By Jim Bleyer
More than 200,000 West Coast Floridians hear the familiar pre-dawn thud of the Tampa Tribune landing on their driveway. It’s a good bet those loyal customers will be acclimated to the sound of silence by the time the 2016 general election rolls around.
Three weeks ago, the parent of the Trib, Tampa Media Group, sold the newspaper headquarters on the west bank of the Hillsborough River. The sale of the building and land fetched $17.75 million, nearly double the $9.2 million paid for all the Tribune assets in October, 2012. It’s an excellent return for Revolution Capital, the Los Angeles-based private equity fund that owns Tampa Media Group.
Assets remaining: the newspaper entity, the presses, office furniture, WFLA Newschannel 8. The online TBO, and a paper in Sebring. The TV station would be the centerpiece in the expected divestment.
The Tribune account of the sale reported that the newspaper staff will remain downtown until demolition starts to make way for a residential complex, likely in May. Publisher Brian Burns said the newspaper is consulting with relocation experts on a future site for the main newsroom and support operations adding, “The Tampa Tribune fully intends to remain a viable part of the Tampa Bay community and a watchdog for our consumers, subscribers and advertisers.”
Malarkey. Like any private equity firm, Revolution’s goal is to maximize profits for its investors within a tight time frame. It has no interest in owning a company in a dying industry that is hemorrhaging spondulicks. Tampa Media Group previously stopped publishing Brooksville-based Hernando Today citing “a tough newspaper climate.”
Here’s another sure tell, another quote from Burns: the newspaper is exploring options for printing, including contracting with other press operations or acquiring newer presses for printing at a new location. They won’t be buying new presses for a losing operation. News conglomerates with multiple newspapers have centralized their printing operations; Revolution is not a conglomerate so they would not pay a third party and add to the money pit. The public posturing is to ensure subscription and advertising cash inflows until any divesture is completed.
Those that are working or have worked at the Trib tell me morale has been sinking since Revolution acquired the paper. Employees have bailed, been bought out, or laid off. Pension obligations have been whittled to the bare bones. Worse, though Burns holds the title of Publisher, insiders say that Robert Loring, Revolution founder and CEO, has been onsite running the show. He is described as an unscrupulous, disengaged, and intemperate martinet.
It would be shocking if there were any buyers for the printed product. The Tampa Bay Times, with financial woes of its own, is not a candidate as it wins by default. Gen Xers and Millenials get their news online. Even Silents and Baby Boomers are weaning themselves away from the physical paper. The national trend is for consolidation but more often, dissolution. As woeful as The Tribune website is, the online product, with improvements, could soldier on.
The Tribune demise will spawn many losers but there is one clear winner: The Tampa Bay Times. The subscriber gain figures as modest but more advertising dollars would flow its way. From all accounts, the TBT needs the dough. Its property is also up for sale and there have been reports its pension fund has significant problems.
Losers? There are plenty of ‘em. Trib employees, if they can even find jobs in a sector on life support, will have to relocate. Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who harbors not-so-subtle gubernatorial aspirations, will have to make his case without a hometown paper in his corner. Proponents of a sales tax increase to finance a highly questionable transit plan will lose a key ally. Hillsborough County residents will feel a sense of loss, however temporary, of a 120-year-old institution. Lastly, there will be no mainstream voice in the Tampa Bay area for those whose politics lean to the right.