What’s in a name?
Some names represent 110 years of top-tier news and features stories, historical ties to some of the greatest figures in journalism, and eight Pulitzer Prizes. They embody the blood, tears and sweat earned under the Florida sun chasing dirty secrets about topics such as the Church of Scientology, the Florida Turnpike Authority and three murdered women found floating in Tampa Bay.
Others represent droll jabs at competition and cheap attempts to win fans.
On Nov. 1, Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Co., announced that The St. Petersburg Times would change its name to become The Tampa Bay Times, effective New Year’s Day. Tash said the name “reflects the growth of our newspaper and our vision for this region.” Since The St. Petersburg Times covers Hillsborough and Pasco counties and all of the towns and cities they contain, Tash said it only makes sense to change the name to reflect that coverage.
Many see the change as a bold attempt to push The Tampa Tribune toward bankruptcy. With billboards with the message “Tampa Bay’s Best Newspaper” plastered across the area, and both paper’s circulation numbers posted side-by-side on its website, the Times makes no qualms about that goal.
St. Petersburg residents are bitter about the change—and rightfully so. The paper has spent more time focusing on Tampa in recent years, and St. Petersburg has seen decreased coverage. The Times has been St. Petersburg’s in name only for some time. With the Times’ recent layoff of 6 percent of its full time staff, and a 5-percent pay cut for all of its full-time employees, expect that problem to get worse before it gets better.
At its core, this is a whore of Akron moment. Much like basketball player LeBron James’s decision in 2010 to announce his new team on an ESPN special, The St. Petersburg Times has publically cast off the last vestiges of its soul in search of dominance. St. Petersburg’s newspaper has grown so big for its britches that it has finally and officially dropped all pretense of still being St. Petersburg’s newspaper and gone searching for a bigger revenue stream.
Whether that dwindling stream will pay dividends is a question unto itself. The Times posted a 6.6 percent Sunday circulation increase between April and September, but its daily circulation fell 1.4 percent. Newspaper circulation is down 8.7 percent annually. The Times may experience a brief circulation increase for a year or two if the Tribune does go under, but how long will that last?
Changing the name of a newspaper to make it more regional might not even work the way Tash expects. The New York Times is a national newspaper, yet it retains its New York name. Should it become the United States Times? The World Times? The paper’s rich history makes that impossible to fathom. The same goes for The St. Petersburg Times—or at least it did, until last week.
This might prove to be a good business decision—or as good as it gets in the newspaper industry right now—but it’s terrible news for the news, especially on this side of the bridge.