Will a name change help the St. Pete Times the way it did the South Florida Sun-Sentinel?

The St. Petersburg Times is trading in the name that bears its storied past for a new one targeting the future, Chairman and CEO Paul Tash said in an interview Tuesday.

The decision to become the Tampa Bay Times is a competitive move aimed at taking name space away from cross-town rival The Tampa Tribune, and is raising new speculation about the Media General paper's viability. The name change has unsettled some;  Twitter reaction decried the lost legacy, weakened identity, and potential confusion.

“I’m honored by any objection here, because it means that the St. Pete Times counts. And I agree -- it counts,” said Tash, also chairman of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times. “But the important part of our name is ‘Times,’ and to make the most of the success that we’ve had and to continue as a first-rate news organization, we need to draw fully on the support of the entire Tampa Bay region.”

It’s not unheard of for newspapers to change their names. A flurry of consolidations and mergers since the 1970s led to many newly hyphenated hybrids. Once in a while a paper will just drop the city from its name, like The Nashville Tennessean in 1970 or The Norwich Bulletin this year.

The Sun-Sentinel (of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) in 2000 expanded its coverage and changed its name to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. That move worked out well, said Earl Maucker, who was the paper’s editor at the time.

Previously the paper was just The Sun-Sentinel, but readers and especially competitors often pigeonholed it as “The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,” Maucker told me. Adding a regional title to the name helped the paper in the years that followed.

“Readers began to identify the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as a more regional newspaper that was competitive in the South Florida market with the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post,” Maucker said. “Additionally, we got more recognition from our peers outside of South Florida because people could identify where The Sun-Sentinel was geographically located.”

Removing or broadening the geographic label in a newspaper name can help a paper appeal to new advertisers, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for The Poynter Institute. He explained that some national ad buyers might assume a paper named the “St. Petersburg Times” doesn’t reach the whole Tampa metro area, but the “Tampa Bay Times” does.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg area (Google Maps image).

The Times is also concerned with audience. It says that three-fourths of its readers currently live outside St. Petersburg. And while long-time residents may know the St. Petersburg Times covers more than just St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, that’s not as obvious to new residents or to some advertisers, Tash said.

“This is a very competitive world, not just between newspapers but among all media,” Tash said. “And so we are trying to appeal as broadly as possible.” Market research showed that people in different parts of the metro area identified with different regional names, he said, but “Tampa Bay” carried strong recognition everywhere.

The name change takes effect Jan. 1. It will cost a “significant” amount of money in the context of any one quarter or even fiscal year, Tash said, but in the long run “it is a bargain that we would be foolish to pass by.” (He did not specify the cost, but said it would not affect other operational spending.)

It remains to be seen whether the existing community that knows the “St. Petersburg” Times will adopt the new name. While it may make business sense, the public doesn’t always follow.

Steve Buttry noted on Twitter Tuesday that when he was at the Des Moines Register (1977-85) it was already known as a statewide paper but didn’t need to change its name to make that point. He also recounted that “years ago the Cedar Rapids Gazette became The Gazette to push regional reach. Everyone still called it Cedar Rapids Gazette.”

I had a similar experience in 2005 when the morning and afternoon newspapers I worked for in Scranton, Penn., The Tribune and The Scranton Times, merged into a single new morning edition called The Times-Tribune.

Dropping “Scranton” from the flag was an attempt to position the paper as a journal of the seven-county coverage area, not just the one city at the center. But over the following five years I worked there, most of the readers, politicians, police officers and newsroom callers continued to refer to it as “The Scranton Times.” After 135 years, habits don’t change overnight.

It’s still too early to know how the Tampa Bay Times will be received, Tash said.

“You never really know until you do it, what the impact is going to be,” he said. “In some ways, the impact depends on how well you do it.”

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.

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