Journalism Notes: Loss, lessons as newspaper folds

If you happened to read my post two weeks ago about collaborative accountability, then you may remember that I wrote: “Here at home, The Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) continue in their protracted battle to hold onto turf in the almost anachronistic two-newspaper town.”

Last Tuesday that fight ended when the Tampa Bay Times purchased The Tampa Tribune for an undisclosed sum, marking the end of a 121-year run for the acquired newspaper. The two papers had been locked in competition since 1987, when what was then known as the St. Petersburg Times expanded across the Bay to court readers in the larger Tampa metro area.

I have friends at both of these newspapers. (Full disclosure: I used to work for a weekly community news section of the Tribune.) In announcing the sale, Paul Tash, the Times chairman and CEO, said at least 100 people from the Trib would likely lose their jobs.

In talking with people on both sides after the buyout, there was a distinct sense of loss. One reporter at the Times described the atmosphere in his own newsroom as “funereal.”

We in the journalism program at The University of Tampa also had a strong and productive internship relationship with the Tribune, and it’s unclear if or how that relationship will transfer over to the Times.

In short, while this has been a long time in the making, and while the consolidation of daily newspapering into one local company will hopefully stem the financial hemorrhage that was weakening both news outlets, nobody is celebrating.

I’ve heard from more than one person that the same competition that divided revenue from advertisers was also the motivation for both papers to do their best work. The Tampa Bay Times has a strong reputation, and I have no reason to think that they will slack now that the Tribune has folded.

But the people of this area now have one less source of information about their hometown. One less institutional watchdog. One less voice dedicated to civil discourse in the public sphere. And that is a loss no matter how you slice it.

It may seem like I’m backpedaling here from my last post, but I don’t think so. The fact is that both the Times and the Tribune did really good journalism for many, many years. They learned how to use the free-market, advertising-funded model of newsgathering to spur them to better work.

But that model is becoming obsolete, I believe. And in the transition there are casualties that deserve to be lamented and honored. .

Truthfully, this has been a foregone conclusion since the inception of an advertising-driven news system. The digital revolution and Great Recession only accelerated the impending crisis. The fundamental values of journalism, which prioritizes informing the audience, are simply incompatible with those of advertising, which prioritizes profiting from the audience.

On the one hand you have noble ideals of seeking the truth and reporting it, regardless of personal or organizational sacrifice. On the other, you have the familiar trend lines of all capitalistic operations—organizational growth, minimizing labor costs, acquisition of competition, and eventually the homogeneity of products or services within a given industry.

I don’t say this to denigrate advertising. I think if you have a product you believe in, then you should promote it. But when faced with tough editorial decisions about whether or not to run a story that may harm a company’s bottom line, the guiding paradigms of the two industries will in the long run lead to opposing choices.

So I think from the ground up, we are going to have to stop viewing our news as a commodity and see it instead as a common good necessary for a free, healthy society.

We’ve always paid for our news, just not directly (if we ignore the traditional subscription costs that have never accounted for more than a fraction of the overall revenue for a news organization).

We have paid every time we succumb to the pressures of our consumer culture and buy that hot new car, or that bigger house we have to have, all of which can be found conveniently displayed in the ads and commercials of our favorite news outlets.

Now, I realize the full swing of the pendulum to the other side is a state-run news system. I certainly don’t want that. And I’m not an anti-capitalist. I just don’t think the old model was ever sustainable in the long run.

I don’t think collaborative journalism means just getting professional journalists to work together. I think it’s going to take all of us, working together in our communities and in our society at large.

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Jeff Neely

Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.

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