The disappearance of the 120-year-old Tampa Tribune has negatively impacted locals in immeasurable ways

Best of the Bay 2020: 16 people or places that've undoubtedly changed Tampa Bay for the better.

click to enlarge The disappearance of the 120-year-old Tampa Tribune has negatively impacted locals in immeasurable ways
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In a few generations, history books, assuming there are any, will highlight the grave communication breakdown that dominates this shameful epoch. The echo chambers. Deliberate disinformation. The trolls and the bots. Shrinking attention spans. Pointless arguments in the comments section. And so on. To say what we’re currently experiencing doesn’t bode well is an understatement.

No, it didn’t start when Boomers discovered Facebook. Or when Zoomers discovered 8chan. 

It started when newspapers responded to the Digital Revolution by throwing all their content up on the web for free rather than sit for a hot minute to think about how such a move might bite them (and democracy as we know it) in the ass someday.

As we look back on the last 30 years of CL’s Best of the Bay, we’d be remiss if we didn’t honor one of the bay’s best institutions, albeit one we’ve lost.

Until May of 2016, the Tampa Bay area was a two-daily-newspaper town. With their fierce competition on everything from scoops to new-audience inroads, The Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay (nee St. Petersburg) Times were always toe-to-toe. The Trib was a bit smaller and more salt-of-the-earth; its editorial page leaned center-right (more Rick Wilson than Rick Scott, mind you). And damn, was it scrappy. The Times’ editorials leaned center-left, and the paper earned high praise for its lengthy but tightly manicured narrative and investigative pieces. 

By the time I got there, the Trib newsroom was a fraction the size of what it had been decades prior. It had been bought out by some dodgy hedge fund or other, with the promise of prosperity and expansion that—spoiler!—never really panned out. Despite the uncertainty and the increased workload you get when routine layoffs turn three jobs into one, the climate in that newsroom was one of joy and camaraderie. I’ve worked in newsrooms where communication between staff and management primarily consists of a series of grunts. This was not one of those. Even as they barreled toward deadline each day while doggedly chasing down stories, there was laughter and collaboration. Many on staff had been there for decades, and their fondness for one another (and the paper they put out) showed. 

And they fostered growth among their younger ranks. Come election season, even though I was somewhat of a cub reporter (and a painfully self-conscious young woman), the editorial board regularly invited me to sit in on their interviews with candidates in the legislative races I was covering. (I recognize that my recollection of the Trib, however fond, could never do the place justice; I was only there for a couple of years.)

Was it perfect? Of course not. I can think of at least one regrettable personnel decision (letting go of veteran political reporter and columnist William March), the politics of which were well above my paygrade. And I had one editor who made my and my coworkers’ lives hell nearly every day for no discernible reason (though I probably became a better reporter because of it). And printing reporters’ email addresses and work cell numbers at the bottom of every story? Well, let’s just say I had my share of voicemails from Polk County’s day-drunkest denizens and 10,000-word emails detailing the antics of the Lizard People.

In 2016, that hedge fund I mentioned, Revolution Capital, announced it had sold the building that housed the Trib’s main office and printing operations. It was prime real estate on the Hillsborough Riverfront, after all, and hedge funds gonna hedge fund. It acted like it was actively seeking a new HQ, apparently even bringing executive staff to tour prospective offices. But in early May of that year, it announced the sale of the paper to the Tampa Bay Times, a transaction that led to the Trib’s immediate folding.

I won’t go into the details of what happened that day. If you want those, check out the story I wrote about it shortly after it all went down. (By then, I had been CL’s news and politics editor for a year-and-a-half.)

Some former Trib staffers stayed on with the Times and continue to work their asses off to this day. Some are at different outlets or are in entirely new fields. Life goes on, but the impact of the disappearance of a 120-year-old local institution is immeasurable.

At least one study has shown that metro areas with more than one newspaper have less corruption than those with only one (or none). It makes sense: there are more reporters and editors there to scrutinize records and otherwise hold public officials accountable, the more likely it is that they’ll find bad behavior and shame the bad actors. As for public sentiment, more editorial voices from thought leaders who actually know what they are talking about helps fight misinformation.

Tampa Bay, an environmentally sensitive and politically important region in the nation’s biggest swing state, suffers from its lack of a robust media ecosystem. So, too, does the nation. (Disclosure: I am also a former newsroom staffer there.)

See all winners from Best of the Bay 2020.

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