Sunday, October 25, 2009

Thoughts on Central Florida newspapers

I spent most of my life and my journalism career in Florida, working for small- and mid-sized papers and dreaming of making it to the "big leagues" -- the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel or my hometown paper, The Orlando Sentinel.

Never broke in with any of them. I interviewed at the Post, but it happened to be on the same day one of the biggest stories in recent history broke (troubled student shot a teacher in his classroom), and I kind of got lost in the shuffle -- the last two editors who were supposed to talk to me had to cancel. Had a few sniffs from the Times, but nothing solid. Was in the running for film critic at the Sun-Sentinel, but didn't make the finalist list. I was all set to be hired by the Sentinel back in '01 -- they were bringing me down for a drug test, which is code for "you got the job" -- when a hiring freeze came down like an anvil.

Eventually I made it to a major metro paper, but I had to move to Indianapolis to do it.

So it's been interesting to me to come home for the first time in a year or so and read the Orlando Sentinel, St. Pete Times and Tampa Trib. All three have struggled in the downturn that's hurt virtually every newspaper. So I was curious to see how their print products are faring. So what follows is the assessment of a Florida boy who read the papers for years, after a long hiatus during which the world was turned upside-down.

Short version: The Sentinel and Times seem to be holding up pretty well -- certainly much better than the Indy Star, and certainly when it comes to features coverage, the thing I care most about. The Trib ... not so much.

Orlando is part of the Chicago Tribune chain, bought up by Sam Zell and now in bankruptcy despite massive redesigns dictated by the new bosses. Redesigns are, in my humble opinion, both the first and last refuge of the unimaginative newspaper boss. A new editor or publisher comes in, or a new owner takes over, and invariably they want to remake the product to fit their bold and innovative ideas. Or, the same old crew looks at some numbers and decide they need to "freshen" things up. In the latter case, expensive consultants are invariably brought in to tell the people who have been doing their jobs for years how they would be doing them if they were stupid enough to work there, instead of being high-paid consultants.

That said, the Sentinel's redesign -- the first of the big Trib papers -- isn't awful. I like some touches, like starting columns such as political writer Scott Maxwell's above the section banner (Metro, Sports, etc.). But I can't stand it when they start regular stories in that spot. You can only fit in two or three inches of text, so it's hard to get even a small bite of the story before the jump.

As the former entertainment editor for the Indy Star, it made me envious to see the Sentinel's Friday entertainment section so fat with faces and copy. Yes, it's shrunk a lot, and there were a lot of quick-hit items I would have like to read more about. But it's still a pretty damn comprehensive A&E guide. My friend and colleague Roger Moore, one of the few remaining full-time movie critics in the Sunshine State, is still cranking out copy like a machine.

Despite having something like 40,000 less daily circulation than the Indy Star, the Sentinel still boasts a movie critic, TV critic, pop music writer, theater critic, performing arts critic, etc. They've even still got the "Commander Coconut" column I enjoyed for so many years.

The restaurant critic got the axe, but they still have restaurant reviews courtesy of the dining editor. Although her review for this past Friday was of Qdoba's -- the Mexican chain that's just a half-step up from fast food. What's next, a critique of Burger King? Puzzling choice.

Orlando's metro section was a bit thin, but the sports page was still quite robust. They have an amazing number of sports columnists despite the fact that the number of pro and college sports franchises in town is ... well, two: the Orlando Magic and UCF Knights.

Verdict: Although noticeably skimpier, the Sentinel is a good-looking paper that still boasts a lot of depth.

While we were in the Tampa Bay area for my sister's wedding, my parents got the Tampa Trib at their hotel while we received the St. Pete Times at ours. My dad howled at the injustice, particularly when it came to the sports sections. On Saturday, the Trib's sports section consisted of eight pages, three of which were full-page ads.

The Times has long been regarded as the best paper in Florida, and I'd say it's still got a good shot at keeping the title. Both days I saw it, St. Pete was thick and rich with a lot of day-to-day stories, but also some more ambitious stuff mixed in.

They had a running series where they looked at the public schedules of the state's top officials, starting with Gov. Charlie Crist, and figured out how many days off that worked out to -- something like a few months off every year. That's good old-fashioned shoe-leather gotcha journalism -- or in this case, poring through computerized records instead of wearing out shoes. If I was a top editor at another major metro paper anywhere in the country, I would immediately steal this idea.

In comparison, the Trib's coverage looked like what it is: The weak paper in one of the few remaining two-newspaper towns, and one that's barely holding on by its fingernails. From features to metro to sports and the front pages, the Tampa Tribune reads like it's just going through the motions.

One thing that I found interesting, and disturbing, was how much the two papers' Saturday editions copied each other.

The Tampa Bay Bucs were playing a game in London, and both papers had stories about an English fellow who had been worshipping the NFL team since he was a teen-ager. I mean, what are the chances of them both finding the same guy? The only thing I can think of is that he must promote himself pretty heavily on the Web or something. But still, at some point one paper must have realized the other was profiling the same guy. Wouldn't you have switched gears at that point? Although I suppose if they come out on the same day, there's no way to pick who was the copycat.

Both the Trib and Times have Saturday themed features sections that were tabloids devoted to health, dining and beauty. It's bizarre to me that competing papers would put out sections that were essentially Xeroxes of each other -- especially since these elements are not a natural combination. Who wants to read dining coverage next to stories about 69-year-old skinny super athletes? I think one of them, or maybe both, even had a little travel coverage in there, too. Both sections read like the feature department's leftovers -- things that maybe once had its own section and have been squeezed to fit together in this tabloid.

I found it hilarious and astonishing that both papers have automobile reviews (one staff writer, one a syndicated piece, as I recall) and they were both reviewing the 2010 Porsche Cayenne SUV. Again, what are the chances?!? Having done a little auto writing myself, I know it's probably a matter of the new models being made available to the press around the same time. But again, if I knew my competition was writing about the same subject as me, I'd be tempted to find a really good original take on it, or look for something else to write about that week.

Metro sections: The St. Pete Times was full of local bylined stories about a variety of topics. The Trib was a ghostown.

Verdict: The St. Petersburg Times has to rank as one of the best regional newspapers in the country, and the Tampa Tribune's days are numbered. I hope that's not the case, but based on my two-day assessment of their print product, they're not giving me much reason to hope.

It should not go without mentioning that the Times is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute, so it hasn't felt the squeeze that for-profit operations like the Trib and Sentinel have. But still, they've had their own staff reductions and newshole squeezes.

So that's my take of Central Florida's three major newspapers, from a native and newspaper junkie after a long spell away. Perhaps we'll get down to South Florida sometime soon, and I'll assess the Herald, Post and Sun-Sentinel.

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