most Times reporters play vital roles in the community. It’s been intriguing to watch the Times’ strange year unfold, but we’re glad most of it’s happening out in the open. 

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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