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Tampa Bay Times will move printing to Gannett plant in Lakeland

Times Publishing will eliminate about 150 jobs and sell its St. Petersburg production center. Most remaining employees will see temporary pay cuts.

Times Publishing Co. announced Wednesday it will outsource printing of its newspapers starting in March and will close its own production facility in St. Petersburg.

The company has signed a three-year agreement with Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, to print the Tampa Bay Times at its operations center in Lakeland. That plant already produces some of Gannett’s own newspapers, plus the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Times Publishing issued a required 60-day notice to about 90 full-time and 60 part-time workers who will lose their jobs when the transition is complete. Gannett intends to expand its own operations team in Lakeland and has said some jobs could go to Times employees.

The decision does not affect the Times’ independent ownership or other parts of the newspaper. Times journalists, who still make up the largest newsroom in Florida, will report the news. Sales staff will sell and schedule advertising. But instead of transmitting final page designs to its own print facility, the Times will send pages to Lakeland.

Gannett will print and truck the newspapers to Times distribution centers around Tampa Bay, where the papers will be delivered by Times staff and contractors.

In response to steep advertising declines brought on by the coronavirus, the Times reduced its print editions to Sunday and Wednesday last April. The company said the move to Lakeland makes sense even if business recovers enough to add another day of printing.

“The news business was already shifting toward digital delivery, and the pandemic put that change into overdrive,” said Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash. “This is a hard decision, and we feel it keenly. But it helps position the Times for the future as a vibrant news company in a media landscape that is increasingly digital.”

On Wednesday, the Times also said full-time employees whose jobs are not affected will take a temporary pay cut of 10 percent for up to six months, while the transition takes place. Tash is reducing his own salary by 20 percent.

The Times will sell its production facility, which occupies 27 acres in the center of St. Petersburg. Tash said the company plans to use the proceeds to pay down debt and make a contribution to its pension plan.

The closure of the plant marks the end of an era. For 61 years, the Times has printed its newspapers at the sprawling campus on 34th Street N. The smell of ink permeates most every part of the 350,000-square foot complex. The presses, which could churn out 150,000 newspapers in an hour, weigh 3.2 million pounds, more than five 747 airplanes.

In their day, the Times’ presses offered the latest technology with crisp printing and more color. The Times’ production staff routinely won international awards for high-quality newspaper printing.

“The operations team has had a commitment to excellence that has been unmatched in the industry,” said Joe DeLuca, the Times’ general manager and executive vice-president. “They were only satisfied if the newspapers looked perfect when they left the plant.”

But consolidation of printing by newspapers at fewer plants has become a trend in an industry seeking expense reductions and greater efficiency. In just the past year, the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, San Antonio Express-News and Kansas City Star have moved their printing operations or announced plans to do so.

The Times tried to recruit other publishers to its facility in St. Petersburg, but Gannett’s corporate size and the regional location of its Lakeland plant gave it an advantage.

“Gannett is proud to collaborate with fellow news organizations throughout the country, including the Tampa Bay Times,” said Gannett spokeswoman Stephanie Tackach. “Production consolidations such as this one will enable steadfast and reliable local journalism to continue long into the future.”

In the coming weeks, the Times will redesign its news pages for a slightly smaller page size and adjust deadlines based on the distance from Lakeland.

Meanwhile, the Times said it will continue to grow its digital products. During the pandemic, the e-Newspaper version of the Times has emerged as the primary choice for subscribers on most days of the week. And the company’s website, tampabay.com, has grown to more than 21,000 digital subscribers. The site averages about 6.5 million visitors each month.

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