Florida Communications Group offered voluntary buyouts Monday to half the employees at the Tampa Tribune, WFLA-Ch. 8, TBO.com and several other news outlets in the Tampa Bay area, in a move some analysts saw as a sign of the continuing weakness of the state's media economy.
The company, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Media General, opened the offer to about half its 1,326 employees, with some staffers qualifying for up to 39 weeks of severance pay, according to FCG president John Schueler.
The goal, Schueler said, is to reduce staff costs while melding the responsibilities of staff across their different media types, or platforms, in the same way their "convergence" efforts unite newsgathering efforts across television, print and online media.
"We're not shooting ducks in an arcade. … We're trying to create a media company that is not platform-specific," said Schueler, noting the way WFLA, the Tampa Tribune and TBO.com share a headquarters in Tampa. "Because our Tampa operations are unique, we have an opportunity to do something most companies can't."
FCG has set an April 25 deadline for the buyout offer. Schueler said he could not define a target number of staffers they hope to cut voluntarily. Involuntary layoffs are expected if too few staffers apply for the buyout, though Schueler said no staffers we being specifically urged to take the offer.
FCG includes WFLA, the Tampa Tribune, TBO.com, Hernando Today, Highlands Today, the Sunbelt Newspapers, Suncoast News and the Spanish-language newspaper Centro.
Employees received notice of the buyout offer Monday, gathering for question-and-answer sessions throughout the day. Staffers working under contract, such as the TV anchors and many producers at WFLA, would be exempt. Schueler declined to identify other groups of staffers that might be excluded.
Schueler denied the offer was a response to continued criticism about the Florida properties' negative impact on Media General's stock price, following an attempt by the hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners to force three directors onto Media General's board.
The growing proxy fight between dissident investor Harbinger and Media General has shone a spotlight on the company's Florida news outlets. The hedge fund has recommended selling the platforms as Media General officials acknowledged Florida publishing revenue in February fell 31 percent year-to-year.
On Monday, Harbinger issued a statement saying cost-cutting in Florida would not change its efforts; the vote on directors is scheduled April 24.
Paul Tash, chairman, CEO and editor of the St. Petersburg Times, said the news is evidence "this is a very difficult business environment, not just for journalism companies, but for companies generally. … (But) Florida has been through rough times before, and we will get through these as well."
But newspaper analyst John Morton criticized companies that cope with the media industry's deepening recession by cutting staff.
"If they hope to achieve a profitable future, they will need every bit of market standing, quality and audience they can maintain," said Morton. "Instead they're thinning staff, reducing the paper … which won't work."