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The Tampa Tribune’s Final Counteroffensive

The late, great Gene Patterson commanded a tank in George S. Patton’s WWII army.

Patterson, 43 years later, commanded scores of St, Petersburg Times journalists to flood the bridges eastward into Tampa Tribune Land.

Gene broke the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” that for decades gave the Times newspaper sovereignty in West Tampa Bay– the Trib had exclusivity in East Bay.

Demographics dictated the move. To grow, the water-locked Times had to move east. Pinellas was becoming built out. There was only the Gulf of Mexico west.

The strategic intent was beautifully simple: The Times would be the only paper in populous and fast growing North Tampa Bay. (The Bradenton Herald and Sarasota Herald Tribune would continue to split South Tampa Bay,)

The comfortably profitable Trib, and its complacent owners, Media General of Richmond, were stunned.

The fight between the not-for-profit Times (owned by the school for journalists, Poynter Institute) and the for-profit Trib, went on for 29 years.

It ended May 3, 2016.

Times Leader Paul Tash, accompanied by armed security guards, entered the Tribune building and told staffers this: The Times had purchased the recession-crippled Trib and would shutter it immediately. There would be no staff-produced final edition, as had been the tradition when a paper died.

That saga flashed through my mind on Oct. 26, a lovely, loving evening at the fittingly named Love’s Artifacts Bar and Grill in South Tampa. The occasion was a Tribune alum party for Struby and me on the eve of our departure for a new home in Macon, Georgia.

Many of the Trib foot soldiers were there. That’s you Donna, Allyn, Michelle, Marilyn, Kirk, Kim, B.C., and so many more of my fine, talented staff.

I was privileged to be part of the Trib’s last counter attack against the Times. It came between the mid-90s and 2006, my final year as publisher.

The tips of the spear were Knight-Ridder alums, led by former Wichita Eagle Publisher Reid Ashe, a brilliant MIT grad turned journalist. His gift was attracting and empowering very determined combatants.

Reid got me as editor from The State. Advertising and marketing dynamos Steve Weaver (San Jose Mercury News) and Bruce Faulmann (Bradenton Herald) signed on. They joined an already solid executive team headed by CFO Kermit Kauffman.

That fortified team was the strongest I’d seen in my 30 years as an editor.

We threw the entire Knight-Ridder playbook at the Times in our counter offensive.

Customer obsession. Re-energized local news coverage. Hard-digging enterprise reporting and deep investigations. New attention to fast growing suburbs. Multimedia journalism with WFLA-TV. Solidified branding (“Life Printed Daily”).

It worked.

By 2006 we had record profits and growing reader and advertising market share. The Times took worried notice,

Then came the Great Recession and the triumph of online news and marketing. Media General, never comfortable managing its only competitive market, withdrew combat resources it had given the Tribune.

The rest is history.

A rollicking good fight it was. While it lasted.

 

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