Friday, November 04, 2011

Guest Author: John Fontana

John "Johnny Fonts" Fontana is one of the managing editors at Raw, and is, in effect, my boss. Even if he weren't, I'd still be inclined to say good things about him. He's been covering the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning for over seven years now but I've only been a high-maintenance pain in his ass for the last year and a half so we're still in the honeymoon phase. It helps that we have things in common, such as an appreciation for the Beatles and of course, Lightning hockey. And as bloggers who function both in and outside of the mainstream media, we both like to keep our eyes on trends taking place in the media. Here are some thoughts from John in the wake of the Tampa Tribune announcing that they are on the verge of cutting more costs, which means laying off even more staff.

I don’t know much of the long-time history of the Tampa Tribune. I have heard about days of yore when the Trib was a broader newspaper that reached out to more people across the region. There was a time when it was a force, when it’s writers and personalities held sway in both local and state happenings.

Of course, times have changed. The entire media landscape has changed. The common response when talking about print media troubles usually sounds like, “What’s a newspaper?”

The history of the Tampa Tribune that I’ve seen unfold before me over the past decade is the Tribune – with thanks to the influence of it’s corporate parent, Media General – and affiliated entities tied to it, cut-cut-cut-cut-cut-cut and cut some more. The cuts, early on, were fed to customers with the reasoning In Order To Serve You Better.

The only thing that the Tribune, WFLA TV, (and other properties) are serving through substantial, repetive cuts in staff and coverage, is the corporate bottom line.

Richmond, Virginia based Media General has cooked up yet another restructuring in Tampa this week, because the last In Order To Serve You Better didn’t quite work out. Several of the head cheeses at the Media Center in downtown Tampa have been “re-assigned” (nicey-nice speak for shit-canned) in a falling-upwards kind of fashion that reminds me of politics of the recent past: You screw up, you get commended and potentially a medal because you did what was asked of you, even if it didn’t work.

With WFLA’s influence in local TV on the wane, with the Tribune’s cost-cutting antics destroying coverage and circulation, and with TBO’s inept layout that hides content and limits it’s exposure (and potential page views)… Well, this ain’t exactly serving anyone better except corporate management’s whims.

And while another truffle shuffle of corporate big wigs takes place, the promise of more staff cuts looms. I’m mortified at the thought of what cutbacks and layoffs are to come. The Tampa Tribune, WFLA, TBO, and all other parties tied to Media General’s interests in Tampa have been nipped and tucked so many times over the past decade that… Hell, I don’t even have a comparison to make.

Former editor Denise Palmer was throwing around the word Hyper-local during the last revamp and restructuring of the Tampa Tribune and Media Center operations. Now? A memo informing employees of the staff changes this week said focus should be on “the core market” where most of the circulation is based. In laymans terms, in order to serve themselves better, the plan is to focus on Tampa alone and stress where they sell the most newspapers. They just said it this time without buzzwords.

In essence, Media General’s plan is to make sure the Tampa Tribune and Media Center operations further contract to small-time status, comparable to other assets owned in the south by the company – small market TV stations and newspapers.

Is that really the wisest course of action in the 14th ranked media market in America?

For a long time, the wisest thing Media General could have done for itself would have been to dump what was once known as their “crown jewel” in the Tampa Tribune/WFLA/TBO property, not because it was junk but because it held value while the company didn’t know how to effectively manage it. That’s still the best course of action. The region is too big for rinky-dink direction.

Of course, no one is buying newspapers these days – that’s the rub. Someone would have to go out on a limb to make an investment in a property like the Media Center and it’s media entities within.

Whatever the case, I’m most worried about the staff that remains on right now at the Media Center. Everything is once again on the chopping block In Order To Serve You Better. And good employees will once again be sent packing with cuts because management doesn’t have a clue what to do besides contract a major metropolitain news organization into a neighborhood leaflet.

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