UPDATED 5/16 7:17 a.m.
Few things are as endearing as feeling like someone loves your hometown as much as you do, and for all of its conservative leanings during its latter years, it was not hard to adore the Tampa Tribune.
It was the paper my parents had delivered to their front door in Carrollwood, and it’s the one that taught me how to read the comics section and then graduate to the front page and every section buried underneath it. Sixth grade grade me didn’t realize it, but the longstanding institution of the Tampa Tribune — which began daily publication in 1895 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 — was teaching me how to feel invested in the town I was growing up in. I started to love reading its columnists. Crime, politics, humanities and other special interests became a part of my life. I anxiously waited to see its front pages after big Buccaneers wins — and losses. The Trib was teaching me about objectivity, and it subtly implanted this idea that the health of a town largely depends on whether or not there are honest people willing to sacrifice so much time and money (because let’s face it: Journalism is not lucrative) so that a city’s story can be told.
The paper eventually stopped arriving at the house, and I moved out some years after delivery dried up, but the damage was done. The newspaper — along with the then-St. Petersburg Times, Creative Loafing and a rough-and-tumble local music magazine called REAX — became a part of my existence as a Tampa townie. As I grew older, I started to realize the differences between the Trib, the Times and Creative Loafing, but I read them anytime I could get my hands on a copy. How else did we pass the time in the pre-internet age?
But that damn internet started to make things complicated for newspaper revenue, and as the years wore on, the idea of a metro with two daily newspapers started to feel less like a certainty and more like a privilege. The St. Petersburg Times changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012. Four years later, the Times bought the Trib and immediately shut it down, putting an end to the paper’s 123-year relationship with the city it served. The end came so suddenly that the paper didn’t even get to put a farewell edition together (that week, CL changed our front page to look like the Trib’s). The New York Times said that about 265 people lost their jobs when the Tribune closed.
"The continued competition between the newspapers was threatening to both," Tash said in a statement on the Times' website. "There are very few cities that are able to sustain more than one daily newspaper, and the Tampa Bay region is not among them."
Some holdovers from the Trib still get bylines in today’s Tampa Bay Times (hi, Chris Spata and Joe Henderson), but Michelle Bearden, a 20-year vet of the Trib who was laid off in 2014, still hosts annual reunions for Tribune alumni.
In 2016, Bearden told the New York Times that some people at the Trib felt like fools and deceived by that 2016 deal which put the Tribune in a casket.
“Revolution [Capital, which owned the Trib] had already inked the deal with The Tampa Bay Times to sell the paper,” she said about a transaction that was done five months before it was announced.
“There was never any intention to find a new home and continue the Tribune as a competitive entity,” she added. “There was no commitment to this community, no intention to try to make this newspaper profitable again, no interest in preserving a historical tradition.”
Over this past weekend, Bearden corralled about 150 Tribune employees from all eras of the paper going back to the ‘70s. They flew in from Philadelphia and Minneapolis; about a dozen people came from South Florida, Orlando and Gainesville. The crew consumed more than 70 pounds of meaty country ribs that were marinated for three days and grilled by Bearden’s longtime partner Pat Farnan, who is a retired Tampa Bay Times editor. Tribune sports copy desk editor Andy Smith gave people bricks from the demolished Tribune building that sat on the banks of the Hillsborough River, across from where Riverwalk Place will become the tallest building in downtown Tampa. Even the party’s bartender, Ed Golly, was a staff artist at the Tribune.
“Though the paper is closed, friendships are still strong. And because we don't have a ‘home’ building anymore, I've turned my yard into the gathering place!” Bearden told CL in an email.
“We are still Tribune Strong, despite being dismantled by Media General, destroyed by Revolution Capital and shut down forever by the Tampa Bay Times,” she added. “None of them could destroy our connections and friendships.”
Over the weekend, those friendships managed to raise about $3,500 for ongoing expenses shouldered by former Trib sports writer Joey Johnston, whose teenage son lost movement in his lower body after suffering severe neck and back injuries in a 2018 accident.
Johnston, whose byline also appears in the Tampa Bay Times, told CL that this year’s Tribune reunion was the largest yet. He remembers surrounded by a “group of people like no other” from the day he walked into the Trib until the day it closed.
“[They were] brilliantly talented, hard-working, hilarious, passionate and incredibly close-knit,” Johnston said. “It sounds so cliche, but we still care about each other like family."
Bearden, for her part, thought this year's reunion might be her last. The prep and execution is exhausting, but being able to see old colleagues from every era of the Trib — and watching how her co-workers all banded together to help Johnston's family — energized her spirit in a different way. She told CL that there will definitely be another reunion in 2020.
"The Tribune might be gone," Johnston added, "but the feelings and camaraderie will never die.”