January 6, 2021

The Tampa Bay Times’ 60-year-old printing facility, which won international awards in the 1970s for its industry-leading early use of color, is closing in March. Printing will be outsourced to Gannett at the Lakeland Ledger’s facility 60 miles from the paper’s St. Petersburg headquarters.

The change, announced Wednesday, will eliminate 150 jobs, 90 of them full time. In another economizing move, the Times (owned by Poynter) will cut pay for remaining full-time staff by 10% for the next six months. 

Last April, faced with plummeting advertising revenues because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Times temporarily eliminated five days of the week for its print editions, delivering papers only on Wednesdays and Sundays. Times executives said revenues remain down and the reduction to twice-a-week print delivery is likely to become permanent. The inefficiency of using the spacious facility so infrequently was a factor in the decision to close it.

The action was ultimately precipitated by the continuing weakness in print advertising, Conan Gallaty, president of the Times, said in an interview. “Some of our advertisers are having trouble keeping their doors open,” he said, and the 2020 pandemic “accelerated trends already in place” as marketing and advertising budgets shift from print to various digital alternatives.

Indeed, the Times’ action follows two industry trends that have been gathering momentum for years and accelerated in 2020 — letting go of in-house printing and selling offices and land to raise cash.

The Kansas City Star sold its 15-year-old, $200 million, state-of-the-art press and adjoining “pavilion,” offices, announcing in November that it will print at Gannett’s Des Moines Register. Other metros shifting in the last year to outsourced printing include the Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Antonio Express-News and The Hartford Courant. 

Chains like Gannett and McClatchy have been especially aggressive in consolidating printing since they often own nearby papers whose production facilities would otherwise operate under capacity. 

Concurrently, many chain and independent papers have sold off centrally located headquarters buildings over the last decade; reduced staff do not need so much space anymore. In 2020, some decided not to operate with offices at all, at least while producing news reports remotely.

The Times printing plant sits on 27 acres on a main artery near the expressway. It should be attractive for industrial use or multi-family housing, Gallaty said. Proceeds from the sale and some of the savings from the pay cuts will be used to pay down debt and possibly fund pensions, he said.

Business prospects for the newspaper company, at least for the first part of 2021, continue to be strained. The actions announced Wednesday, will save about 7% of expenses for the year, he added. The company operated profitably in 2020, Gallaty said, but needs to improve financial performance this year and beyond to stay current with its lenders.

Like other papers, the Times is pushing paid digital subscriptions and trying to build other revenue streams.

“We developed a five-year plan starting in 2019,” Gallaty said. With the intense pressure on both expenses and revenues, anticipated changes “have come in a much shorter period of time.”

Among the new sources of revenue, the Times has started seeking grants and contributions from individuals to support investigative and accountability reporting, an approach pioneered by The Seattle Times. Two nonprofit funds (administered by Poynter) raised more than $1 million last year, Gallaty said, and the company expects to improve on that in 2021.

Lakeland is about an hour-and-a-quarter drive from St. Petersburg, so deadlines will be pushed back some. That is cushioned, however, because the Times’ circulation footprint extends to Tampa and its eastern suburbs, including areas closer to Lakeland than St. Pete.

The Times, in eliminating five days of print, has heavily promoted an e-replica edition, laid out and navigated like a print paper. The e-edition, as well as the Times’ regular digital site, can be updated to include late sports scores or other late-night news.

Gallaty said that about 50,000 print readers access the e-edition on a given day and about 100,000 in the course of a week, Paid digital-only subscriptions stand at about 22,000. That is less than other leading metros but represents fast growth from around 4,000 entering 2019, Gallaty said.

The pay cut is not identical to the unpaid furloughs that Gannett and many other chains imposed last year. It does have a similar feature — staff may take one extra day a month off if they wish and work on other projects.

The Times is not alone in reducing print days. Nearly all papers in the Advance chain have done so; McClatchy papers no longer print on Saturdays; and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette prints only on Sundays, asking subscribers to read a replica edition on an iPad the rest of the week. 

Times executives have said that the reduced print and distribution costs help minimize news staff cuts and the need to shrink the news report.

In the Times’ own story on closing the plant, Chairman and CEO Paul Tash summed up: “The news business was already shifting toward digital delivery, and the pandemic put that change into overdrive. … This is a hard decision, and we feel it keenly. But it helps position the Times for the future as a vibrant news company.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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