The Tampa Tribune: A Personal History

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Bill Handy, left, and Joe Registrato in The Tribune newsroom, circa 1976.

By Joe Registrato, AliveTampaBay Editor

The Tampa Tribune, once a proud and powerful media giant of central Florida and a political force to be reckoned with in a state experiencing explosive economic and population growth, died last week from a massive blow to the head by its ancient and much stronger rival, The Tampa Bay Times, formerly known as The St. Petersburg Times. She was 121 years old.

 Although the final blow came last week, some observers say The Tampa Tribune had been severely weakened during the past several decades by the short-sighted and investor-driven policies of out-of-state corporate leaders who have never felt a connection to Florida nor to the lives of Tribune employees, and have never demonstrated a willingness to invest their profits back into the company that had enriched them.  

On the other hand, the death of The Tribune may have been predictable and perhaps even inevitable due to the revolution in digital technology that has made it unprofitable to print the news on paper and pay people to throw it into driveways or deliver it on trucks.

 The newspaper industry as a whole has suffered huge circulation losses at least since the mid-1990s when the Internet, delivered via computers, became as commonplace as television sets in homes and offices. Today, computers and mobile devices have replaced the daily newspaper for accessing information about everything, from agriculture to the zodiac.

With the loss of readers, newspaper advertising and the revenue it produced has also fallen drastically; and Internet sites like Craigslist have cut deeply into a formerly classic source of ad revenue. It has been estimated that nationwide, newspaper jobs went from a peak of 60,000 to 30,000 in the past 10 years.

 If not for the Internet’s disruption of the newspaper business model, the Tampa Tribune may not have been starved to the point at which it became unprofitable and therefore unattractive to its Media General corporate owners. It is noteworthy that in 2012, Warren Buffett purchased all of Media General’s newspaper properties, but did not purchase The Tampa Tribune.    

Survivors of the death include perhaps a couple of hundred employees who were laid off by the new owner, and maybe even more former employees who are left to sift through snippets of memories in search of a meaning to this central question: Why did I pour my life into that place in the first place?  

 What follows are a few snippets of this writer’s memories, and as some who know me might predict, they are not going to be all rosy and full of fun. It’s not my way. Journalism as I understand it is a search for truth, and that search has lighted my path from the beginning. What I have found has been harsh, unforgiving, hard to swallow. Not all stories have happy endings Sometimes it’s downright scary. As our great president Harry Truman famously put it, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

No good story should start at the beginning, but at a high spot. But where was that? Was it when our publisher Red Pittman (if The Tribune had a soul, it resided within Red Pittman) would dress up in a Santa outfit, white beard and all, and march around the building (both the old and the new, which the rich old men in Richmond labeled derisively as the Taj Mahal) at Christmastime, calling out, “Ho, ho, ho. Hi, how-you?” (Hyphenating those two words is as close as I can get to the way Red said it). Or should the story start in the cigarette-smoke-filled newsroom on Kennedy Boulevard where in 1971 an observer would find a Royal manual typewriter on each heavy metal desk, a stack of foolscap and a glue pot and brush used to paste up single sheets of paper into long scrolls, which after being edited by an old man with a wooden pencil, would be sucked down a vacuum tube to the composing room where it would be converted into hot lead type; and where round, silvery vents in the ceiling pumped out cold air in winter and hot air in summer? Or should this memory begin at the Paddock Lounge, a dark and seedy gin mill on Morgan Street, just a few steps from the old Tribune building, a dive which that great editor Donna Newsome (now Reed, I think), pointed out recently you could reach in 30 seconds from a standing start in The Trib’s composing room just across the street and which contained a well-worn shortened pool table and, after about 11 p.m. seven nights a week (a daily newspaper comes out every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving), a sizable gathering of news reporters, editors, printers and pressmen? Don’t bother to look for it, the whole block was razed when somebody built that lovely pink skyscraper that currently houses the Hillsborough County Center.

Every. Single. Day. Or as one genius put on a t-shirt, we got it daily.

It seems we are all the stars of our own vignettes, but I mean to focus on others. I have a feeling this story ought to be told through the characters that made it special, the people whose passion made the place hum the way the old building literally hummed when the presses got up to speed.  Their faces are imprinted on my brain like tattoos on a bicep, indelible, sharp, deep purple lines on bare skin.

I didn’t know where to go when I arrived in Tampa for the first time, a 26-year-old kid just back from the Vietnam War and even though I’d been there and experienced it first hand, did not realize what a stupid, bad thing that war was. I had just signed up as full time student at the University of South Florida. My only journalism credential was I had been the editor of the Broward Community College newspaper, The Phoenix, had taken a couple of journalism courses from Max Hall, a great teacher and former assistant editor of The Ft. Lauderdale News, and had served an internship at the Hollywood Sun Tattler. The editor of the Tattler told me to go right on up and see James Clendinen, the editor of The Tampa Tribune, said he knew the man personally and told me he’d put in a good word for me. It turned out he had not done that, at least not in advance, and Mr. Clendinen, who unbeknownst to me was a huge figure in Florida journalism circles and a powerful voice in Tampa and Florida politics, was taken completely by surprise when I knocked on his door. For some reason, he didn’t toss me out or call the cops, rather this white-haired, soft spoken man listened for a few minutes and when he figured out what I wanted, he personally led me down to the office of Bob Hudson, managing editor of The Tampa Tribune, on the second floor of a building that had been pieced together from two separate buildings that had been scrunched together on the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Morgan Street.

Bob Hudson hired me on the spot. He was six foot two or three I think, with broad shoulders and a broad smile, a U. S. Marine who had fought I was told in World War II, and so when he heard I had just returned from Vietnam and was also a Marine veteran, the deal was done and it wouldn’t have mattered if I couldn’t write my own name. I learned pretty quickly that this was Hudson’s practice. As a result, most of the writers on the Tribune staff were nice people, but as a group, weak to very weak reporters and writers, to put it mildly. It was common knowledge at The Tribune that Hudson would hire mostly turkeys, but people loved him too much to break the news to him and so it continued. Hudson had a great big heart, but he should have left the hiring to somebody else.

Also, Hudson couldn’t fire people. Didn’t have the heart. Even when everybody in the newsroom agreed that a reporter or editor was completely incompetent, Hudson simply didn’t have it in him to fire the person. We had people working far away from Tampa, up in Hernando and Citrus counties, which takes hours to get to from Tampa.

There was a reporter working up there who could not spell. I was told by a fairly credible source that this reporter turned in a story in which he meant to write the word “satellite,” but he spelled it “saddle light.” He was that bad. English was not his first or his second language. Anyway, so the editors finally convinced Hudson this reporter had to be fired and Hudson agreed to do it. So Hudson took another editor with him and they drove for two hours to this bureau out in some far out county, and when they arrived this reporter had gone to lunch or something, he wasn’t there.

Hudson said, “Oh, well, let’s go home.”

The editor who went with him pleaded to wait, but Hudson insisted, so this guy remained on the payroll. Four hours driving wasted because Hudson couldn’t fire people.

I knew Hudson personally, and I can tell you it’s all true.

I will never forget the night he died. He had been invited to join the Gasparilla Krewe, a big honor and something Hudson always wanted, so he’d been partying for a solid week during the Gasparilla invasion. He had just finished marching in the big night parade, which is supposed to be the last big event for Gasparilla week, and he was dressed up like a pirate like all the rich and influential men in Tampa do. I was working in the newsroom that night with another reporter named Janice Martin. This was in 1974 or 1975. We got the word that Hudson was walking away after the parade when he fell down and died on the spot, no time for treatment or hospital.  A doctor told us later he was dead before he hit the street. He was 49 years old.

I hunted up all the facts I could get about him and Janice Martin wrote the main part of the obituary, which of course ran on Page 1.

The day he hired me, he had only one question.

“The Marines?  You were in the Marines?” I said I was, and that was that. No application, no background check, just a pat on the back and big smile.

Hudson promptly delivered me to City Editor Dave Watson, who had a pained look on his face possibly because he thought that Hudson had been up to his old tricks again and he’d be saddled with another young kid whose copy would have to be rewritten basically every day. Watson, it turned out, was a terrific writer and editor, another big-hearted man, but, as a boss, was not known for his communication skills. Reporters, whose only wish was to make Watson happy, would wander away from conversations with Watson with a puzzled look on their face.  If you saw a reporter shrugging and shaking his head, it would have been a safe bet he’d just had a talk with Watson. You never knew for sure what Watson wanted, but he’d smile if you delivered something clear and concise and would absolutely glow if you turned in what he referred to as a “gut shot story,” something so good it might make you cry. That’s what Watson wanted, but it was rarely delivered by the crew we had at the time.

The first thing I ever did for Watson was something we called a “cutline.” I’m not sure anybody uses the term anymore, but a cutline is the few lines of type you find in a newspaper under photographs, usually a description or explanation of what’s in the photo. Watson handed me an aerial photograph of a scene near the Port of Tampa depicting some big freighters tied up at a dock and a large body of water in the background. Sometimes we just had to fill up some space and pictures like that were useful.

“Here, Registrato, give me something on this,” Watson said, handing me the picture.

What could you say about a photograph on which you had very little information other than it was of some water and some ships?  Which I suppose is the question Watson had when he handed me the photo.

I wrote something about traveling to a foreign country and how dark it is at sea at night even when the stars are out and how the land must look from the deck of a ship when you first see it on the horizon. Something like that. Hey, it was the water and some ships, right? Watson looked at me and absolutely glowed.

“He’s a poet,” Watson said, and smiled at me and I knew I had a long-term possibilities. I remained a writer and editor at The Tribune for the next 16 years, leaving only after the rich men in Richmond sent a man to save the Tribune from The St. Petersburg Times and other evils, but who only made things worse. I refuse to mention his name out of respect for the decent people who worked at The Tribune.

The City Desk was a place where communication was sometimes difficult. An Assistant city editor named John Golson, another man with a huge heart, had a gravelly voice and spoke out of the side of his mouth which resulted in a situation in which you had to listen closely if you were going to follow him. After I learned how to listen to him, I figured out John had an amazing knowledge about Tampa and The Tribune and I learned a great deal from him. One night I turned in an obituary from a notice I had gotten from a funeral home. It was very short, maybe three paragraphs, just listing the survivors and when services were scheduled. This was something I did every day, so it was very routine.

John called me over to his desk as looked over the story I turned in and said to me out of the side of his mouth, “Registrato, did you check the clips on this obit?”

I said I had not thought to do that.

“Registrato, I thought I told you to always check the clips.”

He handed me back to obituary and I went right back to the library to dig out the clips on whoever this person was. I was surprised to find that I’d written three paragraphs on the death of a former member of The Tribune’s editorial board.

“Sorry, John. I’ll get right on it.”

John Golson did not even look up from what he was doing. ALWAYS check the clips.

Of all the horrible stories I covered in Tampa was the tragic death of two children by a man later sentenced to 25 years in prison, Raymond Alwyn McMahon. In 1975, Dan Ruth and I were on top of that story the whole way, interviewing the only eyewitness to the murder before the police did. Dan found out the man had a grandmother living in a little town in Georgia, and called her on the phone. Next thing you know, McMahon showed up at his grandmother’s house and was arrested by the sheriff of the little town she lived in. Dan and I drove all night to get to the little town of Baxley, Georgia, and the sheriff let us in to see McMahon.

Dan and I stood right outside his jail cell and took down his confession to the crime.  It was a major coup.

What is not well known is that Dan and I hung around the jail that morning at the invitation of the sheriff and the sheriff’s wife made us breakfast. While there, the phone started ringing and the calls were coming in from news agencies all over Florida and the country trying to get information about McMahon. The sheriff didn’t know what to say so he asked Dan and I to answer the calls. We didn’t know how to say no. So here we were, basically two young reporters who didn’t know any better, telling news agencies all over the place they could catch up on the story in The Tampa Tribune. Soon, the cops showed up from Hillsborough County to take McMahon away, and we just waved at them. We already had the story in our pocket and didn’t need anything further. Of course it was all over the front page the next day.

Things did not always turn out so well. Some editors at The Tribune fought us on a regular basis about getting things in the newspaper. After I took over the job of city editor, I had some great assistants who helped me with the big stories. Yvonne Shinhoster, who has since gone to The Washington Post, was one of the best. Kevin Kalwary helped me put together some great investigative stories, but a lot of them made some people in the community look bad, and we had some editors who did not want to rankle certain people, so Kevin and I had to fight these editors to get the stories in. We usually finally got them past the “censors,” but it was a constant struggle that frustrated us.

Another thing about the “middle-managers” like me, Denise Costa, Judy Hamilton, Bill Handy, Charles McShane, was that we told the bosses, all the way up to Red Pittman, that if we didn’t start spending more money and resources, The St. Petersburg Times would eat us up. We started making those warnings very early on, years before it came true. I will not forget sitting around a table with those people I just mentioned, and including some higher-ups, and we told them in no uncertain terms that we needed to beef up the coverage in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., increase coverage in Tampa and in the features department and art department, but it turned out that all that fell on deaf ears.

“One of these days, we’ll be failing and you know what, they’ll blame us, it will be our fault that we’ve been beaten.”

Nothing could have come true more vividly a few years later when The St. Petersburg Times increased its bureau in Tampa by more than a dozen people, and it was obvious they were coming to get us and we were vulnerable in so many places. So the answer the people in Richmond came up with was to send in the man they thought would “save” The Tribune from what was then called The St. Petersburg Times. (The St. Petersburg Times suffered from having the name “St. Petersburg” in its masthead, and it took years to get rid of it, but through some fancy legal footwork, they finally accomplished it. Now it’s The Tampa Bay Times, much better, for a newspaper that wants to sell newspapers on both sides of that big bay.)

Of course it turned out that whatever action that man took, did not stave off the relentless pounding of The Times, and the rest is history.

Like most of these memories, the ones that sting are the hardest to chronicle. One day after this new man took over as I think his title was “Executive Editor,” one of my bosses told me I was being “promoted” from City Editor to Assistant Managing Editor, and that I would be working from about 3 p.m. to midnight.

It sounded like a promotion, but this step took me out of the loop on the most important part of the job, producing the news. This, together with the fact that they had brought in an editor I would never agree with on a single thing, is what helped me decide to go to law school.

I had been accepted into Stetson University College of Law and was scheduled to start in May of 1987, when, while I was on vacation, I got a telephone call from my boss at The Tribune.

“Joe, you don’t have to come back to work,” he said to me.

It didn’t register right away that after sixteen years, promoted from reporter, to assistant city editor to city editor and then to assistant managing editor, I’d been fired, and nobody ever said why. Of course it was because this new old man had come in and wanted to “save” The Tribune by doing, maybe, what we had told them to do years before. But no, that’s not what he had in mind. What he had in mind was something else, and that something else didn’t work.

A lot of people have asked me what was it about working for The Tribune that made it so great, such a tremendous feeling of doing good. Patty Ryan, an old Tribune staffer now on the staff of The Times has asked for people to write her about their memories, and she’s gotten hundreds, maybe thousands of responses.

I remember a discussion I had with one of our editors and a good friend Richard Urban. I said I thought the reason we all loved it so much was because of the passion we put into getting the news, uncovering wrongdoing and publishing it in the newspaper day after day. The intensity of the passion was something you felt on every story, every time you went to work, every time you even went near the place.

At the same time, you poured your life into it, you put everything you had into that newspaper, and even after you left it, part of you stayed behind. That’s the reason Patty is getting so many digital mementos expressing so much bleeding. I still have dreams, no, nightmares, about working there, bringing a story in, talking to Watson, McEwen, all the others.

People gave their life for that place. For some, like Tom McEwen, Red Pittman, James Clendinen, Leland Hawes, Bob Hudson, Red Newton, Ann McDuffie, Dave Watson, Jim Selmon, I’m almost glad they’re not around to see what became of it. There’s a lot of others who have had to watch. Phil Morgan, Paul Wilborn, Bob Ross, Kurt Loft, Richard Lord, Joe Henderson, Steve Otto, Kevin Kalwary, Judy Hamilton, Denise Costa, Richard Urban, Greg Tozian, Manning Pynn, Mike Fowler, Walt Belcher, Ron Pride, Chris Smith, Steve Piacente, Kim Eisler, Laura Whiteside, Brad Bole, Mary Scourtes and dozens of others who worked with me for all those years grinding it out, we’ve all had to watch. It’s not pretty.

For the people who went over, Dan Ruth, Susan Taylor Martin, Janice Martin, Tom Sherberger, Morris Kennedy, Patty Ryan, Bill Serne (sorry if I’m leaving anybody out), of course you did the right thing. Gene Patterson offered me a chance once a long time ago and I foolishly turned it down because I’d already had The Tribune in my blood.  My life would be a lot different had I chosen to go.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the death we’ve witnessed, mostly to the rich white men who reaped the profits from “our newspaper” when it was easy pickings, but who lacked the courage to keep it alive when the going got tough. I say “our newspaper” because although they owned the stock in it, the brick and mortar, it was our brains, our guts, our blood that made it into something people would pay for, something that enriched the rich people further.

After all the hand wringing and bleeding, though, there is a bright side. They may have had to buy us out to finally beat us, but “our newspaper” is now finally owned by a great newspaper, one of the best in the world, the paper that set the bar, the organization we always tried to beat.

 

 

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