I started at the St. Pete Times when I was 20. A standard assignment for a cub reporter is to interview some old lady who is marking (at such advanced age, the word "celebrating" can be a stretch) her 100th birthday, and the standard question is her secret to such a long life.
This month the St. Pete Times turns 125 years old. That's a remarkable milestone for any enterprise, especially one born as a thin weekly in the back of a Dunedin drugstore and which grew to become Florida's leading news organization.
So, I return to the question routinely put to those of long life: What's the secret? On a magazine cover, the headline would go something like this: 10 Reasons the St. Pete Times is Still Kicking After 125 Years!
1. Air Conditioning. The pioneers managed without it, but in the middle of July, it's hard to imagine Tampa Bay as a robust metropolitan economy without the chance to come in from the heat. And since newspapers rely on the vitality of their cities, this invention makes my list.
2. Local Roots. Most newspapers are owned by chains with headquarters somewhere else. Not this one. The Times and the company that publishes it are based here in Tampa Bay. We know the territory. We have substantial operations and editions serving local communities, from Brandon to Brooksville, from Port Richey to Pinellas Point.
3. Social Security (and Medicare). Between 1900 and 1960, the life expectancy of the average American jumped from 47 to 70 years old. The government programs helped people look forward to a life beyond their working years, and Florida was a magnet for them. Our economy today is more diverse, but retirees formed the first wave of the Florida boom.
4. Continuity. For 97 years, the Times has been owned by a family and then a school named Poynter. We don't have rotating editors and executives, moving through town on their way up the corporate ladder, and our editorial positions are clear and consistent. The journalists who broke our recent stories about Scientology have covered the church for years.
5. Highways (and bridges). The interstates were pipelines that pumped tourists and retirees into Florida, and the bridges reaching across Tampa Bay connected the various burgs into a single region. The great majority of Times readers live outside St. Petersburg, and that percentage gets bigger every year.
6. Ambition. We are a local newspaper, but we test ourselves against the highest standards of the craft, both in our news coverage and our business operations. We also try to see the world beyond Tampa Bay. Our reporters have won eight Pulitzer Prizes, two for national reporting.
7. War. Misery elsewhere brought prosperity here. The Spanish-American War was launched from Tampa, and World War II introduced tens of thousands of soldiers in training to Florida's charms. Major defense contractors arrived here to help build the weapons of the Cold War. It may be giving way now to the War on Terror, but MacDill Air Force Base remains front and center in that struggle.
8. Resilience. Florida is going through some rough times, and so is the newspaper business. We have been through worse. In 1934, during the depths of the Depression, the news staff was down to 15 people who shared six telephones. The newspaper itself dwindled to eight pages. Cash was so short that advertisers paid their bills in scrip, which the company handed out to employees in place of pay.
9. Sports. Some readers will dismiss these endeavors as mere ornaments, but our professional sports teams — starting with the Bucs — helped raise our national profile and reinforced the regional identity of "Tampa Bay." They also have enlivened our sports section, consistently ranked among the best in the country.
10. Good Friends. Nobody gets this far without support along the way. Day in and day out, we depend on the trust of readers and advertisers, so I hope our customers take pleasure in this milestone for the Times. And when the chips were down, friends have rallied to our side. In 1990, they helped us turn back a challenge from a corporate raider who wanted to take over the Times.
This longevity list includes some dynamics that shaped local history, along with characteristics particular to the Times itself. Newspapers thrive only if their communities do, too.
In turn, the Times must be a community asset and advocate. Every year, our charitable foundation donates roughly $1 million to worthy causes, including college scholarships, but our most important contribution to civic life is a vigorous news report and principled editorial voice. Even if you don't personally read the investigative stories about how the state has been investing its pension funds, you can be very glad that someone's paying attention.
At the outset, I compared this column to an interview with an old lady who had reached her 100th birthday, but there is this important difference. For the centenarian, her next appearance in the newspaper will likely be her obituary. The St. Pete Times, on the other hand, has many years ahead.
Yes, these are difficult times, and the Times is navigating the worst economic storm in generations. Combine that with some of the gloomy forecasts (overdone, in my view) about the future of newspapers, and even some of our harshest critics have started pulling for us.
The other day, a reader who takes regular exception to our editorial page wrote me, worried that the trend lines could put us out of business. "To lose this," he continued, "would be akin to one day awakening, and finding an insane neighbor's home vacant," with a "For Sale" sign in the yard.
Here's what I told him: We intend to keep the lights burning for a long time to come, but it's nice to know that you'd miss us.