TV Critic Walt Belcher, near 35-year veteran, among 165 people laid off today at Tampa Tribune, sister papers
Despite the many previous rounds of staff reductions and widespread internal anxiety over news of impending layoffs, Tampa Tribune TV critic Walt Belcher was still surprised today by the early morning telephone call.
Like many of the 165 staffers now downsized at the Tribune and smaller publications owned by Media General in Tampa, Belcher was notified before he came in to work that he would be laid off, asked to schedule a time to come in, complete paperwork and pick up his office belongings.
For Belcher, who began working at the Tribune in 1977 as a reporter in its Sebring bureau, it was a stunning end to a near-35-year career at the newspaper -- where he once wrote as many as seven stories a week on everything from local TV station personnel changes to quizzing film legend Woody Allen on his career.
"I've probably had more bylines than anybody in the history of the paper," said Belcher, who took over as the paper's TV critic in 1981, when former columnist Dan Ruth left the job. "But this is happening all over the country, so I understand...I had a good run."
According to a statement from Richmond, Va.-based Media General, the company will downsize 165 staffers from the Tribune, website TBO.com and its community and weekly products, a 16 percent reduction. After the reductions, the print and online products will employ a total 675 staffers, with 300 people involved in content creation.
In line with early rumors that the company would be decoupling the more profitable Tampa TV station WFLA-Ch. 8 from the print and online platforms, no layoffs will affect WFLA.
The statement also noted most staffers affected would be notified today, though some layoffs will occur in the first quarter of 2012 for "various business reasons." Tribune publisher Terry Jamerson, who took over in an early November executive shakeup, did not return a telephone call.
Spokesman Ray Kozakewicz said the company does not expect to change its publication schedule for the newspaper, though he would not detail whether some sections would stop publishing or how the composition of the newspaper might change due to the downsizing. He also declined to detail past statements by company officials that the newspaper's future would be more defined by digital products.
Present and former Tribune staffers have been trading messages of support online, posting on Facebook pages of staffers who were downsized. Belcher wrote: "My 35 years at The Tribune was a great ride. I probably have more bylines than anyone in the history of the paper - and the way things are going, no one will ever top that. It was never work. It was fun."
Though he just finished teaching a course at the University of Tampa, Belcher isn't sure what he may do next. And he's gratified by the local names, from WFTS-Ch. 28 anchor Linda Hurtado to radio personality Mason Dixon, who posted encouraging words on his Facebook page.
"You do the job every day and you don't realize people are paying attention," he said. "It's nice to know some people will miss you -- at least for a couple of days."
In the quarter that ended in September, Media General posted a net loss of $29.8 million, compared with a loss of $10.7 million a year ago. Revenue fell 11 percent to $144.7 million in the quarter. Print revenue fell 9 percent while broadcast revenue fell 13 percent.
Media General’s stock price has been in flux lately. Shares have traded above $7 in the past year but fell to $1.14 in October when the Moody’s rating service downgraded its stock outlook. The stock price has rebounded significantly. It closed at $4.30 a share Monday, up 18 cents on the day.
The Tampa Tribune’s circulation stood at 254,782 on Sundays and 125,867 during the weekday, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures released in November. The St. Petersburg Times’ Sunday circulation stands at 403,229, while the weekday circulation is 240,024.
Media General statement on Tampa Reductions
A workforce reduction at Media General’s Tampa print properties occurred on Monday, December 12. These print properties include The Tampa Tribune, two community dailies, several weeklies and certain specialty publications. The reductions also affected TBO.com. There were no workforce reductions at WFLA.
The company regrets having to make any staff reductions, and appreciates the contributions of the valued employees who will be leaving. Affected employees will receive severance and outplacement support.
The reductions were made as a result of combining or eliminating manager and support positions across all affected platforms, and by capturing new synergies across the many newsrooms and bureaus that produce the various print publications and TBO.com content.
Most affected employees were notified today; however, certain positions will be reduced in the first quarter of 2012 for various business reasons. After all of the reductions are complete, approximately 675 employees will continue to work at the company’s print and online operations in Tampa. Approximately 300 employees are involved in content creation. Every Media General platform in Tampa has employees whose work benefits Tampa Tribune readers. The total reductions, including those made today and those to be made in the first quarter will total approximately 165, or about 16% of the total Tampa workforce across all platforms.
The Tampa Tribune has been Tampa’s hometown newspaper for over a century. The Tribune outsells the market’s out-of-town daily by 3-to-1 in Hillsborough County and other eastern regions of the market. Readers and advertisers can continue to count on The Tampa Tribune to provide the highest quality local news and information.