In 2003, then-Gov. Jeb Bush punished reporters from the Tallahassee bureau of the Palm Beach Post by canceling their invitation to his year-end interview session.
His staff cited the “unprofessional behavior” while dealing with some of Bush’s officials, but the paper suspected it was in retaliation for critical reporting on Bush’s pet school vouchers program. I’m betting on the latter.
As a career newspaper guy until my own paper, The Tampa Tribune, folded in May, I always admired the Post. At its peak, this award-winning newspaper was top-to-bottom one of the best in the land.
That is why I ask this question now to the owners and operators of the Post:
Are you freaking crazy?
That’s a rhetorical question, I know. But it seems apropos after last week’s announcement that the Post will close its Tallahassee bureau. We found out about that from the Facebook page of the Post’s Tally reporter, John Kennedy. He was announcing his own layoff.
“The paper’s future is local and digital, and coverage of the goings-on in the state Capitol don’t meld as well with this direction,” he wrote.
Those words could be on the tombstone of many newspapers that abandoned their own strengths in search of click-bait. Papers throughout the state have decided that all that complicated stuff coming out of Tallahassee is boring to the younger generation and doesn’t bring the digital bang for the buck that newspapers chase in the hope it will bring in enough cash to keep them going.
They’re screwing over readers they do have but declining circulation and readership numbers show they aren’t attracting new ones. Why do you think that is?
They keep trying to reinvent the wheel when what they ought to do is realize that nothing generates clicks like real news. We used to see it all the time at the Tribune on our digital site, TBO.com. If there was a big breaking news story, site traffic would spike and readers became engaged.
Whoever ultimately decides at papers like the Post to go without that news is chasing fool’s gold. They either don’t understand or don’t care that real stories happen because of dedicated and plugged-in reporters who find out stuff that governors and presidents would prefer they didn’t know.
Instead of engaging the public with hard news, publishers push in their chips on dubious strategies like page redesigns and marketing slogans. To cut costs, they lay off reporters and decide, as Kennedy so aptly penned, “coverage of the goings-on in the state Capitol don’t meld” with the modern newspaper.
Then they call a staff meeting or send out a memo and moan about the “tough decisions” they had to make. What they should do is apologize to readers for shirking their responsibility to inform the public what the top elected officials in Florida are doing.
There are a few papers that still do it right. The Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald have combined forces in Tallahassee for several years. The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville has been aggressive.
I was at the Tribune when bosses decided coverage in the state capital was a luxury (while maintaining two full-time reporters on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – although, I can promise you that wasn’t the feeling in the newsroom. Top editors fought to regain our presence in Tallahassee by hiring Jim Rosica and, later, Jeff Schweers. But the overall trend isn’t good.
Besides the Post, FloridaPolitics.com reported Gatehouse Media, which owns the Sarasota Herald-Tribune among its nine daily newspapers in the state, closed its Tally bureau recently.
Reporters at that level are the firewall between citizens and politicians who don’t have the public’s best interests in mind. They are the one who make sure the pet projects from top leaders aren’t another effort to line someone’s pocket with public cash.
When newspapers decide that’s no longer important enough to have someone on the scene every day, the public isn’t the only loser. When you take the “news” out newspapers, all that’s left is a bird-cage liner.