Camaraderie reigned at the Tampa Tribune, dead after 121 years

Editor's note: Walt Belcher, a longtime television critic at the Tampa Tribune, was a contributor at the newspaper until its abrupt closure earlier this week.

In the fall of 1985, I found myself upstairs at the famed Sardi’s Restaurant in New York City interviewing playwright Arthur Miller and actor Dustin Hoffman who was starring in a CBS television version of “Death of a Salesman.”

Miller and Hoffman were there to talk to the media courtesy of CBS. I was there representing The Tampa Tribune, which had paid my way.

Florida newspapers were fatter and healthier back then. Circulation was high, advertisers were plentiful, and The Tribune, like many major Florida newspapers, could afford to employ full-time movie, television, music and theater critics.

I had to pinch myself on that New York trip because this job as a television critic had turned out to be more than I ever expected. I had never even intended to stay in Florida. This was just to be a stop on my way to Atlanta.

Just a few years earlier, I was covering car crashes, court cases and what was on the police blotter in Sebring and Avon Park, two cities in Florida. I’d been a bureau chief for the Heartland edition supervising more than a dozen reporters covering Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. The Tribune’s reach was impressive — as far south as Lake Placid, as far west as Lake Wales and as far north as Tallahassee.

And the travel budget was impressive, too. The sports staff could go anywhere. And, by 1981, I was traveling to Los Angeles for two weeks every summer and winter. And there was one week in New York in the fall — all to cover television. Today, television critics are an endangered lot as newspapers continue to cut staffers.

Those L.A. trips disappeared as budgets tightened in during my last few years at The Tribune before I was laid off along with 164 other employees in December of 2011. Since then, we have watched as the Trib slowly withered away until its sudden death this week.

Those trips were interesting, but I was just happy to be at my desk. It was never work. I was always more of a storyteller than a critic. And there was always one more story to tell and innovative ways to tell it. For example, when the Tom Hanks movie “Terminal” came out in 2004, I spent the night in the Tampa International Airport to explore what it would be like to live there.

There are so many memories, and there were so many great interviews — from Woody Allen to Mr. Rogers (and even Roy Rogers who gave me the best quote: “They make movies today that I wouldn’t let Trigger watch”). I can still vividly recall watching and writing about the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986 that killed seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe; the wall-to-wall coverage of the wedding of Princess Diana; and the marathon coverage of her death.

There was a night at Saddlebrook Resort north of Tampa during the first and last McLean Stevenson celebrity golf tournament when Stevenson threw me out because I was asking questions about the possibility that tournament was a flop. An entire table of Tribune management, including now-retired Tribune General Manager James F. Urbanski and the late sportswriter Tom McEwen, also walked out in protest.

What I remember most about my nearly 35 years with The Tribune as a full-timer was the great camaraderie in the bureaus and in the downtown newsroom. It was unlike any other workplace that I had experienced.

I had great editors, such as Michael Kilgore, Martha Durrance and Kim MacCormack, who has a knack for creative theme stories. At one point, our features team of Phil Morgan, Curtis Ross, Bob Ross, Jeff Houck, Rommie Johnson, Mitch Schafer, and Kurt Loft often engaged in one-upmanship when it came to wisecracks. Every day was an improv show. But we could get serious and instantly pull together for the important stories — such as how the media covered the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It was a great ride from my first day as a Tampa Tribune employee in January 1977 when I reported on snow in Sebring to this week when, as a correspondent, I was contributing to a Mother’s Day feature (that won’t be published) about bad pop culture moms such as Norma Bates from the “Bates Motel” TV series.

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