Tampa Tribune hires Baltimore publisher

Published July 18, 2006

Denise Palmer, publisher and CEO of the Sun newspaper in Baltimore, will step down July 28 to succeed Gil Thelen as president and publisher of the Tampa Tribune.Palmer, 49, comes to the Tampa Tribune weekday circulation: 236,376 after four years at the Sun (weekday circulation: 236,317) and 26 years at the Sun's owner, Tribune Co. During her time at Tribune, she served as president and CEO of the local news cable channel ChicagoLand Television and vice president of strategy, finance and development at the Chicago Tribune newspaper, among other jobs.

A native of Indiana who grew up in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area, Palmer said her motivations included returning to a location close to her family and the opportunity to participate in convergence strategies at the Media General-owned Tribune, said a Sun spokeswoman.

Palmer has declined to speak to reporters on the transition, even for a story published today by the Sun. John Schueler - president of the Florida Communications Group, which oversees Media General's broadcast, publishing and online properties throughout the state, including the Tampa Tribune and NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 - could not be reached for comment.

Palmer responded to one question e-mailed by a St. Petersburg Times reporter, noting in a return message: "The Tampa Tribune is doing ground-breaking work in the multimedia world and it's a great opportunity to capitalize on my multimedia background. And the Gulf coast of Florida is a growing, changing, interesting market that I think presents a lot of opportunity for any media company."

Palmer declined to answer questions about whether turmoil at the Tribune Co. might have influenced her decision to leave a corporation where she worked for nearly three decades. Tribune owns 11 daily newspapers, including the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

The company said in May it plans to cut $200-million to help support a $2.5-billion buyback of stock - a move resisted by Tribune Co.'s second-largest shareholders, who have called for a breakup of the media company.

Palmer made headlines in 2004 when she abruptly fired then-Sun editor Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, with little notice to the staff or Marimow, who is now vice president of news for National Public Radio.

Back then Palmer, a former Chicago Tribune auditor, told the Washington Post it was a matter of "personality" and "fit," but some critics worried Marimow was fired for resisting staff and newsroom budget cuts too aggressively.

Thelen, who retired from the Tampa Tribune publisher's job June 30, noted that Tribune Co. has made headlines recently for its cutbacks and shareholder infighting.

The Sun said this month it would close its three foreign bureaus.

"Her parent company is going through a rough stretch at this point, and the parent company of the (Tampa) Tribune is in much calmer water," said Thelen, 68, who was not involved in choosing Palmer, but expects to help her in his role as a continuing consultant for Media General. "I wish her the very best and will do everything I can to help her adjust."

Marty Petty, publisher and executive vice president of the St. Petersburg Times (weekday circulation: 323,031), said she expected Palmer to be a strong competitor.

"Denise is known to be a sharp industry executive, but our team is purposefully focused on its own game," Petty added. "If we make each other better ... ultimately, Tampa Bay's citizens win - and that's as it should be."

Managing competition with the St. Petersburg Times and facilitating efforts to "converge" news-gathering and reporting between the Tampa Tribune, WFLA and Web site TBO.com are Palmer's obvious challenges, said Tribune executive editor Janet Weaver. A less obvious challenge: learning the unique shape of Florida's newspaper industry while navigating the problems with shrinking circulation and advertising revenue faced by all newspapers.

"You've still got the old newspaper economy here - a lot of traditional readers and advertisers - and you have to keep cultivating that while exploring new options that may not go over so well with your traditional audience," Weaver said.

Palmer's hiring marks a first for the Tampa Tribune. When she takes over, three top jobs at the newspaper will be held by women, including Weaver and editorial page editor Rosemary Goudreau.

"I think people still like to mark it as some sort of sign of progress," said Weaver, who was editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1999 when it became the first newspaper with a circulation of more than 100,000 with women as publisher, editor and managing editor. "It's not like all the decisions in Sarasota got made in the women's room ... I scoff because I've been a newsroom manager longer than I've done anything in this business, and ... I would like to think we are past this."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.