You would expect that a great city would produce a good newspaper, but that has not always been the case. In my opinion, San Francisco and New Orleans have been underachievers. During most of the 20th century, Louisville was an overachiever. So was St. Petersburg.
How did a newspaper, now the Tampa Bay Times, in a small city on the West Coast of Florida become the largest daily journal in the Southeastern United States? How did it come to win 12 Pulitzer Prizes? How did it create a franchise – Politifact – that helped spark an international fact-checking movement just when we needed it?
For 40 years, I have worked at the Poynter Institute, the non-profit school for journalists that owns the Times. So I know the answer to the questions above. The answer is: Nelson Poynter. Mr. Poynter inherited the Times from his father Paul. With vision, values, and Hoosier common sense, he argued that he would rather be a newspaper publisher than the richest man in the world, and that owning a newspaper was a sacred trust. He willed that his paper would go to a school that he founded, that it would remain independent, privately held, run by journalists in the public interest.
Because of Mr. Poynter’s vision, the Times would turn into a great newspaper. And the Poynter Institute would grow from a Central Avenue storefront to an institution of global influence. Then came the Great Recession. Before 2008 newspapers were shrinking in circulation, in profitability, in staff and other news resources. The traditional advertising revenue model was profoundly disrupted in the digital age. For every dollar lost in print advertising, a news organization was lucky to regain a dime on the internet.
Many predicted the onset of a Dark Age for news delivery with dire consequences for community and democracy. To some extent that has come true. In Florida alone, there are fewer traditional watchdogs keeping an eye on municipal, county, and state governments than there have been for decades.
When the Clarks moved to St. Pete in 1977 – 40 years ago – the city felt like a ruin, a shadow of its Roaring 20’s grandeur. From our point of view it had just three things going for it: the weather, the sea, and the Times. Even citizens who despised the Times for its traditionally liberal editorial positions – it has moved a bit to the right by some accounts – understood the importance of the paper to St. Pete’s future prospects.
One challenge of any large paper like the Times is the need to define community in broad regional terms. This is the same issue faced by local television and radio news. When they says things like “We serve you,” that “you” can just as easily be living in New Port Richey or Ruskin as St. Petersburg. For the Times, Tampa Bay is not a body of water, but a market, a sensibility magnified by its recent purchase and closure of the Tampa Tribune. The Times has more to cover than ever with fewer resources.
Like other cities, St. Petersburg needs more.
Enter Joe Hamilton’s new platform, The Catalyst.
Joe and I got to know each other at the counter of The Banyan Restaurant, the one on Central Avenue and 7th Street, attached to the Morean Art Center. The Banyan has become that kind of “third place” in urban life, where busy and creative folks find respite, a great cup of coffee, and the best scones in the city, where they can muse and plan the city’s cultural and political life.
I would see Joe at the counter, working on his computer. He’d share with me his vision and his sense of purpose. He put it this way to me in a message, describing the Catalyst as a place for local news and insight – a site that would be both agile and largely crowd-sourced, an ambitious combination.
“Both the Catalyst and the community,” he wrote, “have a responsibility to be objective, be rational, be civil and be truthful while also understanding there are many perspectives to every issue.”
What impresses me about Joe’s vision is the way he flips the switch on the current controversies surrounding the mainstream press. Everyone has heard the accusations of “fake news” and the framing of journalists as “the enemy of the people.” Everyone knows of the “echo chambers” of news delivery, in which we only watch to confirm what we already believe.
The Catalyst offers something different: a way in which citizens of St. Petersburg can come together and take responsibility for what all of us learn and understand about the town we call home.
To accomplish this task – to earn the attention of St. Pete’s citizens from all corners of the city – there are things that the Catalyst will have to avoid. It cannot seem like a partisan player in a polarized political age. It has a dog in the fight, but the name of that dog is not liberal or conservative. The name is St. Pete.
The Catalyst cannot be a traditional investigative site. It lacks the resources and the infrastructure. But it can certainly shine a spotlight on the investigations of other journalistic sources. Nor, if it craves credibility, can it become the landing site of endless press releases, “puff pieces” without the edge of civic responsibility.
As a reader, supporter, critic, or contributor to the Catalyst, you must begin to see yourself in a different light. You are no longer just a citizen. You are a citizen journalist. To join that club requires a few virtues: a devotion to the truth, a respect for public discourse, a tolerance for difference, and, most of all, a love for the city and its people.
We have the Times, the Rays, and Beach Drive. We have boutiques and breweries. Our first poet laureate, Peter Meinke, is now Florida’s poet laureate. We have museums and murals galore. We have Dali and Kerouac. We are funky and crunchy and full of munchies. Don we now our gay apparel.
Welcome to the Catalyst. When I looked up the word ‘catalyst’ in the dictionary it said: “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.” Cities continue to thrive and stay progressive only if they avoid sitting on their laurels, only when they open themselves to change. But what kind of change, and in what direction? Catalyst, it’s up to you. It’s up to us. Please show us the way.
Roy Peter Clark has lived and worked in St. Petersburg since 1977. He has taught for almost four decades at the Poynter Institute, the non-profit school that owns the Tampa Bay Times. On many mornings, you can find him at the Banyan coffee shop, sitting at the bar.