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Weekly Planet fires 3 in shift from politics

The newspaper will continue to cover wine, film and music but will depend more upon freelance writers.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 16, 2003


TAMPA -- The Weekly Planet, the spunky alternative paper that forged a reputation as a gadfly, has fired its three staff members assigned to scrutinize politicians and sweetheart deals.

By eliminating the positions, the move effectively guts the paper's news section. A handful of editors and critics will continue to cover beats such as wine, film and music. News editor Francis X. Gilpin and staff writers Trevor Aaronson and Rochelle Renford were told to find new jobs within a few weeks.

Neil Skene, senior vice president, group publisher, said the changes will allow the paper to develop a broader range of stories by hiring more freelance writers. He said he wants fewer stories about politics and more about "culture, broadly defined."

Equally important, he said, the decision will save money after a year of flat advertising revenue.

"The current staff (had a) political news orientation, and this seemed like a way to add more voices and . . . have some benefits on the cost side at the same time," Skene said. "I'm really trying to reorient the paper and keep making it livelier and interesting."

The redirection came as bad news to some.

"It's a sad day," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt.

"I have not always agreed with them, but they've always made me think," Platt said. "So now the Weekly Planet will become nothing more than an advertising vehicle, period, because that's what it was: news and ads."

The Weekly Planet was founded as Creative Loafing in 1988 by Ben Eason, whose family owned a weekly paper in Atlanta that it still publishes, along with papers in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.

Most free weekly newspapers were started in the 1970s with an anti-establishment bent. Over the years, that tone has changed somewhat as baby boomers have grown up and taken their places among the establishment, Eason said.

The average age of readers of weekly papers has risen to 46 from 38 in 1995, according to the Media Audit, forcing papers to consider how to recapture a younger audience.

Eason said the cuts reflect that the paper is grappling with its focus after the promotion two years ago of editor John Sugg to head the company's Atlanta weekly. No one has been able to recapture Sugg's bare-knuckled approach to politics, Eason said, and perhaps that shouldn't be the goal.

Skene said the Planet still intends to publish hard-hitting news stories but will now rely on contract workers to write them. The firings were not meant as criticism of the work by the staff, he said.

Any de-emphasis of news coverage is unfortunate, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank.

"I think it's going to be a real hole there," she said. "They were really candid about their views, and I think it's important to say the emperor has no clothes from time to time."

Skene said circulation for the paper, which is free, stands at approximately 95,000. The Planet prints between 80 and 100 pages an issue, he said.

Gilpin said he was "sad for the paper and sad for my colleagues that are losing their jobs but, you know, that's journalism and business, I guess."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at wexler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

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