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A Roundtable of Local Florida Journalists on the Future of Newspapers, the Role of Community Media and Cubans in Florida

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As we broadcast from Tampa, Florida, we host a roundtable discussion about the state in Florida with Marty Petty, the executive vice president and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest newspaper; Patrick Manteiga, publisher and editor of La Gaceta Newspaper, one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the United States; and Rob Lorei, news director of community radio station WMNF. [includes rush transcript]

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AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Tampa, Florida. We’re broadcasting from the PBS station WEDU. I’m joined now by three guests to talk about the state of the media here in Florida.

Patrick Manteiga is with us. He’s editor and publisher of La Gaceta Newspaper, one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the United States, also the country’s only trilingual newspaper, publishing in English, in Spanish and in Italian.

We’re also joined by Marty Petty. She is executive vice president and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest newspaper. It’s owned by a nonprofit corporation, a model that is gaining increasing attention amidst the current spate of closures and cutbacks at the nation’s newspapers.

And I’m co-hosting this segment today with Rob Lorei, the managing editor of Florida This Week here on WEDU, the PBS station here in Tampa, and he is a co-founder of WMNF Radio, where he serves as the news and public affairs director. He’s covered West Central Florida politics for more than twenty years.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

ROB LOREI: Good to see you, Amy.

MARTY PETTY: Thanks for having me.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to have you with us. So, Rob, why don’t you begin?

ROB LOREI: Well, let’s start. Amy, there was just an article in The Nation magazine that suggested that — it was written by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, and they suggested that it’s possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network news operations will no longer employ more than a handful of reporters. So the question becomes, is — Nichols and McChesney ask the question: should we consider a nonprofit model for newspapers around the country as a way to get out of this mess that we’re in? Marty, I’ve got to ask you, how long ago — the St. Pete Times is owned by a nonprofit. How long ago did that arrangement take place?

MARTY PETTY: Well, Nelson Poynter saw — he was quite a visionary, way ahead of his time, and as owner of the newspaper, he envisioned that there could be a time when it would be important for a newspaper to remain independent on behalf of its community and the citizens that it served. And so, upon his death in ’78, the newspaper and 100 percent of its stock was given to a school that he had created, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, at that time called the Modern Media Institute, which is a school for journalists, a nonprofit school, and he willed, gave 100 percent of the stock, the newspaper, to the school.

ROB LOREI: Has the St. Pete Times, under that arrangement, being owned by a nonprofit — do you still pay taxes?

MARTY PETTY: We are a for-profit company. We do pay taxes. And then, from our profits, a dividend goes to the school.

ROB LOREI: Now, how have you weathered this recession and the downsizing of most major newspapers in the country?

MARTY PETTY: We believe we have done quite well. Certainly, we have the same challenges as everybody around us. Our advertisers are under a tremendous strain, as you can see across the country — automotive, retail — all started by the real estate problems that we all know so well. But we have the flexibility to take a long-term view. And we believe in newspapers. We believe that when the economy comes back, newspapers will continue to be effective, efficient marketing vehicles for advertisers. We worked quite well delivering fabulous audiences before this recession hit, and that will happen again.

ROB LOREI: So, a lot of papers are cutting back their Washington, D.C. bureaus, their state capital bureaus, their investigative reporting. Do you still have — have you maintained all those?

MARTY PETTY: We have. Our news organization is slightly smaller than it was a couple years ago, but we still have a staff covering — based in Washington, covering Florida and its affairs, and we still have quite a healthy bureau in Tallahassee. We have recently combined our efforts with the Miami Herald, which is a very unusual thing. We have been — our journalists have competed for years.

ROB LOREI: Structurally, though, the difference between you and a chain-owned paper is that you don’t have to send your profits back to an out-of-town owner, right?

MARTY PETTY: That is correct. Our profits stay in the community. We are able then to invest back into our news and our journalism, which we believe is very important, into our marketing. And it, I think, serves — I think it serves the community. We are institutions of democracy. I think it has proven to serve the community very, very well.

AMY GOODMAN: How does your nonprofit fit in with this proposal by the Democratic senator, Ben Cardin of Maryland —-

MARTY PETTY: Out of Baltimore, Maryland, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Right -— introducing a measure aimed at rescuing the newspaper industry, the Newspaper Revitalization Act, that would let newspaper companies become educational nonprofits and operate similar to, well, as we do, you know, at public radio and public television?

MARTY PETTY: First of all, I’m not an expert on the legislation, but I think there are a lot of questions around what that really looks like. I think nonprofits have restrictions. For example, you are not permitted to endorse political candidates. That raises a kind of interesting question if you think about some of the traditional roles that newspapers have played in their communities. I think a lot of these models are going to be explored, and we are just — we’re at the very beginning of that. You know, there’s questions around a nonprofit model per se versus a tax-exempt model.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, key for broadcasters, public broadcasters, is that listeners, viewers and, in your case, readers, can give tax-deductible contributions.

MARTY PETTY: Right. It’s not quite as simple, though, as that. I think folks who really understand — I’m not, you know, a legal expert on this, but what — how it has been structured between Poynter, the Poynter Institute being a school, and the news entity, in effect, being a nonprofit, are two different concepts that I think have to be more clearly understood.

ROB LOREI: One of the problems that you would face if we were to turn newspapers into nonprofits is that they would no longer — if they were purely nonprofit, they would no longer be able to endorse candidates in elections or recommend ballot issues or that sort of thing, because they would violate their tax-exempt status.

MARTY PETTY: That’s correct.

PATRICK MANTEIGA: Yeah, so that would be a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Manteiga, talk about La Gaceta.

PATRICK MANTEIGA: La Gaceta has been in my family since 1922. My grandfather started it back then. We started off as a Spanish daily. Over the years, we’ve added English and Italian, as our community has grown and changed the languages that it depends on.

And La Gaceta last year actually had the best year ever in our history. We’re a niche market. But when the economy got bad, that meant that foreclosures went up, and we happened to have some foreclosure lawyers who were our clients at the time, and every foreclosure has to have a legal ad that runs with it. So, as grocery stores and banks fell down the tube as far as clients were concerned, our foreclosure notices went up to such an extent that it actually made us our — gave us our most profitability ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Spanish, Italian and English?


AMY GOODMAN: Why Italian?

PATRICK MANTEIGA: There was a large Italian colony that came to Tampa, and they wanted something to help preserve their language and their culture. So, back in the ’50s, we decided to do just a page of Italian to give them something to read on a weekly basis, to help them and their family keep that part of their heritage.

AMY GOODMAN: Your newspaper is one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the country. Your family, from Cuba?


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Cuban community, the changing Cuban community here in Florida.

PATRICK MANTEIGA: You know, when two Cubans meet on the street, they have to kind of determine what year their family came over in order to know how the conversation goes. You know, a lot of people feel that, you know, Miami Cuban exile community is the only Hispanic group in the state of Florida, and it’s not true. Even amongst Cubans, it’s not true.

Tampa Cubans generally got here earlier and did not come over for Castro, did not come over because of the Castro takeover. So they tend to be Democratic, vote Democrat. They tend to be a little more liberal on the Cuba issue. Then you have the exile community, the people who came over around 1960. They’re generally Republican and a lot more conservative. Then you have the people who came over — the Cubans who came over in the last ten, fifteen years. A lot of these people don’t vote, but if they were to vote, they would lean with whoever — whatever candidate would allow trade and travel to Cuba, because they have family there, and they are very passionate about it.

But our Hispanic community in the state of Florida very soon is going to become dominated by Puerto Ricans, and I think that’s a story that a lot of people miss and that the politicians need to keep an eye on. Florida is certainly a pivotal state in our national elections, and a lot of politicians come down here and try and target that Cuban exile community, and they’re missing out on the fact that Puerto Ricans have taken over the middle of the state, especially around Orlando, and that that is going to be the future vote that’s going to tip Florida one way or the other.

ROB LOREI: But, Patrick, the third rail in Florida politics has long been lifting the Cuba embargo, in that whether you’re Democrat or Republican in Florida, you could not advocate lifting the Cuban embargo. What’s the status of that third rail now? Is that changing? Could a politician win statewide office, or could Barack Obama win a second term, with the help of Florida, get the Florida vote, if he advocated lifting the embargo?

PATRICK MANTEIGA: There are some who believe so. We’ve yet to have a politician who has made that leap. Most of them, you know, privately would tell you they’re OK with it, but publicly they continue to beat that same drum, not only for votes, but also for money. And a lot of the media down in Miami is controlled by a group that really believes that they want to keep the status quo. So we believe there is that ability to make the change and get elected.

You know, it’s going to be very interesting what Obama does over the next few months. These recent changes that have allowed more liberal travel for people who have relatives over in Cuba, I think all those changes expire in September, so he has to quickly make a decision where we’re going to go. But there’s really going to be no fundamental change with American-Cuban relations until we take them off the list of terrorist nations. So that’s really the key to opening up the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: And hasn’t Vice President Joe Biden just said that they’re going to keep the embargo?


AMY GOODMAN: Here in Tampa, the Port of Tampa, you have an interesting shift in political alliances, because a lot of owners here, a lot of businesspeople want that embargo lifted. Explain what it would mean for the Port of Tampa.

PATRICK MANTEIGA: Well, the Port of Tampa is actually the closest major port to Havana, and we’re closer even than Miami, as a ship goes. And historically, Tampa used to have daily passage between Havana and Tampa. It was just as — it was very easy to just to hop on a boat and go there, as it was to go anywhere in the United States. So you always had a strong relationship shipping cattle over there, workers coming up here for the cigar industry, Historically, there is this tie, and if you read Cuban history books, you will read about Tampa. Tampa was a cradle for a lot of revolution in Cuba. So there’s this emotional tie between the two cities —- between Tampa and the country of Cuba.

But the Port really needs Cuba relations. You’ve got a cruise ship industry that would give us a three-day cruise that we currently don’t have. You’ve got a lot of shipping that could happen with phosphate going down there. A lot of relations. In fact, our congresswoman here, Kathy Castor, just asked President Obama to allow Tampa International Airport to have charter flights to Cuba, where there’s only three airports in the United States that currently is allowed this, and I think it’s by executive order, and she’s asked for that executive order to expand.

ROB LOREI: Have you editorialized in favor of lifting the embargo?

PATRICK MANTEIGA: We were the first Spanish-language newspaper in the state of Florida to do so, and we’re still here, so they didn’t burn us out. So -—

ROB LOREI: But did you receive any threats or any repercussions?

PATRICK MANTEIGA: No. We had some people who called up and were very concerned about our position. We had some people call, crying on the phone, that they were upset that — you know, and explaining their past history with Cuba.

But we’ve always had repercussions from the fact that originally, back in the 1960s, we supported — before, in the ’50s, we supported the Castro takeover. And we’ve been blacklisted by corporations in Miami for years and years. In fact, recently, three Miami congressmen blocked the naming of a post office for my father here in Tampa, because in 1960 he didn’t condemn Castro fast enough for them. So, you know, we’re talking about a long time where these things still happen. In fact, I don’t even know if the congressmen were born at the time.

ROB LOREI: Marty, I want to ask you — go back and ask one more question about newspapers, and that is, are we — the Nichols-McChesney article in The Nation suggested that we’re on the verge of seeing a lot of newspapers disappear. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of the newspaper industry in the US?

MARTY PETTY: Well, I remain optimistic, for some reasons that I stated a few minutes ago. Some of the challenges aren’t as clearly understood. I mean, a lot of the large newspapers, the metro newspapers, particularly, were most severely hurt by the downturn in the economy with advertising. Simultaneous to that, we had a lot of acquisition activity and a lot of consolidation activity and a lot of debt taken on by the publicly held companies, which, prior to the recession, their very high profits were able to service the debt. So, in some ways, the collision of these two events has accelerated the beat of the drum by those who want to believe that newspapers are dead or dying in this flight to the internet.

There is no question people’s media habits are changing. There’s absolutely no question about that, and we need to change with them. But I believe that newspapers — we believe that newspapers remain viable in their ability to serve their local communities, gather and edit local content, hold local officials responsible in ways that, to date, are unmatched. So, if we can stay the course on how we deliver that news in ways that people want to receive it — TBT, for example, our free daily, which has circulation, distribution of 70,000 Monday through Thursday and 100,000 on Friday, and is growing —-

AMY GOODMAN: Stands for?

MARTY PETTY: Tampa Bay Times -— and is growing, it’s a newspaper, yet it delivers the news in a package in a way that somebody who’s twenty-five to forty-nine wants to get it. That tells us that there are solutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob, I don’t want to end this segment without talking about WMNF. Last night, we had a big fundraiser for WMNF Community Radio. You’re one of the founders of it, and you do a broadcast here every week on Florida politics at WEDU.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about community radio and television.

ROB LOREI: Well, I think, frankly, we’re in a lot of trouble. And whether you call this a recession or a depression, our revenue, both at WEDU public television and at WMNF, has fallen. There have been layoffs here at the PBS station, very sad. At the radio station, the community radio station that I work at, we have had no layoffs, but we’ve had something like on the order of $80,000 in budget cuts. I think that just as our audience is in pain, so is the revenue for our radio and TV stations in pain.

The interesting thing about MNF is that since we started, we were kind of riding on the housing boom here in Florida. So, for thirty years — we started back in 1979 — for thirty years, our revenue went up, our audience went up, everything was rosy. And then, suddenly, when we reached this housing and this mortgage crisis, things are hurting. So, you know, frankly, I wonder about the model of public broadcasting, whether or not, you know, relying on those local donations, relying on CPB funding for a small fraction of the funding, whether or not that’s a good model. I often look over at England and look at those licenses that people pay for radio and television and think, wouldn’t that be a better way to fund broadcasting? We wouldn’t have to go hat in hand to Congress every year and ask for a small appropriation. We wouldn’t —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, though, how the BBC works, that everyone is taxed.

ROB LOREI: Well, everybody is taxed. When you buy a television, when you buy a radio, you pay a tax on it. And that funds the BBC. And the money is safe from government intrusion. The BBC has, I think, a lot more freedom in England than they do here in the US.

You know, at some public television stations, they will spend maybe as much as two months trying to raise money on the air. And I think that that’s a burden on the audience. It’s a burden on the program producers. It’s a burden on the staff. At public radio, we try to keep it down, as you know, Amy. But still, it is hard, and sometimes, in these hard times, you have to extend these fund drives. So I think that -— I think Marty’s right. We’ve got to look at new models. We’ve got to look at new ways to fund media and broadcasting. And I think one of the ways, we should look to the BBC as a possible model in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, all, for being with us, though I did want to ask one last question to Patrick Manteiga, and that is, a congressional black delegation is in Cuba right now meeting with Raul Castro, led by Barbara Lee of California, the Congress member. How significant is this?

PATRICK MANTEIGA: We’ve had a lot of Congress people go over there, a lot of congressmen, congresswomen go over there over the years. It’s really not going to be significant until the administration, until the Obama administration sends somebody over for a discussion. We’ve had these junkets over there, and we continue these discussions. It certainly is a positive situation, and we need to continue positive relations, but the executive branch is the one who’s going to have to make a move here.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. I want to thank you, Marty Petty, for joining us —-

MARTY PETTY: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: —- executive vice president and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest newspaper. Thank you also to Patrick Manteiga, who is the editor and publisher of La Gaceta Newspaper, one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the United States.

Rob Lorei of WMNF and here of WEDU, please stay with us, because we’re going to do another story with a WMNF reporter when we come back, a very controversial story. It’s on the front pages of the Florida papers today. It is a story of a young student who was just acquitted on federal charges and picked up in the Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday on the same charges but by immigration authorities. We’ll find out why. Stay with us.

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