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Peter Schorsch: The rise of new media and why it’s important for St. Pete

Megan Holmes

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Love him or love to hate him, St. Petersburg native Peter Schorsch is one of the most dominant media personalities in Tampa Bay. His rise began in 2005, with the launch of his own hometown political website, appropriately titled SaintPetersBlog. As Schorsch says, SaintPetersBlog “was born, like most blogs, at a mom’s house.”

At the time, Schorsch was working as a political consultant, something he still does today. He saw a space filling in the gaps in coverage of the local St. Pete political scene, sorely lacking attention from the larger local media outlets. 

From these humble beginnings, the blog’s readership caught fire in 2009 during the St. Petersburg mayoral race, in which Bill Foster was elected to the office. 

For the next eight years, SaintPetersBlog doggedly covered politics and critiqued local journalism, including the 2010 U.S. Senate race between Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, and the 2013 St. Petersburg mayoral race. It often criticized what Schorsch saw as the Tampa Bay Times’ journalistic shortcomings and filled a space that few had tried to fill before – the creation of a new media platform – one not subject to the confines of strict “journalism.”

Since then, Schorsch’s media empire has blown up. SaintPetersBlog became Florida Politics and Schorsch built INFLUENCE Magazine to profile Tallahassee insiders. Schorsch’s ascent as a media magnate and his increased readership brought along its share of rewards and controversies.

SaintPetersBlog won a Best of the Bay award from Creative Loafing and was recognized as the best independent blog in the state by the Florida Press Club. But Schorsch and his publication were also embroiled in scandals for alleged “pay to play” business practices, in which he would “regurgitate press releases for his advertisers and to unfairly skewer his clients’ opponents,” according to an article by Columbia Journal Review.

While Schorsch has vehemently denied those allegations, a reputation for sticky conflicts of interest still haunts him, even as he has hired independent reporters and transitioned his team to statewide news coverage in SaintPetersBlog’s latest evolution, Florida Politics.

Looking back, Schorsch has few regrets, though he does wish he’d entered the realm of journalism a little differently. Starting out as a blogger in new media, Schorsch often claimed not to be a journalist, though his publications hire many seasoned journalists from newspapers and news organizations throughout the country.

Many of his reporters go on to larger political publications. “I liken myself to the Tampa Bay Rays in that we constantly feed to the bigger programs,” Schorsch said. “And so, two reporters that I picked up, they did a year with us and then they went to Politico. Our last reporter, Anna Sabalos, she just went to the USA Today network.”

While Florida Politics’ influence continues to rise and Schorsch builds his brand to encompass the state, he acknowledges that his entrance into the field was less than ideal. “I had such a rough time at it at the beginning,” Schorsch elaborated. “A lot of it on my part because a lot of new media, especially in the political sphere, is punching at the established folks.”

And punch he did; Schorsch’s publicized and ongoing feud with the Tampa Bay Times is just one conflict he’s been embroiled in.

“I wish I could do all of that cleaner, because I do feel like there will always be a residual bad will in the Florida political journalism sphere, to how I entered the market,” Schorsch said.

“Now I’ve got a lot of supporters out there who specifically came to us because we were the alternative to what they viewed as either bad or biased.”

Despite his success, Schorsch says building a media empire in his hometown has not been without its sacrifices. “I stopped writing about St. Petersburg politics,” Schorsch explained; he now sends reporters to cover most local issues.

“It became uncomfortable to write about subjects and then you go down to Kahwa coffee and you see them and they come up to you and ask, ‘Hey, are you Peter Schorsch?’ And you almost have to brace your face because you don’t know if you’re gonna get punched or not.”

“Now I know all this going into it,” Schorsch said. “I enjoy and thrive on what I describe as nothing less than a Beirut street fight, which is Florida politics. But it can be tough. It’s tough for my wife.”

Schorsch gets fired up about the “street fight” that is politics, and enjoys “drinking from the firehose” of statewide and national political news. But his growing platform, combined with his willingness to write about all things political – including friends – has been costly in his personal life.

“Yes, it sucks sometimes to be too powerful,” said Schorsch. “There is a lot of negative. Number one is, especially when you connect the publishing side with the political, a lot of even my friends aren’t comfortable to have me around because is what they’re going to say in a private setting going to become fodder for a blog post?”

“I’ve made it a point that a lot of my close friends aren’t in politics,” he explained.

Schorsch says his coverage of Mayor Rick Baker’s 2017 mayoral campaign lead to losing Baker as a friend and mentor. “I haven’t talked to Rick Baker since he lost the election,” Schorsch said. “I’d basically lost my friend there in a lot of ways. He may not see it that way, we may not have connected, but I know he wasn’t happy with what I wrote.”

“And I wasn’t writing it about Rick Baker the person, I was writing it about Rick Baker the politician and that was my job.”

Despite the downsides, Schorsch is planning a return to St. Petersburg media. As the renowned voices of the business community and political community have stepped away from the limelight, many into retirement, local coverage will be more important than ever, he says. “You get the blogger you need or you deserve, not the one you want. And I think that there is a lack … of public intellectualism … in a way.

“We don’t even have mechanisms in this town in a lot of ways, that’s been part of the problem as we build the Pier, Stop The Lens, build the stadium – where do we even have these discussions?” 

That, he says, is the role of new media – to fill in the spaces currently vacant in established journalism. To provide a space for discourse and public comment, to comment on what is good for a city – and to fight against what is bad.

“St. Petersburg right now is at the crossroads … how many times have you heard, ‘Oh, this place could be the new Miami Beach’? And you’re like, ‘If you say that again we are gonna drop you off the Gandy Bridge,’” Schorsch laughed.

Steering St. Pete’s development in the right course is a main concern for Schorsch. “Don’t you worry that somebody’s gonna come along and put in too many, or the wrong condominium buildings?” said Schorsch. “And then suddenly … We could lose this, this could be lost.”

 

Listen to the full St. Pete X podcast featuring Peter Schorsch here.

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