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    Why the St. Pete Times Forum?

    By PAUL C. TASH, Times Editor and President
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 15, 2002

    The St. Petersburg Times recently took an unprecedented step for a North American newspaper by buying the naming rights to a major sports and entertainment center. The building that had been known as the Ice Palace, the home to the Tampa Bay Lightning pro hockey team, and a very successful concert venue, is now "The St. Pete Times Forum."

    Starting this year, the Times will pay $2.1-million a year, plus provide some free advertising, to have our name on one of the busiest and most visible places in the Tampa Bay area. The St. Pete Times Forum will host the opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament next spring, and is in the running for the Republican National Convention in 2004.

    That would be a delicious irony, since the newspaper for which it is named has never supported a Republican candidate for president. My favorite quote in the coverage about the name change came from a GOP bigwig who noted that most Republicans in Florida had started out as Democrats but been converts. "Maybe," he said, "we can even convert the St. Pete Times."

    But best of all, from our standpoint, the Ice Palace (oops, make that the St. Pete Times Forum), sits smack dab in downtown Tampa, at the heart of the metropolitan region. We think this deal both validates and advances an image of the newspaper we have been building for the last 15 years: The St. Pete Times is the dominant newspaper throughout the Tampa Bay region. The St. Petersburg Times is already the largest daily newspaper in Florida, and we sell roughly 110,000 copies a day more than any other newspaper in the Tampa Bay region.

    But some folks still don't recognize the St. Pete Times as the newspaper for Tampa Bay. We think this deal will help us make stronger connection with some key customer groups: national advertisers, especially those 20-something media buyers who move through the ad agencies. Young readers, who are not connecting with newspapers the way earlier generations did. And readers outside St. Petersburg, especially readers in Tampa, where our circulation is already showing strong gains -- but where we obviously want more.

    So, this naming rights deal is designed to bolster our long-term business interests, and it will cause some complications for our newsroom. Initially, there was some controversy because the financial terms were not disclosed when the deal was announced. Even though it was a financial deal between two private companies, some people thought it was hypocritical for a newspaper that presses for public disclosure to keep these numbers private. So, three days after the deal was announced, the building owners released the financial terms: with our support and encouragement.

    Longer term, my news colleagues will have to demonstrate that our coverage of the Lightning, of the St. Pete Times Forum and the concerts that play there remains clear-eyed and untainted by the fact that our name is on the building. Some media critics and our competitors immediately criticized our decision, saying it would inevitably blemish our reputation for strong ethics and impartial coverage.

    Personally, I've got more faith in our newsroom to base coverage on the readers' interests and not on our business interests. Twice in my decade as editor, our news coverage has cost the advertising department $1-million in lost business -- without a peep of complaint from the ad folks. And even though we have a substantial marketing sponsorship of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, our lead baseball writer irritated the team owner so much that he briefly pulled all our newspaper racks from the stadium.

    I've also got more confidence in our readers than the media critics may have. The readers will be keeping an eye on us, and they'll quickly know if we're pulling punches or playing favorites.

    Some of our critics have noted that until now, no newspaper has put its name on a stadium or an arena, with the suggestion that journalism ethics have held others back. Our critics are right that the St. Petersburg Times broke new ground this month, but I think the reasons have more to do with business than with journalism.

    For one thing, there aren't many competitive newspaper towns left in America. As I said earlier, one of the key factors in our thinking was the chance to help establish the St. Petersburg Times as the premier newspaper for the entire Tampa Bay area. Only one-third of the circulation of the St. Pete Times is in St. Petersburg itself.

    But an even bigger factor is that most newspapers would have a hard time taking on a new expense -- especially during tough economic times. Business isn't exactly great these days, and if we were trying to boost our profits in the short term, we wouldn't be committing to this new level of expense -- about $1.5-million a year above and beyond what we were already spending.

    On the other hand, we also wouldn't have expanded steadily into new territories outside St. Petersburg over the last three decades, because getting each of those new editions established costs money that would have dropped to the bottom line. And consequently, we'd have been a nicely profitable little newspaper, hemmed in on three sides by water and by competitors on the fourth, our fortunes tied to those of a mid-sized city with limited prospects for growth and a steadily younger population base. Instead, our circulation area stretches for nearly 100 miles along the west coast of Florida, and we are increasingly making good on our business goal: to be the newspaper for all of Tampa Bay.

    It has taken a long time and a lot of money and effort to establish ourselves as the hometown newspaper in lots of places beyond our original hometown. It's taken a big circulation force, both to sell and deliver the newspaper. It's taken a big advertising staff, with reps selling into part- and full-run sections. It's taken one of the most complex patterns of production and distribution in the business, as we try to adapt the various editions to the tastes and interests of readers in specific areas.

    And most of all, it has taken a huge commitment to journalism. We have devoted dozens of reporters, editors and photographers -- plus the copy editors to pull their work together -- to local coverage. Those local sections may reach as few as 20,000 subscribers, but a story costs the same as if we sent it to the full audience. Andy Barnes, my boss and patron, observed wistfully once that we probably spend a greater proportion of our budget on local news than any other newspaper our size. Yes, I agreed, and if we didn't spend so much on local news, we wouldn't be a newspaper our size.

    Journalists need to remember: The news report can be strong only if the business that supports it is vigorous.

    But there's an important corollary that often gets overlooked, especially in newspaper publishing circles: A newspaper ultimately can be strong only if its news report and editorial comment are worth reading. Sure, profits can be higher this year if we can drop a reporter or two, or if we can cut some news hole out of the newspaper, or if we can cut back on travel and drop some syndicates. Don't get me wrong: If done carefully, all those things can be accomplished without any real damage to the news report or customer satisfaction. We've taken our share of austerity measures at the St. Petersburg Times to help get us through one of the coldest and longest winters in newspaper advertising that anybody can remember.

    But let's not kid ourselves: Readers know when we're stretching the soup, and if they stop ordering from our menu, we're not left with much of a business.

    -- This column is adapted from a speech by Paul Tash to a conference of newspaper executives, sponsored by the Inland Press Association, on Thursday in Chicago.

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