Elithia Stanfield hit the unmute button and seemed to speak for most of the people on the Zoom call.
“I love newspapers,” said the 68-year-old Pinellas Park resident, explaining why she wanted to be part of the new Tampa Bay Times Community Reader Panel. “I like the feel of them in my hands. I’m aware of the challenges. But I don’t want to lose them.”
Stanfield, a former assistant county administrator for Pinellas County, and more than three dozen other members of the reader group gathered for a first meeting with senior leaders of the Times late last month.
The panel was assembled from more than 750 applicants. Our goal: To listen and engage with readers.
Launching this panel has been an objective since I arrived in Tampa Bay three years ago. Those selected include nurses, teachers, librarians, retired military, former police, lawyers, veterinarians, accountants, business owners and executives from across the political spectrum. Several participants told us that they applied to be part of this initiative so that they could have a voice. They are all avid readers, who have a strong affinity for newspapers and local journalism. That doesn’t mean they love everything we do.
And they weren’t shy at our first gathering.
Nina Wolfson said she didn’t think the Times is “as vibrant as it used to be.” Stephen Wehrmann said it seems like newspapers are regressing. “And I think that’s a shame.” A couple of panelists raised questions about fairness and bias in our news coverage, a topic we plan to explore more deeply in future meetings.
The candor was welcome. We didn’t create this group because we wanted to hear our own voices bouncing off the canyon walls.
The Community Reader Panel is just one new engagement initiative. We’ve also launched an email network where we occasionally send questions to readers. We’ve asked two sets of questions so far — one focused on our e-Newspaper and another soliciting reaction to our coverage of the pandemic. (If you haven’t joined the email network, you can be a part of future surveys by filling out this form.)
About half the 559 respondents to the first survey said they were unaware that we have much later deadlines in the e-Newspaper. Those deadlines enable editors and reporters to get complete sports results and late-breaking news into a familiar newspaper format as late as 1 a.m. That’s a more generous deadline than we’ve had in print, meaning that even West Coast results typically make it into the e-Newspaper. On Wednesday, we updated the e-Newspaper early in the morning to capture the California recall results.
In the second survey, the overwhelming majority commended the Times for our coverage of the pandemic and our efforts to humanize the local COVID story. Several submitted story ideas that have been shared with editors.
Both surveys were sent before the Community Reader Panel gathered. At our first meeting, many of the panelists shared inspiring stories of their introduction to newspapers and a strong desire to help reach new readers and keep an important news organization healthy. On that, we all agreed.
“A good newspaper leads to a smart and informed electorate,” said Rebecca Davis, a public relations leader from St. Petersburg.
The meeting ran long. Lots of introductions. But the mood and tenor were inspiring and energizing. We expect our next meetings will focus on specific topics. We’ll keep you apprised of what we hear and learn.
Katches can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter at @markkatches