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Tampa Bay Times purchases Tampa Tribune

By Susan Taylor Martin
By Richard Danielson
The Tampa Tribune was purchased Tuesday by the Tampa Bay Times. The final edition of the 123-year-old Tribune as a standalone newspaper was published Tuesday. [Times photo]

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Times, Florida's largest newspaper, on Tuesday purchased the Tampa Tribune from Revolution Capital Group, saying it intends to create one financially secure, locally owned daily newspaper in the Tampa Bay region.

Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash announced the purchase at the Tribune headquarters in downtown Tampa on Tuesday afternoon.

"The continued competition between the newspapers was threatening to both," Tash said in a statement. "There are very few cities that are able to sustain more than one daily newspaper, and the Tampa Bay region is not among them."

At a subsequent news conference, Tash noted that people today get their news from an almost infinite variety of sources.

"There are many, many voices today, not just those in print, and it's important to have strong, vibrant local newspapers going forward,'' he said.

Tash did not disclose the purchase price.

Q&A: Answers to your questions about the Times' purchase of the Tribune

Starting Wednesday, Tribune subscribers will receive the Tampa Bay Times at their homes. The Times also will be available in retail locations where readers purchased the Tribune. The Times said it will carry all the advertising scheduled for both papers and honor all Tribune subscriptions and advertising contracts. After a brief transition, it will also carry all the comic strips and most puzzles that ran in the Tribune.

The Times has news and advertising operations in downtown Tampa and Riverview and has produced a distinct Tampa edition of the newspaper since expanding into Tampa in 1987. Because the papers have duplicate operations in most areas, Tash said there would be job losses at the Tribune. He did not specify a number but said it was likely to be at least 100. The current full-time staff is about 265. Tribune staffers who are not retained by the Times will continue to be paid for 60 days.

"Whatever is the number of jobs that is lost now pales in comparison to the number of jobs that have been lost already in newspaper publishing generally, because of the economic pressures that have been upon us,'' Tash said. "It's also smaller than the number of jobs that would be lost if this kind of unstable situation had continued.''

He added, though, that "these are newspaper people. We take no pleasure in any hardship that is upon them now, and we will be as supportive as possible during this transition for them. I know it's an anxious time."

The purchase marks the end of the 121-year-old Tampa Tribune as a daily newspaper. It was started in 1893 when Wallace Stovall moved his existing news operations to Tampa from Bartow, according to Tribune files. Stovall's first Tampa Morning Tribune debuted on March 27, 1893, and became a daily in 1895. The Tribune was sold by longtime owner Media General to California-based Revolution Capital in 2012 for $9.5 million. The investment capital group last July sold the Tribune's headquarters on Parker Street in downtown Tampa for $17.75 million to South Florida developers who plan an apartment complex on the site. The Tribune, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966, has been weakened, as has the Times, by decades of competition.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn got a call from Tash at about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday informing him of the purchase.

"We knew that the Tampa Tribune had struggled mightily for a long time,'' Buckhorn said. "This acquisition is not a surprise, given what we have seen from the owners of the Tribune. The fact that there was no lease signed to allow the Tribune to move was a very telling sign, because the bulldozers are heading for that building in the not-too-distance future.''

Buckhorn, who comes from a journalism family, praised the Tribune employees who stayed to the end. "These are good people that have worked hard, and literally kept that paper alive for the last three years,'' he said.

But while calling the loss of the city's namesake newspaper "a sad day,'' Buckhorn praised the Times for its investment in Tampa and its high level of journalism.

"I don't think we're going to miss anything in terms of the content or the caliber or the quality of the work that is being produced,'' he said.

RELATED COVERAGE: Paul Tash explains purchase of Tampa Tribune means one newspaper for all of Tampa Bay

Former longtime Tampa Mayor Dick Greco called the news "amazing."

"Business is tough, and you guys (at the Times) have done a good job and so did the Tribune for years, and St. Pete won,'' said Greco, who surprised many when he and his wife bought a condo in downtown St. Petersburg last year. "One big paper is in control now. It's a big area and it's a big responsibility.''

Tash said the Tampa Tribune name will live on in a twice-weekly local news section for Hillsborough County readers, which will be added to the Times' current Tampa edition. The Tribune section will offer local and neighborhood news including government, business, entertainment and sports news. The section also will include school news, religion news, real estate listings and the reader-generated Hometown Hillsborough feature. It replaces the Times' current once-a-week community sections City Times, Brandon & South Shore Times and North of Tampa.

The Times said it plans to continue operation of the Tribune's website, tbo.com, after a refinement of its content to better complement the Times' website, tampabay.com. Tbo.com readers will be redirected to tampabay.com in the interim, the Times said.

Tash said the Times also will continue operation of several other properties previously owned by the Tribune: Centro, the Spanish language weekly newspaper; Highlands Today, a daily newspaper serving Highlands County; and the Suncoast News, weekly newspapers serving west Pasco and North Pinellas counties. Publication of tbt*, the free daily tabloid newspaper owned by the Times, will continue as normal, unaffected by the Tribune deal.

The Times, which remains one of the nation's few independent newspapers, is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists. The newspaper began its history 131 years ago as the West Hillsborough Times out of Dunedin. It was known for most of its existence as the St. Petersburg Times, but changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012 to reflect the home territory it serves in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. In April, the Times won its 11th and 12th Pulitzer Prizes, this time for local and investigative reporting.

Until 1987, the Times and Tribune had served opposite sides of Tampa Bay and had limited crossover readership. That year, the Times started a Tampa edition and opened offices in downtown and northwest Hillsborough. The Tribune countered with a move into Pinellas, sparking what was described as one of the great newspaper wars. Readers had a choice of daily newspapers, and reporters competed to break the best stories first.

The combination of the rise of the Internet, which shattered newspapers' business models, and the Great Recession of the late 2000s, took a toll on both papers. Like newspapers nationally, the Times and Tribune saw advertising revenues plummet to a fraction of their previous levels. Both papers reduced staff and shrunk the geographic areas they served.

In February, the Times announced it had won a contract to print the Tribune at its plant in St. Petersburg, as well as the Tribune's affiliate publications and its commercial printing contracts.

In April, the Times sold its downtown St. Petersburg headquarters building at 490 First Ave. S to a joint venture of Convergent Capital Partners and Denholtz Associates for $19 million. The proceeds of that sale went toward the balance of a loan from Boston-based Crystal Financial LLC. Crystal is providing the financing for the Times to purchase the Tribune.

"There was completely inevitability to it, it was just the question of when,'' Ken Doctor, a California-based media expert, said of the Times' purchase. "There are so few metro areas that have had two dailies and there are very few left."

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said the purchase of its main competitor puts "a lot of pressure'' on the Times.

"Our government institutions are structured around geography,'' he said, "and it's important for the surviving news organization to pay attention to that and realize that all parts of their coverage area need strong accountability journalism."

Tash said the Times was up to the challenge, noting the paper's recent exposes of failing St. Petersburg schools, Tampa police ticketing of black bicyclists and false claims about the source of food have all prompted official action.

"All of that work, all of that action, comes in response to vigorous work, independent reporting" by the Times, he said.

Tash said negotiations to buy the Tribune were "extensive and extended." Both the contract to print the Tribune, which was announced Feb. 2, and the contract to buy the Tribune were signed at the same time.

"We have moved quietly and quickly to put the plans in place," Tash said.

The purchase puts the Tampa Bay Times among the nation's 10 largest daily newspapers and five largest Sunday papers (484,663 combined circulation). The Times, which already had exclusive marketing agreements with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Lightning, will pick up the Tribune's agreement with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While not surprised at the Tribune's demise, many prominent Tampa residents remember it fondly as the hometown paper whose endorsements and high school sports coverage were closely followed.

Richard Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia restaurant chain, said his favorite memory of the Tribune was waking up early to read it after a big football game during his time at Jesuit High School.

"My father would be out waiting for the newspaper,'' he said. "As a teenager, it was always exciting to see your name in print."

Years later, Gonzmart was surprised by how excited the Tribune was when it announced it was starting a website, tbo.com, so people could immediately get the news online.

"I remember thinking, how is this good for you if people are going to stop reading the newspaper?" he recalled. "I've grown up reading both papers, but see there's only room for one now.''

Times staff writers Robert Trigaux and Justine Griffin contributed to this report. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] Follow @susanskate.