Rays Stadium Saga: Are newspapers driving the debate?

10:17 PM, Jun 28, 2010   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Florida - Newspapers have long joined their communities in root, root, rooting for the home team.   But in Tampa Bay, they've also got a reputation for rooting for the home team's business ventures.

As the Rays' stadium saga enters another summer, both the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times have turned up the heat on the debate. 

Previous coverage on the Rays' stadium saga.

"I've looked at both papers' coverage," said Dr. Randy Miller, a journalism professor at USF.  "Both sides have had coverage that clearly points out it either is - or isn't - a good idea to move the stadium across the bay."

Miller says the papers - to different degrees - influence the stadium debate through tone and frequency of stories. 

Even before Stu Sternberg made his sharp-toothed statement last week, the Tampa Tribune had run a number of front-page stories recently focusing on poor attendance at Tropicana Field and a possible move to Tampa.  The St. Petersburg Times had written multiple editorials encouraging the Rays to be more cooperative with St. Petersburg officials.

"I think it would be better if you had a more balanced approached," Miller said, pointing out that the papers have long driven stadium debates in Tampa Bay.

The Times and Trib each played influential roles in helping the dome in St. Petersburg and the arena in Tampa get built.  But it was the Trib's role in helping Malcolm Glazer and the Buccaneers get Raymond James Stadium that remains the most controversial.

"We were told our coverage would be limited to find solutions to finding a stadium," said former Tribune editor John Sugg.  "Meaning, we were not free to explore all sides of the story."

Sugg said he eventually quit the paper over its "boosterism" of Tampa causes. 

"(Tribune management) started describing critics as 'cranks,' so I was a 'crank' because I opposed giving a billion dollars to Malcolm Glazer," Sugg said.  "It was not a deal that - in any way - was beneficial to taxpayers."

Legendary sportswriter Tom McEwen, who was sports editor of the Tribune at the time, remembers using the pages of the paper to build support for the stadium referendum.

 "I wanted to bring anything and everything in sports here," McEwen said from his Davis Islands home.  "It didn't matter what it was.  Tennis, golf, women's golf, swimming, (just) get it here.

"For me, I was just trying to do something for the town and if I could get it done, it didn't matter how," he continued, "which may or may not have been a conflict of interest."

The Tampa Tribune wouldn't comment on its historical coverage of stadium debates, but Assistant Managing Editor Ken Koehn, who worked with both Sugg and McEwen, explained the paper's coverage of the Rays' situation in a statement.

"Simply put, the stadium debate is a major story for our readers," he wrote.  "Our readers want to know where it will be built, how it will be financed and what will happen if it isn't built. These are logical questions getting national attention... there has been no cheerleading.

"The future of the Tampa Bay Rays will continue to be a big story for us. Our readers expect the coverage, and we will supply it."

Tim Nickens, the Editor of Editorials for the St. Petersburg Times addressed his paper's perceived boosterism of the past, saying, "our approach is substantially different than it was in the 1980s (when Tropicana Field was built)."

"The St. Petersburg Times is interested - on the editorial page - in keeping the team in Tampa Bay," Nickens continued.  "The Tampa Tribune's editorial page - has been much more interested in moving the team to Downtown Tampa."

Dr. Miller says the two papers - like the cities they are located in - are like "two children who will not stop picking on each other."  And while the sibling rivalry may not be as intense as it was in the past, the newspapers need to do a little bit better job of educating their readers on the financial implications of a new stadium.

"I think it needs to be at least raised in this coverage," Miller said.  "On both sides of the bay."

McEwen says getting a stadium built in this economy will be harder than it ever was before.

"I'm glad I don't have to push it that hard anymore," he said. "I'm glad its in somebody else's court.  But if it was in mine, I'd certainly (advocate) for it."

Follow 10 Connects reporter Noah Pransky on Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky, Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky, or on his Sports vs. News blog, Shadow of the Stadium.

Noah Pransky, 10 Connects

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