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  1. Life & Culture

Documentary 'Stop the Presses' chronicles the end of the Tampa Tribune

The site of the former Tampa Tribune offices, shown being demolished on Feb. 22,  will hold an apartment complex.
The site of the former Tampa Tribune offices, shown being demolished on Feb. 22, will hold an apartment complex.
Published May 2, 2017

Deborah Kerr's documentary intended to trace a day in the life of a newspaper.

She ended up depicting one's death.

Stop the Presses goes behind the scenes at the Tampa Tribune, which was driven to extinction last year after being purchased by its cross-bay rival, the Tampa Bay Times.

The project was always personal for Kerr, a first-time filmmaker and advocate of print journalism.

"It was breaking my heart, what's happening to newspapers," she said recently at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa, noting other closures nationwide as digital journalism advances.

The idea became more personal for the vivacious grandmother of eight on May 3, 2016, when the Tribune shut down. Her husband and executive producer, George Kerr, was employed there for 30 years, his job as operations director suddenly terminated.

Cameras weren't in the room when Tribune management announced the sale to stunned employees.

Yet at that moment, Deborah Kerr's 20-minute documentary began evolving into Stop the Presses, a feature-length ode to newspapers and an elegy for one in particular.

"It's a day in the life of a newspaper," she said. "It's what happened to the Tribune and it's a call to action, making people realize we need to wake up."

Kerr declined to provide a screening of Stop the Presses for this article. She wants to share it first with former Tribune employees ("my brothers and sisters") at Wednesday's Tampa Theatre premiere — the one-year anniversary of the end.

"They took pride in what we were doing," she said. "I want them to be the first ones to see it. I did it for them, to give them a voice."

The Kerrs said nearly everyone at the Tribune was blindsided by the sale, after management had presented a plan for survival.

George Kerr said the plan included a five-year deal in February 2016 for the Times to take over printing the Tribune, "which isn't uncommon in the business. . . .

"The surprise on May 3rd was that the Times had actually bought the Tribune. We understand why (it was kept secret), but we didn't know until that day that they bought us and we were done."

According to Deborah Kerr, Stop the Presses includes an eyewitness account of the penultimate meeting from George as he packs up his office belongings. She suggested no fingers are pointed, no villains cast.

"You just tell the truth about what happened," Kerr said. "I could've really gone after things. There's a lot that happened that we were aware of because (George) was so involved in upper management.

"But I thought, what good is that going to do? I don't want to lose sight of what our mission is."

George Kerr added: "However the Trib got closed is not irrelevant, but it's not the point of the movie."

Instead, Deborah Kerr wants Stop the Presses to rally viewers against the decline of print journalism, "the foundation of our democracy." She envisions taking the movie to classrooms and newspapers nationwide spreading the word.

"I always thought newspapers do a terrible job of promoting themselves," she said. "People need to realize how important (newspapers) are and . . . the dedication that goes into putting this thing together.

"You'll see it in the documentary from beginning to end, how many people are so dedicated. They believe in what they're doing and that what they're doing is important."

Filming continued from November 2015 until March, when the Tribune's former Tampa offices were demolished, making way for an apartment complex.

Deborah Kerr's camera was there, as it was when the Tribune's printing presses rolled for the final time in 2016. Her original $10,000 budget nearly quintupled to complete the movie.

Stop the Presses is Deborah Kerr's first attempt at filmmaking, guided by instinct and an online course she's been too busy to complete. Just like when she didn't know anything about fishing, then for years wrote an angler's almanac for the long-gone East Bay Breeze. Or when she learned to manage a country music act.

"I have a tendency to jump into things," she said.

Now she's sticking up for print media, passionately on film.

"It's the foundation of our democracy and it's being pulled out from underneath us, . . . " Kerr said. "We want to make people understand: Don't let this happen to your local paper."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.