On November 1, my venerable local daily paper, the St. Petersburg Times, announced that it is changing its name on January 1, 2012 to the Tampa Bay Times. My reaction to this change has been decidedly bifurcated.
Personally, I’m annoyed. I don’t live in Tampa Bay. Or Tampa, for that matter, thank you very much. I live in St. Petersburg. I consider the St. Petersburg Times a great independent paper, and I’m proud to have the name of the town where I live on it. The vast majority of the world’s great papers contain the name of the city in which they’re based, even though they serve an area far larger than just the city. Those that don’t have a city name tend to forego a geographic tag in their brand altogether.
Lots of people agree with me…on Twitter, at least. Local blogger and political commentator Peter Schorsch has an immediate and visceral reaction, involving the technical term “bullshit.” Roy Peter Clark, well known to fans of grammar and superlative journalism, Times reporter Drew Harwell, and former Times staffer Andy Boyle each poked fun with slightly less sharp sticks.
Professionally, though, I get it.
I’ve lived here for about 10 years now. One of the first things I learned when I relocated from Boston is that everyone outside this immediate region doesn’t “get” the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater market at all. I long ago lost count of the number of times I had to explain that, no, the Miami Herald is not, in fact, the largest circulation paper in Florida, nor is the Orlando Sentinel. When people look at the Tampa Bay area, they assume the Tampa Tribune is the largest and/or only paper; the reality is that the Times is significantly larger. And yes, people live here. Quite a few of them. And no, this is not a backwater haven of redneck hicks (ok…we have some hicks…but we’re not all hicks…).
Even companies for whom Florida is a crucial market don’t necessarily understand that to reach people in Florida, the St. Petersburg Times is your best bet. Even when one explains it and provides clear data, people are skeptical. The truth is, the “St. Petersburg” in the brand is a hindrance to the Times, especially in attracting the attention of ad buyers/planners and CMOs ensconced in the glass castles of Madison Avenue.
The St. Petersburg Times is also one of the lone remaining independent newspapers in the world. It is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute. This does not, however, exempt it from the pain being felt by content creators—newspapers, magazines, even music and movie studios—these days. Simply put, they need income. Said income can come from subscribers, yes, but mostly from advertisers. While the St. Petersburg Times gets some of its revenue from local companies well familiar with the nuances of the geographic area, the big bucks come from companies and ad agencies outside the greater Tampa Bay area.
In that context, the Tampa Bay Times makes some sense. It does not, however, address of itself the lack of comprehension of the importance of this area to marketers. The re-branding process might well give the paper the opportunity to address this, but they’ll need to be smart about it. Very smart.
I have previously bemoaned the Times’ lack of real understanding of social media. As an organization—many of their super reporters aside—they’re still floundering on this front. They seem to lack an enterprise-wide comprehension of how to engage new and existing consumers/readers. I hope they figure it out soon; they’re missing an opportunity in this area, leaving money on the table, if you will.
In announcing the name change, the Times has been fiercely on-message, repeating versions of “we serve the region, not just the city, dammit.” But this doesn’t address the core of the problem, that the world is becoming more local, yes, but this doesn’t mean anyone understands your locale.
And the bugaboo of being on message is those of us who have questions not addressed by said messaging are left scratching our heads. I emailed the contacts from the Times’ news release asking whether someone might like to comment on the timing for this undertaking, given that re-branding is mega-expensive and in the context of the paper having just reduced their staff (among a few other questions), but they haven’t yet responded. If they do, I will update this post.
I hope this move proves lucrative for the Times, I truly do. It’s a grand paper with a proud history and a tradition of excellence that the Corporate Media Conglomerates will never match. And you can bet I’ll be buying extra copies of the December 31, 2011 edition, too.