The Tampa Bay Times announced Monday morning that it will suspend print publication except on Sundays and Wednesdays. It also plans to furlough staffers (though not in the newsroom). Both will begin in a week and are intended to be temporary.
Tash agreed to a question-and-answer interview with Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds. Embargoed for Monday, the interview was conducted by email Sunday afternoon.
Rick Edmonds: When and how did you decide to do furloughs and suspend print delivery except Sundays and Wednesdays?
Paul Tash: We started developing options two weeks ago, as the depth of economic consequences started becoming clear. It preserves the printed edition on the days it is most popular — with readers and advertisers — and gives us a base to build back when circumstances warrant.
Edmonds: In the last decade, the Tampa Bay Times has remained relatively print-centric as others started earlier to push hard for paid digital subscriptions. Now you are the first metro in the country to take this step. How can that be?
Tash: I’d quibble a bit with the premise. Print is important to our market, but we have been ramping up digital capacities for the last two years, so that we can serve the audience however they come to us. Since the virus erupted here, our web traffic has more than doubled, digital subscription sales are accelerating, and thousands more are using our electronic edition.
Edmonds: As your announcement implies, this will be a shock to the system for loyal print subscribers, many of whom have been reading the Times in print seven days a week almost as long as you (45 years) or me (33 years). What reaction and pushback do you expect?
Tash: We are about to find out. I do hope and think that readers will be more understanding when they see change in just about every other aspect of their lives. Some may be relieved that we are preserving two days of print and delivery. This is also a good time to gently guide our readers toward the electronic formats. We are changing the form of delivery, but the journalism is as strong as ever.
Edmonds: And the big idea of the changes is to reduce expenses so as to keep the local journalism report as complete and strong as possible?
Tash: Absolutely. With advertising revenues down by half, we have to make difficult choices. We choose to cut back in other areas, and keep the news report strong.
How it will work
Edmonds: The reduced frequency begins next week. When do you expect to implement the furloughs?
Edmonds: The furloughs are without pay. Do those affected get to keep health and other benefits? Can you make taking the furlough voluntary, at least in part?
Tash: Yes, those who are on our insurance plan can maintain their coverage if they keep paying their part of the premiums. We’re still identifying which staff members will be furloughed, based on the workload that is being temporarily reduced.
Edmonds: Are any changes planned in the costs of print and digital packages or digital-only subscriptions? For instance, if I have been getting seven print papers a week and now I will be getting two, can I get some money back or an extension on the term of the subscription?
Tash: We are not altering prices, asking subscribers to recognize two things: 1) they are still getting all the journalism, and 2) these are extraordinary and, one hopes, temporary circumstances.
Edmonds: Do you expect a substantial number of those seven-day subscribers to flip to digital (and e-replica) only? Can they?
Tash: I do not. The seven-day subscribers are the ones most committed to print. I think they are unlikely to switch entirely to digital when we are still printing and delivering the two biggest papers a week. We also are enhancing the print editions. On Sunday, we are bringing back Perspective as a separate section and introducing a section with a week’s worth of games and puzzles.
Edmonds: In the changed publishing schedule, a full news report remains, of course. But what else stays and what goes?
Tash: We’re also adding more news and features to the electronic newspaper. We’re trying to improve the product, even as we cut back on one form of delivery.
Edmonds: Will the content reductions and furloughs mainly fall in news areas that are dormant now and for some time ahead — like sports and events, restaurants and the like? Or might you, for instance, repurpose some talented sports reporters to cover the crisis?
Tash: We don’t plan furloughs in news. Our purpose is to keep the news report strong. We have shifted reporters to other assignments. For now, everybody is covering the coronavirus.
The business case
Edmonds: Can you quantify, even roughly, the savings you expect? For instance, what percentage reduction do you expect to realize in paper, production and delivery expenses? Or how much less will you be spending than you did six weeks ago?
Tash: Ad sales are running down about 50%. We expect this plan to make up roughly half of that gap. At that rate, we can tough things out for a few months. If things get worse, or if the crisis goes on indefinitely, we’ll have to reconsider our approach.
Edmonds: How do you staff the pressroom and home delivery two days a week rather than seven? Do many of these staffers and contractors have 40% of a full-time job, assuming they were working five days a week?
Tash: We’re still working out the schedules. In production, you are suspending 70% of the printing days, but not as much of the work, because Sunday and Wednesday have higher volumes and page counts. The cost savings are more proportional in delivery.
Edmonds: Can you say roughly how many will be furloughed next week? (And if there is a breakdown staff vs. independent contractors?)
Tash: Supervisors are making their rosters for the new work schedule, so I don’t really know how many staff will go on furlough. I believe it will be more than 50. The delivery contractors are not employees. They will not be furloughed, but their fees will drop as we reduce delivery days.
Edmonds: Is the paper being produced entirely remotely or are some reporters and editors coming into the office?
Tash: All of news is working remotely. Circulation, customer service and some advertising staff are still working in our offices but keeping their distance from each other. And, of course, it’s impossible to print and deliver a newspaper remotely. We’re taking all the precautions to keep conditions clean and people safe.
Edmonds: How about for reporters who need to go out in the field? And how many still need to? You can’t do a story about seniors shopping at Publix without going there and talking with them (at the appropriate social distance), can you?
Tash: We want people to work safe, but there are some stories you just can’t cover from your kitchen table. Same with a hurricane.
Edmonds: What do you see as the trajectory in paid digital subscriptions? What’s your best guess about how many can be retained after introductory offers expire and the worst of the crisis subsides?
Tash: Digital subscription sales are ramping up, even though most of our coronavirus coverage is accessible to anybody. On an encouraging note, a higher proportion of new subscribers are paying for a full year, rather than just taking the one-month promotional rate.
Edmonds: As a reader of tampabay.com, I have found the journalism outstanding but the user experience mediocre. With finances tight can you improve that on the fly as digital becomes where more readers get their news? (I am thinking of timeliness and more layout flexibility, which seem to have improved some in recent days).
Tash: Everybody gets to have an opinion. I think the journalism and the user experience are both first-rate. I’m glad you think we’re getting better.
Looking to the future
Edmonds: I would guess you are not advising other metros on what to do. But I think many will choose a version of the same cutbacks very soon. Do you?
Tash: Circumstances vary from place to place, but many organizations — not just newspapers — are facing wrenching changes. It will take talent, commitment and ingenuity to meet the test we are facing.
Edmonds: All these changes — including a company-wide pay cut announced a month ago — have been described as temporary. Do you see circumstances under which some or all would become permanent?
Tash: This is the plan for today. A month ago, I would not have imagined what is now reality, so I am not especially confident about my ability to predict the future in another month, or two or three.
Edmonds: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times. Their operations and missions intertwine and you are chairman and CEO of the Times and chairman of Poynter’s board of trustees. Do you expect the Times’s financial challenges and these responses have an impact on Poynter?
Tash: We are making these changes to respond to the challenges at the Times, but we are not unique in the world of news media. Poynter is doing an outstanding job of helping news organizations and citizens navigate their way through this crisis. But just as the Times feels the pain of our customers and community, Poynter may feel impact from the hardship facing many news organizations.
Edmonds: Is this the publication pattern of the future for daily newspapers?
Tash: These next several weeks will teach us a lot. In some ways, we are field-testing the future.
Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was updated to include a link to an FAQ to readers provided by the Times.