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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: No worries; Pasco isn't running out of news

Published:

One of our regular correspondents checked in the other day, expressing mixed relief that, while something unpleasant had happened to his hometown newspaper, it wasn't entirely disastrous.

"I looked for the Pasco Tribune Thursday," he wrote, "and it wasn't there." Only later did he discover our recent move to a three-days-per-week publishing schedule.

He wasn't sure he fully understood, though, writing, "I always thought there was plenty of Pasco news to fill five days."

On this point, our correspondent achieved the epitome of understatement. From its earliest beginnings as a place over-landers paused one last night en route from Jacksonville to the waterside markets at the end of brick streets in Tampa (leaving artifacts - often discarded jars emptied of home brew; if only they could talk - ranchers find to this day), Pasco has overflowed with news sufficient to fill a broadsheet even if it published eight days a week (to borrow a phrase).

Alas, the times are what they are, and what they are is difficult, as journalists across America were reminded yet again this week when Gannett, publisher of the ubiquitous USA Today and dozens of other newspapers large and small, declared another round of layoffs affecting more than 200 employees from Brevard County to Vermont to Phoenix, Ariz.

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It's bad enough the current economic "recovery" is the most anemic since Franklin Roosevelt got his hands on the dials during the Great Depression, but whatever modest uptick there has been has snubbed the publishing industry generally, and newspapers in particular. Talk about your coal mine canaries. I'm betting the Commerce Department's downward revision of the first-quarter GDP to nearly flat-line status came as absolutely no surprise to the Tribune's bean-counters.

And as noble a calling as print journalism is, its practice remains a bottom-line business. This is as it should and must be, notwithstanding suggestions by the well-meaning that newspapers represent a special class worthy of government bailouts. The problems with that arrangement are too obvious to belabor here.

Now, I am not privy to the bosses' spreadsheets (and would not presume to understand them if I were), but you don't have to be a CPA to know the hurdles newspapers must clear to get into the black and stay there. For all the technological advances since Ben Franklin's day, we remain a labor- and materials-intensive industry, heavily dependent for income upon advertisers. This arrangement worked spectacularly well until the recent Internet explosion squeezed us at both ends, advertisers straying to dot-com opportunists and news consumers feasting on breaking information electronically delivered at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.

Now, this sobering irony: Print journalists never have enjoyed larger nor more far-flung readership, even as the circulation of our newspapers ride along below historic levels. How to cash in on all those free readers (you know who you are) is the stubborn stone blocking the entrance to renewed, sustainable prosperity.

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As we work on cracking that tough nut, we trim the costs of doing business, sometimes by reducing the number of days we run small forests of newsprint through printing presses.

Meanwhile, we still see journalism students flocking to publish their college newspapers, and as summertime interns they share their effervescent talents with old-timers desperate for fresh injections of the idealism that led them to newsrooms in the first place.

Occasionally, as happened last week, an email arrives brimming with thoughtful questions from a local community college student "with the passion to become a journalist," and we choke back the instinct to shout, "Run! Flee! Get an MBA! Go to law school! Study something stable, like acting! Be a whitewater river guide!"

Instead, we choose encouragement, because, of course, an informed public is the bedrock of a democratic society and all that. But also because finding stuff out and getting it published - in the broadest sense of the word - is the best adrenaline rush you can get that doesn't involve free falling.

So we will persevere, counting on the financial wizards to at last sort out the new economic model. In the meantime, all the news that fits, we'll print.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

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Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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