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Q&A: Newspapers prove worth in tough economy

In a business wrestling with declining circulation, a flood of new media competition for advertising dollars and the worst recession since the 1930s, St. Petersburg Times chairman, chief executive officer and editor Paul Tash seems remarkably bullish. He sat down to discuss Monday's circulation figures, reinforce the belief that well-run newspapers — like the police — can serve a key role in deterring corruption and wrong­doing. As this newspaper rises and falls with the health of the Tampa Bay economy, he affirmed it will rebound again as Florida's health improves.

The latest circulation numbers for the St. Petersburg Times show the newspaper down more than 10 percent daily and about 4.5 percent on Sunday. What's your take on this?

Most of those declines were the result of decisions we made to get through this tough period rather than decisions readers made about us. An example is our decision to no longer offer the Monday paper to Sunday subscribers.

But it is only part of the story about our audience. Beyond the flagship St. Pete Times, we also publish Tampa Bay Times or tbt*, our free daily tabloid whose growth overwhelms the declines seen in the St. Pete Times. Moreover, we have Web sites — tampabay.com is the main domain — where growth continues. So we are reaching a lot of people beyond the circulation of the broadsheet St. Pete Times itself.

Looking closer, the St. Petersburg Times did register circulation growth in central Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Is that because these are growing parts of the Tampa Bay area, or is it because the competing Tampa Tribune is also struggling?

That's hard to tell. Growth in these counties had been steady, but our gains come at a time when there has not been a huge increase in population growth. We are in kind of a flat spot for new arrivals to the Tampa Bay area.

If newspapers, overall, are reaching a larger audience, as the Times is through tbt* and tampabay.com, why is there such a financial challenge?

Let me rephrase the question: So how is business at the St. Pete Times? My answer is: What half are you talking about? The audience part is pretty good. The advertising part is pretty tough. What are our big categories of advertising? Cars — How's that business doing? Home builders and Realtors? That's a rough sector. Employees looking for jobs? Unemployment here is over 10 percent. And retail? I think I read something about how that world is stressed. We feel the pain of our advertisers as do all newspapers.

So is this just a rough advertising cycle or is there a more fundamental shift under way?

Both. The $64 question is how much to you attribute to each? In some categories, there's been a substantial migration of advertising to the Web, where ad revenues are not as high in print. It's the notion of replacing dollars with dimes.

But the lion's share of turmoil, I think, is attributed to the economy. We are in the worst recession since the 1930s.

Given tbt*'s success, do you see more of a future in print newspapers?

Tbt* is clever, has a different personality from the St. Pete Times, and is finding a younger audience. In the downtown Tampa ZIP code, tbt*'s distribution is equal to that of the St. Pete Times and the Tampa Tribune combined times two.

Let's look at other Florida newspapers. The Orlando Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel are owned by a company in Chapter 11. The Miami Herald's owner is in peril and the paper reportedly is for sale. The Jacksonville paper and the Tampa Tribune are struggling. How will this all settle out?

The economy is especially tough if you are a public company in the stock market or if you have a lot of debt — or both. The St. Petersburg Times is an independent, privately owned newspaper. And that allows us to focus and manage for the long term.

The last 25 years was the golden age for immensely profitable newspapers. Those days are over for a long time. If you built ownership and debt on the expectations that party would go on forever, this is a particularly wrenching time.

Given newspapers' leaner resources, is the industry still doing a good job as a watchdog?

It depends on the papers. The Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week and, leaving us out of it (the Times won two Pulitzers in one year for the first time in the paper's 125 years), even some newspapers under great stress are performing powerful public services. In the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, the Detroit Free Press won for exposing a secret deal by the mayor of Detroit to keep quiet his affair with his chief of staff and his perjury in a lawsuit. So even in a tough economic market like Detroit, the newspaper is still doing some very aggressive reporting.

Without newspapers, it would be open season on a lot of corruption, self-dealing and abuses of power.

I do not mean to sound too self-important, but newspapers, where vigorous, provide some of the checks on the worst things that can happen. So, yes, the commercial underpinnings of journalism are under real pressure in this recession. But we all have a stake in figuring out how to keep that journalistic firepower in place.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Still tough times for newspapers

Daily and Sunday circulation of Florida newspapers, and the change from the previous year.

Newspaper Monday-
Friday
Change Sunday Change
St. Petersburg Times 283,093 - 10.42% 413,929 - 4.36%
Orlando Sentinel 206,205 - 9.4% 315,298 - 5.0%
Miami Herald 202,122 - 15.8% 270,166 -13.2%
Sun-Sentinel 195,522 - 10.4% 285,196 - 6.0%
Tampa Tribune 195,277 - 11.4% 284,583 + 0.3%
Florida Times-Union 122,655 - 15.1% 177,591 - 11.8%
Palm Beach Post 143,221 - 12.9% 178,928 - 8.5%
Sarasota Herald-Tribune 97,254 - 15.4% 116,294 - 13.6%

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations Fas-Fax

Fast facts

Numbers fall

The Audit Bureau of Circulations said Monday that average U.S. daily newspaper circulation declined 7.1 percent in the October-March period from the same six-month span in 2007-2008, while Sunday circulation fell 5.4 percent. USA Today remains the No. 1 newspaper, though it suffered the steepest circulation drop in the publication's history. It sank 7.5 percent to 2,113,725. The Wall Street Journal, the second-largest newspaper, was the only one in the top 25 to raise its daily circulation. It increased less than 1 percent to 2,082,189. The New York Times' daily circulation fell 3.6 percent to 1,039,031, while the Los Angeles Times saw a drop of 6.6 percent to 723,181.

Q&A: Newspapers prove worth in tough economy 04/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 10:45am]
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