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Tampa Bay Times assembles its first Community Reader Panel

Journalists from the newsroom will meet quarterly with a group of 50 residents from around the bay to talk about our coverage.
The Tampa Bay Times Community Reader Panel has been formed. It is made up of 50 people from around the bay who will meet quarterly with journalists.
The Tampa Bay Times Community Reader Panel has been formed. It is made up of 50 people from around the bay who will meet quarterly with journalists. [ CHRIS URSO | TIMES ]
Published Jul. 22

We have selected our Tampa Bay Times Community Reader Panel.

For this inaugural group, we invited 50 people from around Tampa Bay. They are nurses, teachers, accountants, librarians, small business owners, former police and retired military. The group includes an actor, a veterinarian, an intelligence analyst and a software engineer. They range in age from 26 to 86.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we announced plans to form a group of readers that would meet quarterly with journalists at the Tampa Bay Times to talk about stories, news initiatives and ways we could better cover Tampa Bay.

We were heartened by the response.

Related: Katches column first announcing the plan to form a reader group

More than 750 enthusiastic, engaged readers quickly filled out a brief questionnaire. So many applied, in fact, that we had to cut off the application portal after just a few days.

The passion for the Times shone through. Many readers expressed the need for a credible, reliable news source and a desire to help us be better. Others touched upon the vital role an independent newsroom plays.

“I feel very strongly that the role of a regional newspaper is critical for a robust community and can serve both as a check and balance as well as a sounding board for the underrepresented,” wrote Susan L. Stern, one of those selected to join the panel. Stern, a Tampa resident, retired as vice president of the Moffitt Cancer Center Foundation. She applied because she wants to see the Times improve its coverage, which she described as swinging “wildly from mundane to groundbreaking.”

That’s the kind of candor we’ll be looking forward to hearing from the panel.

Others said they wanted to join because they understand the challenges local news organizations face and want to lend a hand.

“I empathize with the paper’s plight of trying to balance economic realities with putting out a quality product,” said Roland Rodriguez, a retired auditor living in Tampa.

At 26, Arlia Delphonse, a public library assistant from Largo, is the youngest on the panel. Although she didn’t pursue a journalism career, she says she “can’t stay away” from newspapers.

“The newspaper is the only way that I can access news in a calm state, as compared to the whiplash-inducing whir of a digital newsfeed,” she wrote.

Our initial plan was to invite about two dozen people we knew in the community, from our own professional networks. We assembled about 25 names we were preparing to invite before we let all our readers know that they also could apply. And we figured the readers who completed the online applications would fill any gaps on our way to a group of about 30 members.

But the online applicants were so strong and so compelling that we exclusively selected panelists from those who applied and expanded the size of the group. And why not? These readers expressed a genuine desire to serve and participate.

This is not a lifetime appointment or a group that will create bylaws and follow Robert’s Rules of Order. We may even add members if we feel it would help bring missing perspectives. But we expect the Community Reader Panel to be a vibrant and illuminating way to engage with readers. It will be a chance to learn from each other.

Based on their answers to the questionnaire, the panelists we’ve selected represent a variety of political views. It’s also a diverse group, with half of the 50 members identifying as either Black, Hispanic, Asian or another race.

So here’s what happens next. We will assemble the group in the coming weeks for our first meeting. It will be virtual. After each meeting, we’ll be sure to keep all our readers apprised of the conversations and any outcomes.

While the panelists meet quarterly, we hope to tap into the collective wisdom of the hundreds of others who applied. So many expressed eloquent sentiments about the importance of a strong press. It was by no means easy to narrow the list.

We’d like to capitalize on this larger group’s sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and duty. So I’ve invited them all to answer questions that I’ll send from time to time.

Tapping into this larger network will be another way to engage with readers. If you would like to be part of the larger email group, and you didn’t already receive an invitation from me earlier this week, simply enter your email address here to be added to the group.

We can’t wait to start the dialogue.

Mark Katches can be reached at mkatches@tampabay.com.