Within the past several days, careful observers of Florida’s political media have been treated to three intriguing developments that portend more evolution in the industry: financial trouble for the biggest media outlet in the state, a new startup featuring reporters with left-leaning pedigrees, and a shady new website touting itself in an email with “Finally there’s a conservative choice for news and politics.” Nevermind the existence of several such center-right news sites, including The Capitolist, Sunshine State News, Shark-Tank.net and others.
Tongues are still wagging in Tallahassee after a story made the rounds about the potential bankruptcy of the gasgonading Tampa Bay Times (“Winner of 12 Pulitzer Prizes,” “Florida’s largest newspaper,” and “Tampa Bay’s leading news website”). Despite those boasts, the Times is allegedly in its “death throes” according to Jim Blyer, writing for Tampa Bay Beat:
[Paul] Tash, the [TB Times] $550,000-a-year chief executive, using a three-card-Monte ploy to stave off bankruptcy, seizure of assets, and an ignominious finality to a longstanding media entity, has known for some time the company’s pension plan is at extreme risk. Times employees have a regular payroll deduction for pension benefits but it could very well be funneled into financing current operations instead of its intended purpose.
The Times has vehemently denied the charges levied by Blyer.
Regardless of the Times‘ ultimate fate, there’s no denying that the Florida Capital Press corps and newspapers across the state have continued to struggle. Budgets have been slashed, newsrooms downsized, and reporters have lost jobs. All of that may be the underlying reason for the choice of name for Florida’s newest digital news operation, named after the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of destruction.
The Florida Phoenix hasn’t even launched yet. But at the time this story was published, the recently registered domain name, obtained through a private proxy service, indicated only that a site is under construction. Meanwhile, several of the site’s rumored reporters, with left-leaning pedigrees, are making the rounds in Tallahassee, including ex-FloridaPolitics.com and Creative Loafing alumnus Mitch Perry, and a pair of ex-Saint Pete Times capital bureau veterans: enviro-reporter Julie Hauserman, and Diane Rado, who returns to Tallahassee after a tour of duty on the education beat for the Chicago Tribune. Sources say the Phoenix is also planning to hire a fourth reporter.
It’s unclear what the Phoenix’s revenue strategy could be, especially since advertising alone isn’t likely to generate the cash needed to support four reporters and their operations. But if the organization is unencumbered by the costs of supporting editors or other executives, it certainly has a better chance at profitability than the Tampa Bay Times and it’s top-heavy salary structure.
The Phoenix isn’t the only startup news operation that vaulted onto the scene in recent days. Yesterday morning, Tallahassee insiders received an email touting yet another outlet. This one, however, is a 180-degree about-face from the Florida Phoenix. For starters, it touts itself as delivering news from a “conservative perspective.” But the site has no known reporters, no bylines, and no one publicly associated with it. The site, Florida News Online, launched last week and appears to have ties to the Florida Panhandle. Several of the site’s stories appear to be wholesale copied from other sites, or rewrites of stories from other outlets, with no new information, and photos taken from legacy media outlets like the Orlando Sentinel. Still, there is some analysis, original content and decent writing. It remains to be seen if this is a legitimate endeavor or a “fake news” outlet launched at the height of campaign season.
The site doesn’t list a phone number, and the site owner declined to identify him/herself in a response that Gmail initially identified as spam:
Why is this message in Spam? We’ve found that lots of messages from flanewsonline.com are spam.
In the emailed response, the mystery publisher says, “This site is wholly funded by myself and receives no financial support from any campaign or committee associated with a campaign. I choose to stay anonymous because it’s a great American tradition. I prefer to be judged by the content on the site not the byline.”
Good luck with that.
Over the past decade, other low-overhead media outlets have demonstrated they can thrive in Tallahassee. The Sunshine State News, Florida Politics, Politico Florida, News Service of Florida and more recently, The Capitolist, have remained in operation or even grown since launch. All of them are digital only, with flat organizational structures. All of the content these sites publish is produced by people who go out and seek news, build relationships with newsmakers, write, and put their name on their stories.