Tampa Bay Times furloughs some staff, cuts print edition to twice weekly, amid coronavirus outbreak

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RAY ROA
Photo by Ray Roa
Folks used to holding a copy of the Tampa Bay Times should squeeze theirs a little tighter. Amid the fallout surrounding the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, the paper is temporarily reducing print publication frequency to twice a week starting next week.

“The change is in direct response to the unprecedented fallout from the coronavirus as businesses cancel retail and event-related advertising and close or severely curtail operations to slow the spread of the virus,” a release from Times spokesperson Sherri Day says.

Wednesday and Sunday are the Times’ largest circulation days, according to the release, which added that the Times earns the majority of its revenue through print advertising.

"Ad sales are running down about 50%. We expect this plan to make up roughly half of that gap," CEO Paul Tash said in a Q&A with the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times. Tash is also the chairman of Poynter’s board of trustees.

"At that rate, we can tough things out for a few months. If things get worse, or if the crisis goes on indefinitely, we’ll have to reconsider our approach," he told Poynter.

In a Monday morning phone call with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Tash said, "I do not remember another time when we ever suspended publication in print even for a day."

An eight-week furlough for some staffers whose work has been impacted by the virus’ effect on the economy is also being implemented. Tash told Poynter that the furloughed staffers do not come from the newsroom and that "those who are on our insurance plan can maintain their coverage if they keep paying their part of the premiums."

Tash told CL that he does not entirely know how many employees at the Times' printer are affected by the furlough because supervisors there are still building out their crews.

"... events are moving quickly, but my estimate is that it will be more than 50," Tash told CL.

"These are extraordinary times. And so we are taking some extraordinary measures now, I would say," Tash added.

"We are have a much greater capacity to deliver news to people, electronically than we've ever had before. And so that gives us some alternatives that we would not have had previously but in the 45 years I've been around the St. Petersburg and now the Tampa Bay Times."

The news comes after a recent round of non-coronavirus-related layoffs plus a temporary 10 percent pay cut for full-time staffers. That pay cut is expected to end on June 5.

Still, Tash told CL that the Times newsroom is still home to more than 100 journalists.

"We don’t plan furloughs in news," Tash told Poynter. "Our purpose is to keep the news report strong. We have shifted reporters to other assignments. For now, everybody is covering the coronavirus."

Tash added that they began looking at reducing print two weeks ago. As far feedback from print subscribers, who obviously have a ton of questions, Tash told Poynter that the Times is "about to find out" about that.

In his comments to Poynter, Tash explained that the Times is not altering prices as asking subscribers to recognize that, "1) they are still getting all the journalism, and 2) these are extraordinary and, one hopes, temporary circumstances."

Last month, Tash took a 15 percent pay cut, along with three other executives. CL asked if further pay cuts at the executive or staff level ave been discussed.

"Today's news is, for today, OK. We think that we are navigating as best we can, through this uncharted territory, and we'll take stock of how this goes later," Tash told CL. "I'm not very good at predicting the future. As it turns out, because a month ago I would not have foreseen this happening."

“All at the Times look forward to the day when our nation and community have weathered this storm,” Tash said in the release.

The move makes the Times the first metro in the U.S. to take this step.

"These next several weeks will teach us a lot. In some ways, we are field-testing the future," Tash told Poynter.

While Creative Loafing Tampa Bay is an alt-weekly that hits stands on Thursdays, we have also been hit hard by the coronavirus fallout. Two weeks ago, CL laid off seven of 12 full-time staffers, leaving myself and Digital Editor Colin Wolf in the newsroom along with Publisher James Howard, Senior Sales Executive Anthony Carbone and Marketing & Events Coordinator Alexis Chamberlain. And yes, we're asking for help, too. Sister publication Orlando Weekly laid off 13 full-time staffers.

This story originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

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