April 19, 2018

Last month, Paul Tash, the chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times, wrote that because of newspaper tariffs that were going to add $3 million more in expenses, layoffs were coming.

Last week, those layoffs began. They’ll total "approximately" 50 across the company, Ashley Gurbal Kritzer reported Wednesday for the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Poynter owns the Times, and Tash is chairman of Poynter’s board of trustees. On Thursday, he declined to specify how many people are in the newsroom and how many of the layoffs came from the newsroom.

“To the person in the printing plant, a job lost there counts just as much as for someone in the newsroom.”

Last month, Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds wrote about how the tariffs came about:

A single American paper company, Norpac in the Pacific Northwest, complained last fall that Canadian mills, which supply most of the newsprint in the U.S., were unfairly subsidized by the government there and also were dumping at cut-rate prices here. 

Norpac, which had previous favorable rulings from the Commerce Department, got a preliminary judgment in their favor in January. The matter now goes to the International Trade Commission, whose ruling is expected in September, Boyle said. The Commerce Department will issue a separate ruling on the dumping charges in August.

How, in this era of newsrooms shifting toward building digital subscriptions, can paper still do so much damage to a company?

“We still use a great deal of newsprint, and that’s where a majority of the revenue remains, both in circulation and in advertising,” Tash said. “Digital is very important to us, but in print, we are still one of the 10 biggest newspapers in the country. When you use a lot of newsprint, these additional costs matter a lot.”

At the beginning of the year, we asked if it was possible for newsrooms to transform under the constant threat of layoffs. The answer was, in short, they have to, but need to offer transparency, get employee support and make choices about what they can reasonably do.

Among the cuts at the Times was its movie critic, Steve Persall. That's a position they're unlikely to replace, Tash said. TBT, the daily free tabloid, has been moved to a weekly. And they'll be making some changes to the Sunday newspaper, he said.

Last year, the Times had about 300,000 Sunday print subscribers and about 200,000 daily.

Tash declined to share digital-only subscription numbers, but said it’s “not a very big number.”

While The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian have had success creating new revenue streams from digital subscriptions, many metro and local newspapers are still figuring it out.  

“A lot of our customers still prefer print,” Tash said. “The point of this is to respond to the customer how they want, not how we want.”

So far, we haven’t seen big layoffs from other newsrooms that have been credited to the tariffs, but Tash thinks they’re coming.

In 2016, the Times bought and closed the Tampa Tribune. Edmonds, reporting about the institute's 2016 finances, wrote that Poynter made a loan to the Times to help that transaction.

Details of its balance sheet shows as a receivable asset a loan of just under $6 million Poynter made in 2015 to the Tampa Bay Times parent, Times Publishing Co., to facilitate buying the Tampa Tribune.

The Times purchased the Tribune in May 2016 and immediately folded the publication. Times Publishing is expected to repay the loan with interest as its own finances improve by adding subscribers and selling advertising with an expanded audience.

Its borrowing and the sale of buildings are a matter of record, Edmonds said. But as a private company, it doesn’t have to report results in detail.

“However, we will be getting a better picture of revenue trends to date for the industry as public companies report their first-quarter results over the next several weeks,” Edmonds said. “Forecasts from the companies themselves have not been especially optimistic — more of the same as in 2017.”

So is it just the print tariffs? Would the layoffs have happened otherwise?

Thanks to the turmoil in advertising and retail, everyone’s always looking for ways to be more efficient, Tash said.  

“But the urgency and the magnitude of these reductions are directly related to the tariffs.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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