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Columbia Journalism Review

September, 2001 / October, 2001


LENGTH: 3797 words



Why People Like Working for the St. Petersburg Times

Oxymoron: a figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory ideas are combined, as in "Happy Newsroom."

Wary of unremittingly rosy reports about the state of morale in the newsroom of the St. Petersburg Times, I hopped a plane to get the real skinny. I'd been asked by CJR to find and tell a hopeful tale of a news organization doing good work in a positive, supportive environment -- a tough task in these days of downsized spirits. When the initial reports from St. Pete sounded too good to be true, I convinced a group of Times reporters to join me for a straight-talk lunch at a nearby island-motif cafe. And sure enough, out tumbled a daunting array of horror stories. They ranged from large-scale forced retirements and a shuttered news library to the most bizarre examples of corporate penny-pinching: management not only telling reporters to use a single sheet of paper towel to dry their hands but also to keep it throughout the day for reuse; management not only telling reporters to record every long distance call they made but also to ask sources to call them back on their own dime. The only thing was: none of these outrages took place at the St. Petersburg Times. They had occurred at other newspapers and were, in fact, the kind of misdeeds that had led many of my informants to come to work for the Times, where, I was fervently assured, such things could never happen, for a very simple reason: the paper is owned by a not-for-profit journalism school and run by executives whose primary mandate is to put out a good, even great, newspaper. Not a paper that eschews profits, but one that subordinates the bottom line to news reporting, feature writing, hands-on editing, and the other little details that make journalism, properly practiced, such a joyful and rewarding profession.

The challenges of putting out a good paper while still making a reasonable profit are on display at the weekly senior editors' meeting, during which the brass of the St. Petersburg Times reviews the state of the company and previews the weekend paper. At the meeting I attend, managing editor Neil Brown, filling in for editor Paul Tash, starts with an item that sets an upbeat tone: heavy reader inquiries on where to buy an Elvis doll mentioned in an article. He updates the group on the ongoing circulation war with the Times's closest rival, The Tampa Tribune: It seems the Trib is trying to undercut the Times's fifteen-cent promotional price to resort hotels by virtually giving away its papers for a nickel.

"On the journalistic side, which we're more familiar with, although I'm beginning to wonder . . . ," says an editor, commenting on the tenor of the small-t times. Notwithstanding the mumbled concurrence on that point, the paper has a strong lineup for Sunday. Topics include a millionaire who may be profiting from his not-for-profit foundation, a heavy push by soft-drink companies into local schools, overcrowded mental-health facilities for convicts, overrated suburban school districts, and some light stuff that might just work in the right hands. The Business section will include a Day in the Life of an unemployment office and Sports has a piece with edge about NASCAR's political and financial clout. Discussed, too, is an ongoing look at the governor's appointment of large GOP contributors without educational expertise to fill posts at state universities, and the consequences of this for education. A tough sell to the public, somebody notes, but it's clear that the editors intend to stay on it, day after day.

When I first solicited recommendations for Best Supporting Newsroom, the newspapers nominated tended to have something in common: profit pressures were partially diffused or ameliorated. The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, is owned by The McClatchy Company, a publicly held firm noted for an uncommon willingness to flip Wall Street the bird. Portland's Oregonian and the Newark Star-Ledger are both owned by the Newhouse family's closely held Advance Publications, which operates free of public shareholder demands.

And the St. Petersburg Times is a sizable, mainstream paper (daily circulation 350,000) that is not primarily about making money, which seems to make a big difference in the stories and in the lives of the people producing them. Wandering the newsroom for insights, I am directed by several reporters to the cubicle of Sydney P. Freedberg. A tiny woman with an outsized personality and three Pulitzer Prizes under her belt, she immediately begins explaining why, after working at such powerhouses as The Wall Street Journal, The Detroit News, and The Miami Herald, she decamped to the somnolent precincts of St. Petersburg, Florida. Her phone rings and she snatches it. "Oh God! Don't take the buyout," she exhorts the person on the line, and whispers to me, "One of my Knight Ridder friends." She hangs up and, without bothering to comment on the serendipity of the interruption and its connection to the point at hand, finishes her thought. "I was tired of working for a paper that was putting profits ahead of journalism. I found it difficult to do my job -- which was very unfortunate, because I love the Herald, worked there a long time. I was committed to the city, and there was all sorts of interesting news."

If the city of Miami, a bubbling stew of crime, corruption, and Caribbean culture, offers obvious opportunities for feisty urban reportage and challenging feature material, the city of St. Petersburg, best known for its white sand beaches and white-haired residents, does not. The biggest stir in this retirement haven may be generated by the electric wheelchairs that come careening out of nowhere in a scramble for early-bird specials. Though the Sunday lineup approved at the meeting I attended shows the Times's commitment to enterprise, a peek at the daily "breaking" fare shows what its editors and reporters are up against. At the news meeting, while an afternoon storm tugs at the state flag outside, editors in a coral and teal third-floor conference room rattle off what they have: an accident at Busch Gardens, a confirmation hold-up for a Department of the Interior post, a gator attack in a nudist colony pond, a just-released list of dangerous intersections.

Not every reporter would look at that lineup and say Sign me up! Yet Freedberg is not alone in making the trek from Atlantic to Gulf coast. Others include Steve Bousquet, who seemingly took a step down to join the St. Pete Times as deputy capitol bureau chief in Tallahassee after running the Herald's bureau there, and Tim Nickens, a senior political writer and editor who is back at St. Pete after a five-year interregnum at the Herald. As I speak with Freedberg, someone yells from another cubicle: "This is the Herald refugee section!" She laughs. "Marty Baron" -- the former editor of the Herald who recently moved to The Boston Globe -- "once said to me, 'I can't understand why anyone would leave the Miami Herald for St. Pete,'" Freedberg recalls. "I said -- or perhaps I just thought -- 'Start thinking about it.'"

Times reporters come from all over, and come back from all over, and they seem fairly reluctant to leave. (Newsroom turnover has held at 10 to 12 percent in recent years, slightly below the national average.) For an ordinary St. Pete reporting slot covering county government, Tom Scherberger gave up a cushy post as an editor and columnist across the bay at Media General's Tampa Tribune. (Now he is Tampa city editor.) Stephen Buckley just moved to St. Pete to become a roving national correspondent; most recently, he held the presumably plum post as The Washington Post's Brazil correspondent. Bill Adair, who moved from the St. Pete Times's D.C. bureau to The Wall Street Journal, returned in less than a month. And that list is just for starters.

Many of the former chain reporters I spoke with at the Times credited the paper with a whole raft of "mores" -- more freedom to innovate, more support, more guidance, as well as a lot of "fewers" -- fewer administrative mandates, fewer feuds and power struggles, fewer instances of interference or restraints from above. They mentioned a greater willingness by their Times bosses to let them do stories without worrying excessively about local or demographically desirable angles, about travel restrictions, or about duplicating the wires. The Times runs plenty of stories from other organizations, in particular The New York Times and The Washington Post. "But our philosophy is to try to generate things in our own writing style and subjects, profiles with a Florida flavor," says Nickens.

The newsroom mantra seems to be Whatever It Takes. "This paper thinks big," says Wes Allison, the medical writer. "Anyone with a good idea and the ability to focus that idea will get a lot of support." When Anita Kumar, a young civil-courts and consumer-affairs reporter, pitched a Florida angle on the Firestone tire controversy, she got a green light. Backed by computer-assisted analysis, she found 149 tire-related accidents with forty-one fatalities in the state since 1997, and later was permitted to go to Washington to cover the hearings. To verify a tip that a prospective county contractor was planning to comp a local commissioner for part of a gambling junket, the paper flew reporters to Las Vegas; they were there when the commissioner showed up.

The Times's independent spirit inspires feistiness: the paper questioned practices at a casino run by the politically connected Seminole Indian tribe and has for years doggedly covered Scientology, which has a large facility in nearby Clearwater and is famous for bullying news organizations. Other examples of enterprise include "Make the Money and Run," a detailed exhumation of Jeb Bush's financial activities that ran during his 1998 candidacy for governor, and a 1997-1998 investigation of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, head of the National Baptist Convention USA and the nation's preeminent black church leader, who would later be found to have used his position to illegally enrich himself. "God knows how much money we spent on that," says Craig Pittman, the Times's environment reporter, one of several reporters on the Lyons story. "We were ahead of the state attorney's investigation."

Saving money and churning out copy is obviously not the thing here, as evidenced by the latitude accorded feature writer extraordinaire Thomas French, who won a Pulitzer in 1998 for a seven-part narrative series about the disappearance of a woman and her two daughters while on vacation in Florida. French worked on that project over the course of three years. He recently produced a three-part series on, of all things, his own family -- an unusual narrative that traced three generations and explored the tensions that define a family. "They have been extremely supportive of me, taking some chances and testing the boundaries of what can go into a newspaper," says French.

Even Gil Thelen, editor of the rival Tampa Tribune, is remarkably complimentary about the Times, although he raises some doubt about how happy copy editors are at St. Pete. "We have had people go to us, or go there and come back," he says. "They found the paper didn't value copy editing, that it is more a reporter's paper. From a reporter's point of view, people find that the Times encourages enterprise, taking risks, and does things out of the norm in terms of presentation, and that's always fun. They're certainly paid pretty well over there; they can pay ten to fifteen percent more than we can. They're very smart about identifying our best people and recruiting them."

The attention and respect accorded to writers pays off in the product, and surely contributes to an extremely loyal local following. The Times's daily penetration figure of 56.01 percent is well ahead of The Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, and The Miami Herald. "People here seem really proud of their paper," marvels feature writer Lane DeGregory, who joined the paper last fall. "The guy who puts in your phone line at home says, 'You work for the St. Petersburg Times? I luuuuv the St. Pete Times.'"

Credit the paper's late owner, Nelson Poynter, for finding a way to insulate the paper from the demands of a rapacious stock market. Reportedly irked by a suggestion from his friend Jack Knight -- as in Knight Ridder -- that he consider selling him his paper, Poynter decided instead to do something revolutionary. He created a not-for-profit educational institution, the Modern Media Institute (renamed, after his death in 1978, the Poynter Institute) and turned his paper over to it. The Poynter Institute is dedicated to training working journalists to do superior journalism. Poynter's decision to create a school was partly influenced by the fact that, while a foundation is not allowed to hold more than 20 percent of an operating company, a school can own the whole thing. Although it's not unheard of for journalism to emanate from a teaching institution, the Poynter relationship is unique. Rather than a modest news operation being subsidized by a school, the school is primarily funded by a big, profitable news operation.

"Nelson Poynter was very farsighted a long time before it became widely apparent there was a huge danger in public ownership," says Jim Naughton, the Poynter Institute's president. Instead of cashing out, Poynter turned his operation into a veritable Fort Knox of journalism values, impervious to assault by those who would trade honor for gold. To further that end, Poynter installed a single person to preside over both institutions, the one that makes the money and the nonprofit that relies on it. That person has sole authority to choose a successor.

Andrew Barnes holds the position now -- chairman of the St. Petersburg Times and of the Poynter Institute. And Barnes has let it be known that his choice for successor is Paul Tash, the Times's current editor and president, and a St. Pete lifer whom Barne's predecessor, Eugene Patterson, hired straight out of Indiana University.

The Poynter Institute, housed in an impressive wood and glass structure with soaring ceilings near the University of South Florida campus across town, tries hard (for purposes of propriety and compliance with IRS regulations) to avoid even a hint of favoring or benefiting the Times through its courses. In fact, some Times reporters grumble that it is much harder for them to get into Poynter than for other journalists. "It's an arm's-length relationship," says Naughton. "We may be doing more for The Tampa Tribune."

Another structural safeguard: at the Times, the top decision-maker must be a journalist. Barnes and Tash were both reporters (as was Eugene Patterson), and both still seem primarily motivated by excitement over a good story.

Sometimes the unusual arrangement draws heat. In May the Times came under criticism from the local alternative paper, The Weekly Planet, which criticized the Times for tilting in this spring's mayoral race toward Rick Baker, the eventual winner, whose law firm has business connections to Poynter. The Planet, which landed a CJR Laurel (July/August) for covering the apparent conflict, noted that the Times failed to remind readers of a 1990 federal case against Baker's aircraft-parts business, in which two of his brothers went to jail for, among other things, defrauding the military. Managing editor Brown notes that not even Baker's opponents knew about or raised the family scandal during the campaign. But he says the Times is determined to do better next time. "We have talked about redoubling our efforts to find out about candidates in advance of the election."

Like a successful sports organization cultivating the coaching ranks, the Times chooses editors carefully, gives them strong direction, then allows them to make their unique imprint on their staff. That's vital to the paper's success, according to feature writer Lane DeGregory, who was by her count the forty-ninth person out of a staff of 200 to jump ship from The Virginian-Pilot, her previous employer, in the year 2000. A primary factor in her decision to leave that paper after a decade was that she wanted to remain a writer. "They were trying to move people up through the ranks to be editors, and they didn't want to be," she says. (At the Times, DeGregory says, she's encouraged to see many older journalists still typing away. "It looks like you can have a career as a writer without being pushed into being an editor.")

One of the first things managing editor Neil Brown did on assuming his post was to reorganize lines of authority so that each editor handles a small number of reporters. Today, the Metro section, for example, has four assistant Metro editors, each supervising just four to seven reporters. "This is an editor-intensive paper," says Joe Childs, the managing editor in the Clearwater bureau. "I can guarantee job candidates that they will have direct, hands-on editing, guidance, and coaching."

"You spend a lot more time up front talking through the story, where to go with it," says Lisa Greene, a reporter in the Clearwater bureau. "I'll also touch base a lot while I'm reporting, and it shows in the stories: they're more tightly focused, better written."

The constant feedback and communication between editor and reporter is a revelation to many arrivals. So is a flexible management culture. The Times is seen as family-friendly, says the social services reporter Curtis Krueger. "If I have to leave half an hour early for a Little League game, it's okay as long as I make up the time."

Tash and company also seem to have communicated the notion that it's okay to be friendly, a wonderful innovation in the eyes of Sydney Freedberg, who professes her love for the Herald, her former paper, but nevertheless looks back at it as "full of insecure overachievers in a paranoid atmosphere. I'd forgotten you could do good journalism and have a good time." "Vitality breaks" are available at the Times five times a month in the form of chair massages, and some editors dispense their own goodwill. Business editor Alecia Swasy keeps a "happy drawer" loaded with sweets. "There's a correlation between chocolate served and copy moved," she asserts as, outside her office, a reporter can be seen rummaging for a sugar high.

The culture of the Times, meanwhile, produces what can seem like an awful lot of editor-level meetings. All mid-level editors sit in on budget meetings and phone calls to bureaus. Tash says the idea is to give his editors the big picture. "With a view at least one radius larger, it helps them to see their stories creatively, and how their portfolio fits in with our larger mission," he says. Says Tim Nickens, "This is a collegial place, with a flattened flow chart, where things are decided by consensus rather than ultimatum. Sometimes that can be clumsy, but in the long run, you get greater diversity of thinking and creativity."

One kind of diversity, perhaps, but not another, according to Eric Deggans, the TV critic and an African-American who is a local officer of the National Association of Black Journalists. "The paper is committed to trying to make diversity a reality," he says, "but it's nowhere near there. There are no people of color in top management."

The paper seems to be somewhat sensitive to criticism but willing to talk about it. In the mid-1980s, then editor Patterson parted ways with a journalism professor who was writing a house history. But when the independently published book came out, the paper aired the dispute -- and gave the book a positive review.

Despite its unique structure, the St. Pete Times isn't fully exempt from the vagaries of the market. "There's a common misconception," says Tash. "St. Petersburg is profitable -- and usually nicely profitable."

In response to the recent financial downturn, the paper has taken steps to cut costs, reducing the newshole by two pages a day and trimming some expenses, such as travel. The paper has also put a hold on its vaunted automatic cost-of-living increases. But no one has been laid off or bought out, putting the paper in sharp contrast to the large chains. The nonunion newspaper does not discuss salaries, but experienced reporters put their annual pay in the $ 50,000 and low $ 60,000 range, and point out that St. Pete living is relatively cheap.

Mainly, the St. Petersburg Times difference is a certain permissible moderation in the pursuit of profits. The stress is on balance, hence Barnes's intriguing 1998 statement in American Journalism Review that it will be a problem for the paper if profits either are under 10 percent -- or over 20 percent.

"We got ourselves into a terrible trap when we started taking newspapers public," Eugene Patterson, the editor emeritus, told me over dinner one night. "There's a public service aspect to running a newspaper, and a money-making aspect when you go public. The profit motive becomes key and you're unfair to your investor when you don't try to maximize profits." Patterson, who served as a junior officer under General George Patton and knows something about performing under pressure, worries that even The New York Times and The Washington Post will eventually begin to show the effects of public ownership. "They're going to hit the wall -- instead of publishing the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, they're going to hear from their investors: 'Hey, you can't do that.'"

At the lunch where I met with several St. Pete reporters, environmental reporter Craig Pittman recounted how the chairman of his former paper's parent company required two limos at his disposal -- with a particular brand of champagne on ice. That prompted the Times's political writer Alicia Caldwell to note that "in the corporate culture here, consumptive greed doesn't exist." Tash does have a rather nice corner office with a view, but he drives an old Nissan Sentra with a pile of pennies on the dashboard. Meanwhile, the Times, whose senior-heavy readership area is often described as "God's waiting room," has reclaimed its title as the state's largest daily -- and the only major paper with both daily and Sunday circulations on the rise.

GRAPHIC: Photos 1 through 3, All work and no play, etc.: Managing editor Neil Brown; reporter Sydney Freedberg; Anita Kumar with city editor Sherry Robinson; Photos 4 through 6, Business editor Alecia Swasy at the 4:30 news meeting; project writer Thomas French, with Brown; deputy m.e. Rob Hooker; Photos 1 through 6, PHOTOS BY ROBIN DONINA SERNE; Picture, PAUL TASH: likely successor, COURTESY ST PETERSBURG TIMES

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