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Martin Dyckman: A salute to the Tampa Tribune and its fine journalists

Early in 1955, when I was a sophomore at Florida State University, I thought about applying for a summer job at the Clearwater Sun, the now-defunct newspaper where I had been a student correspondent and had already spent one vacation.

That’s when Momma Bird kicked me out of the nest.

“You’ll do no such thing,” said my mother, who had worked for peanuts and no future there. “Apply to the Tampa Tribune or the St. Petersburg Times.”

I wrote to both. The Tribune was the larger newspaper then, and decidedly more influential in Tallahassee, where I read it more often than the Times. But it was the Times — only the Times — that replied.

Thank you, Tom C. Harris, and may you rest in well-earned peace.

And from Memorial Day 1955 to January 2006, with only two short hiatuses elsewhere, that’s where I spent my career.

It still feels odd to write or say “Tampa Bay Times,” but it did make sense for management to make that change — especially considering this week’s events.

I’m not sure which was the bigger shock — the hostile takeover of the Republican Party or the Tribune’s surrender to the Times. But it wasn’t really that much of a surprise. For years, the only questions had been which paper would perish and when that would happen. That is what the Internet has wrought.

And I’m happy, of course, that the survivor is the one at which I invested my entire life. But I can’t celebrate the demise of any newspaper, even when it’s the competition. The death of one diminishes all journalism, weakening the influence of the free press over the public institutions that would be accountable to no one if we didn’t have our talons on their shoulders.

The loss of jobs is particularly heartbreaking. There have been far, far too many already, at both newspapers and virtually all others.

Of this there is no doubt: the competition with the Tribune made a better newspaper out of the Times.

Until the 1950s, the Times had never maintained a full-time bureau to cover the capital at Tallahassee. Frank Trippett broke that ground for us. It was a coup of major significance when Nelson Poynter, the visionary who owned the controlling Times stock, hired Martin Waldron away from the Tribune’s bureau to ours.

“Mo,” as everyone called that magnificent, rumpled, Falstaffian legend, deserved a Pulitzer prize for his ground-breaking exposé of the financial links between the rural state senators — whom Editor Jim Clendinen of the Trib had memorably nicknamed the “Pork Chop Gang” — and the financial interests that controlled Florida through them.

He didn’t get the Pulitzer for that, but he did win one for the Times as the head of a team that exposed financial mismanagement in Gov. Farris Bryant’s Turnpike Authority and the questionable refinancing of its outstanding bonds.

Poynter didn’t think he could afford to keep Waldron when the New York Times came after him, but the commitment to state news coverage continued. I was humbled and proud to be the second successor at Tallahassee after he left.

The day that our circulation surpassed the Trib’s came a few years later, prompting a mammoth celebration at the Times, and we never looked back.

But as I look back, I remember how the competition with such outstanding Tribune reporters as Frank Caperton, Vernon Bradford and Duane Bradford, made better journalists of us.

It was the Bradford brothers who first exposed ethical misconduct on the part of U.S. Rep. Robert Sikes, the so-called “He Coon” of North Florida who chaired the House Military Appropriations Subcommittee.

The Tribune had to eat crow over that, and both reporters left. The reason, revealed later by Sam Gibbons, the congressman from Tampa, was that Sikes had threatened to shut MacDill Air Force Base.

But the national media eventually picked up on the story, leading to a House vote to strip the chairmanship from the He Coon. Gibbons told my colleague Charlie Stafford that he had punched the “Yes” button with vehemence.

May the Tribune be remembered forever, and fondly, for the good that it did for Florida and our nation.

***

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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