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Tampa Bay Times Buys, Quickly Folds, Rival

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Joe Henderson went to work expecting Tuesday to be no different than the previous 41 years, eight months and 13 days he’s logged at the Tampa Tribune.

But when the metro news columnist started writing a piece about legalizing marijuana, something told him he wouldn’t get to finish it. By 3 p.m., he was in a large conference room with the rest of the Tribune staff.

“I looked over and I saw Paul Tash, the CEO of the Times, and I looked and I went, ‘Uh oh. This is not good.’ And I soon found out it wasn’t. It was quick, it was clinical. They were directly to the point.”

Henderson likens it to the death of a terminally ill relative – not unexpected but still a shock. He’s angry that the Tribune wasn’t given a final edition.

Henderson says the move was so sudden, company cell phones were deactivated without warning, leaving reporters without access to their contact files. A sports writer was on assignment in New York when his phone died, Henderson says.

“I had actually printed out all of my contacts, out of my Tribune mail system, like a week or so ago, just in case. So I have all of that here and I’m slowly rebuilding it on my private phone now. “

More than 100 Tampa Tribune workers were told they would be losing their jobs. They are being given two-months severance pay and told benefits will continue until July 2nd.

Times spokeswoman Jounice Nealy-Brown says the Times went above and beyond what’s required by federal labor laws and managers will make sure employees have access to contact information and clips.  She says the Times is planning a Tampa Tribune commemoration in the Times Sunday editions.

“Sort of a retrospective look at the history of that paper, the contributions that it made to the community. And, also, you can look for some voices of folks who were part of that organization for many years.”

Media experts and others say the loss will be felt far beyond the newsroom.  Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says his city won’t be the same without competing voices.   

“Certainly, philosophically, the Tribune was a little more center right, the Times, perhaps, a little center left. But when you read both, you got both sides of the issue. And I think that was healthy.”

The Times is a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper that has had a Tampa edition since 1987. But that’s not the same as having a hometown paper, says media consultant Janet Coats. Coats worked as the Tampa Tribune executive editor for six years, beginning in 2004.

“But Its DNA is not a Tampa DNA. It doesn’t understand the neighborhoods, the community, the history, in the way that the Tribune did, and I don’t think really represents the ethos of Tampa.”

Market analysis shows how much the Tribune is a victim of its times. Newspaper industry revenue of 27 billion dollars is expected to plunge 6 percent this year. When Coats joined the Tribune, she says there were 300 newsroom positions on her payroll. There were 145 when she left.

Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash told the Tribune staff the trend couldn’t continue. At least not with both papers left standing.  

“Without this move the continued competition between the Tribune and the Times was putting both newspapers in peril.”

It’s never good when government has fewer watchdogs to fear, says Joshua Benton, director of the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

“In the Tampa-St. Pete area, there’s still going to be one newspaper, and an unusually good newspaper, by newspaper standards. One that has done a lot of great journalism, but one that faces financial pressures like everybody else.”

Meanwhile, former metro columnist Henderson says he’s grateful that Buckhorn and other sources have called him personally to express their regrets and offer any help they can. He says he’s already moved from grief to acceptance.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.