Peter Schorsch, Florida Politics
Going deep with Peter Schorsch: The controversial political personality talks St. Pete development and building a media platform in your own hometown
On this episode of SPx, Peter Schorsch, the politico behind Florida Politics, joins Joe in the studio to talk St. Pete media. Schorsch is a complex and controversial figure in local and national politics. This episode goes deep - we see a surprisingly soft side of Schorsch, as he shares the challenges of building StPetersBlog (which later became Florida Politics) in his hometown - and the risks of making political enemies in your own back yard. Schorsch also talks the downsides of growth and development in St. Pete, and the importance of remembering the city's history while it changes. True to form, Schorsch challenges Joe on his philosophy of objectivity in media and the role the Catalyst could play in public discourse.
- Peter Schorsch is the man behind StPetersBlog and its evolution, Florida Politics. The "publishing magnate" is a St. Pete native and began his career writing about St. Petersburg politics. He has now taken the enterprise statewide.
- Schorsch first came onto Joe's radar at a political event with Senator Jack Latvala. Schorsch commanded the room upon entrance and was the only reporter in the room. "I don’t understand why more reporters/journalists don’t do this, but it’s not just get out and talk to the people but get to Chamber and business related events."
- Nontraditional newsfinding: "Yes, you can go to a press conference but I think there are so many interesting, intriguing places to go find news and stories."
- Attending business events: "I do wear shorts, and I do come in semi-casual, it’s not because I don’t care... I call it ‘going commando’ and not the real version of going commando but getting out into these community events and just showing up."
- New media: "I think there is a huge space in new media...I think as the business community becomes more and more exciting, I think you’ll get a second and a third voice in there and then you’ll see some other sites start to pop up."
- Building StPetersBlog: "I remember when my site was so smallI could see the individual IP addresses logging onto it...if you’re building from scratch I think it takes about 18 months to get it even in a position to be break-even."
- Writing about your hometown: "I stopped writing about St. Petersburg politics. 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."
- The risk and reward of friends & politics: "I’ve made it a point that a lot of my close friends aren’t in politics. But it’s also tough because I’ve lost a lot of friends. Like the former mayor, Rick Baker, was a mentor but we were critical of his losing mayoral campaign."
- Schorsch is no longer affiliated with many boards or political organizations outside of Florida Politics: "I was on the board of Tiger Bay, I was a board member of the Chamber. But I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable for those reasons."
- The risks of St. Pete development: "What St. Petersburg right now, right at the crossroads, and we’ve seen this, is – so we’ve got all these assets but then you get douchebags that want to turn it into – how many times have you heard, ‘Oh, this place could be the new Miami Beach’?"
- Development: "You’re doing so much for the community; don’t you worry that somebody’s gonna come along and put in too many, or the wrong condominium buildings, and then suddenly… We could lose this, this could be lost?"
- Understanding history: "I don’t think that there is a good sense of the history of how we got to where we are at right now. I’ve had a debate with a lot of people that you would probably know, I’m like how many Renaissances have we had? Is it one long boom?"
- "I would make the argument that it really began basically ’90, ’91 and into Rick Baker’s first term, that that began the boom."
- Startup hiring: "Karen Cyphers was the first person that I brought in. She’s got a PhD, a brilliant woman, she’s now at Sachs Media Group which is in Tallahassee, one of the state’s biggest public relations firms."
- "I think I liken myself to the Tampa Bay Rays in that we constantly feed to the bigger programs. 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."
- What Schorsch looks for in hires: " I look for five tool players, that they can do social media, that they can write, that they can write for speed, that they can scoop and that they write clean."
"I stopped writing about St. Petersburg politics. 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."
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 Politicsand 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.”
"I wish I had been cleaner about the conflict of interests that I had between being a consultant and publishing. Now it doesn’t matter, now in a way I’m bigger than having to worry about those things and I’ve got reporters, so they can just do the straight news story."
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 0:46) Introduction
(0:46 – 2:59) Joe meeting Schorsch during Jack Latvala’s Chamber talk
(2:59 – 11:19) More Journalists in the Right Places
(11:19 – 15:21) Minimum Viable Resources Needed for Good Journalism
(15:21 – 25:35) The Negative Side Effects of Influence
(25:35 – 43:34) St. Pete 2.0
(43:34 – 50:04) Peter’s Publishing Work
(50:04 – 53:00) Lessons Learned
(53:00 – 55:48) Shout-out
(55:48 – 56:30) Conclusion
Joe: Joining me on SPX today is local publishing magnate Peter Schorsch. Welcome, sir.
Peter: Thank you for having me. It’s an impressive operation for all those that are listening here, it’s very cool being here.
Joe: Thank you. I wanna start by telling the story of the first time you entered my consciousness, which was when the Senator Latvala was speaking at a… it was at a Kate Tiedemann’s school business and it was one of the Chamber’s coffee chat sessions, and it started I think at 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning and there was a little bit of networking and he started talking. And about ten minutes in someone walked in and sat down and just he kept on, it was a non-issue, and then maybe 20 minutes in someone else came in and went and sat down. And then about 40 minutes in someone else came in and he stopped dead in his tracks, and he was gathering his thoughts and he goes, ‘Well, I’m glad I talked about all the important stuff, the secret stuff already,’ I forget exactly what he said. And this person walked up to the fourth tier and sat down, and he started – Senator Latvala talked a little bit more and he stumbled again, he was, ‘Well, I guess this is,’ I don’t know, and this person raised his hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, keep going, off the record.’ And then he finished talking, there was a Q&A and he had to cut the Q&A short because he had to go, so it was a time pressure. And as he walked out he stopped by the door, turned around and walked up to the very fourth tier to shake this person’s hand, which was you, of course. And I’d leaned over next to me, I’m like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s ruling the room’ And so, I thought that was noteworthy, and then I started looking into some of the stuff that you did and I will say that a lot of that ultimately started me down the path which led to the St. Pete Catalyst. I think seeing you and what you did to fill the political vacuum, I hope to do it on the business side of things. But yeah, so for just us meeting for the first time today will say you have a pretty big impact on my existence…
Peter: Well that’s very kind of you to say. It was certainly noteworthy because any time you can get Jack Latvala to go up four flights of steps…
Joe: Oh, I’m sorry, Jack.
Peter: …it’s significant. But I do remember that and I wish it was for a politician. No offense to the former senator, I wish it was for somebody that was still in the game. But no. We were talking a little bit beforehand and I don’t understand why more reporters/journalists don’t do this, but it’s not just get out and talk to the people but get to Chamber and business related events. I’m amazed that there wasn’t another reporter in there, right? Here’s Jack Latvala, at that time the most important state senator, and he’s gonna give a public briefing…
Joe: With Q&A…
Peter: …with Q&A.
Peter: Why aren’t you there? That to me is chum in the water.
Joe: And I think that’s part of the reason why you’re successful, is because you recognize the value of that where others didn’t and had more of a going through the motions thing. And that was the opportunity for you to get exactly the words out of his head and the opinions out of his head that you wanted, custom-made.
Peter: Right. I’m sure you know Bill Carlson over at Tucker/Hall.
Peter: What he’s done with that…
Joe: …Café Con Tampa…
Peter: Yeah, where you’re getting this great news story, and I’m surprised every Friday that there isn’t four cameras in the back and two reporters, because it’s always newsworthy, it’s interesting and there’s another hundred people around there that are interesting and you can get their feedback from. And so, I’m a little surprised that you don’t see more of that. And so that’s something yes, and I do wear shorts, and I do come in semi-casual, it’s not because I don’t care. Well, we should talk about it, I’ve got the best tailor in the world, this guy Aron Gulbert – I say he’s the best because he cuts for The Southern Gentleman, which means he makes his suits a little bit more generous. And so, my belly doesn’t pour out and I love him for it. But I like to – I call it ‘going commando’ and not the real version of going commando but getting out into these community events and just showing up. Yes, you can go to a press conference but I think there are so many interesting, intriguing places to go find news and stories. And I think you’re right and I commend you for it, the business community in St. Petersburg has really been underreported. There’s been some great business columnists at the Tampa Bay Times – Trigeaux, Harrington are both solid reporters – but it’s like quite honestly, I’ve always been surprised at the disconnect between the Chamber and some of the other incubators and the media world. And that’s changed a little bit, but it’s like… my good friend is Greg Holden, who was the former chair two years ago, and I was always surprised that the Tampa Bay Times didn’t call him basically every day for a quote on whatever the big development was. And again, I’m really glad that you’re doing what you’re doing because it’s like the Chamber would call me up and say, ‘Hey, Steve Westphal is opening a new restaurant.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do it a little bit but it’s not really a political story,’ but the Times would look at it like it was maybe too small for the general audience. But I’m like, ‘No, this is important business news, this is the news!’ And again, they do – as critical as I am, sometimes the Times, they do their pound for pound probably the best newspaper in the country, but I think that there was definitely a void that you ought filling.
Joe: I came at it from the business side, so I’m sitting on Grow Smarter committees and Chamber committees and EDC committees and all these people are putting time and they’re putting these efforts out there and they just end up being whispers in the community because it’s the same few people they’re talking to over and over. And so, the revelation of this vacuum came from seeing the situation, feeling the frustration that Steinocher faces and JP at the EDC faces and seeing the knocking up against the brick wall of, ‘Hey, we want some attention here for this good stuff’ and there just wasn’t a vehicle to do it. Okay, so on point they’re coming to you about politics, trying to use you to talk about a restaurant, right?
Joe: So yeah, that’s very true and I do think the disconnect, it wasn’t from a lack of trying in the business community.
Peter: No. And we talked a second about them, but I do think the Business Journal does a good job.
Joe: They do, yeah.
Peter: I’m not 1,000% sure what their business model is, I think they’ve got some strength because they’re leveraging to other cities, they hired Janelle Irwin who had worked for us. I think they do a very good job. They’re Tampa-centric, they’re very Jeff Vinik centric, which is – he’s the straw that’s turning the drink over there right now. I wish there was more St. Pete focus. I liked when Eric Snyder, I don’t remember where he was at but he would write about some of the smaller restaurants opening. I’m surprised – and this is the beauty of podcast, especially with me, we’re going to go into some tangents – but Laura Reiley who is the food critic for the Times, she’s probably one of the best food critics in the country. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer I think the year before last. She doesn’t have the New York market to write about, but she does a really good job with our two-star food market here. One of the things that surprises me, and I used to talk to Laura all the time – she got rid of her blog, she got rid of her food blog. Her food blog would have, ‘Hey, Noble Pizza is opening here,’ or, ‘We talked to chef Jeremy about what they’re doing at Cassis,’ or what have you. And a lot of it didn’t make it into the newspaper and her argument was, ‘They’re paying me to write for the newspaper so I’m going to just write my items for the newspaper. Why am I gonna add another 40,000 words a month when they’re not paying me for it?’ And she wasn’t being selfish, it’s a good question that a lot of journalists are having to face right now. But I think we’re missing that also. I’m not looking for some sellout, everything-is-awesome food blog, but I am looking for a great restaurant and dining. And in other big cities they have 15 of those. And somehow again, the Tampa Bay market doesn’t have that. So, I think there is a huge space in new media that listen, I don’t think you’re gonna be the only one in this market in 18 months. I think as the business community becomes more and more exciting, I think you’ll get a second and a third voice in there and then you’ll see some other sites start to pop up.
Joe: And I think the key there is – and this is the same reason I think the Times doesn’t do it – is the economics of attention right now, and the attention is so scattered that it’s hard to get enough, because the people that ten years ago liked food but they’re also into left-handed butterflies and they’re now on some forum spending their time learning about left-handed butterflies and not learning about food – which they may have because they have an interest in it, but just not as much of an interest as the really, really specific and cool stuff that they’re into. And so, we end up in a space where the attention is you do that and it’s not so much even the money, but if you felt like you were doing the 40,000 words and 1,000 people were reading it, or 10,000 or whatever the number needs to be, that’s one thing. But you do that and because of the nature of you and people knowing it exists or taking the time to do it then you’re getting 50 readers and that’s daunting.
Peter: I remember when my site was so small…
Peter: …I could see the individual IP addresses logging onto it.
Peter: And I would watch. And I’m like, ‘Hey, you’re there.’ And you’re like, ‘Why are you writing that?’ And I think it takes about 18 months for a local site…
Joe: …with hard work…
Peter: …with hard work, unless you have some major investor that you’re gonna be able to hire 20 reporters and go at it. But if you’re building from scratch I think it takes about 18 months to get it even in a position to be break-even. But I think that – and I think this is an advantage – we have a lucrative, targeted audience – lawyers, lobbyists, politicians – we know that that’s where money is gonna be, the people that are writing a left-handed whatever, we don’t necessarily know where they’re gonna be. But I will say this: the people that are making these business decisions are not necessarily the best people to be making these business decisions. Case and point is Paul Tash, and this is where I am critical of the Times. Paul Tash, I think is a great newspaper man. But that’s what he is, a newspaper man. And so, he thought it was ideal 12 years ago to spend 21 million dollars on the naming rights for Stadium. And that’s really what put the times into the debt that it found itself. Well, they were the only newspaper in the country at that point to have that kind of deal and they thought the industry was gonna continue to grow and that that would turn into something more than it did and it clearly did not, and so they’ve had to sell their building and all of the financial issues that they have had. And my point is, is I’m surprised that there aren’t more tech savvy people leading newspaper companies. And so, you see a national company like Tronc, for people that don’t know that’s the old line of tribune newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, and in Florida it’s the Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel. And they ridiculously changed their name from the Tribune Publishing Company or whatever to Tronc. It was so bad that they may go back to it. And I see it throughout the industry, you see people that were in the newspaper business making business decisions for basically a 21st century media company, which is completely different than what it was.
Joe: Is there anybody doing it right? Can you point to a paper? Because I don’t know if maybe it’s not the medium, right? Because even the Times has started to sit on top of each other because they’re giving up office space so save money on rent. And if anybody should be able to monetize their content it’s them. And then you look at the flipside of that where maybe the future of these models you need a basis behind you, like the Post, to be viable. And then Bezos gets the follow-on benefit to his other businesses.
Peter: Right. Well the president thinks that they’re the lobbyists for the… [laughing]
Joe: Sure, yeah, that doesn’t help either. But a couple of previous shows we’ve had Hank Hine in and one of the things we talked about was why isn’t art sustainable? Oh, and we had Michael Pastreich from the Florida Orchestra. So, you have a thing here where there’s a benefit to society but there’s a minimum threshold of asset that you have to create to make that. So, for an orchestra you need 100 musicians, you need a nice hall, you need these minimum things. If it’s just three guys sitting in the park it’s not the Florida Orchestra, right? But it in of itself is not a viable financial exercise, it can’t live without philanthropy. So, it doesn’t support itself and it relies on philanthropy and the people who do that believe that we can invest in getting up to this minimum viable asset to give these people the experience of a Florida Orchestra. So I wonder if journalism doesn’t eventually fall into that place where people can do what I’m doing with a small team or what you’re doing with a small team, but there’s a minimum viable amount of team that you need to be able to do the really big stories, it’s not down to a couple of individuals that are doing it, but it’s relationships that they cultivate with a name behind it and the team behind it and all the resources behind it. So, there’s some minimum viable resource available, but you have to really do the checks and balances against players on the other side of that that have lots of resources to commit whatever they’re committing in and hope they don’t get found out.
Peter: Well, I think the newspaper business has to hit rock bottom, they have to acknowledge that it has a problem and I don’t think that that has happened yet. They will acknowledge there are financial problems but it has nothing to do with them. I don’t know why in a lot of ways there is a printed product anymore. Let’s take a macro lesson like the Tampa Bay Times again, to beat up on them. I hate to do that but I don’t know if you saw it or not, but you basically could not read their product on a cell phone because they had the Amazon glitch. They had that for six or seven months. That’s like a pitcher who can’t throw the ball past the mount. You have to shut down the newspaper and fix that issue. And they looked at it like it was some sort of tertiary concern. In fact, Ron Bracket, the person who was charged with it, is also somehow mysteriously retired here and I wonder if the Amazon glitch may have been part of that. I think that you’ve got incredible technology right now – I’m looking at my iPhone right now. I think you’re gonna be two or three years where you won’t even have the phone, it will just be a… I don’t know, a translucent device. I think people like the tactile sensation of a newspaper, I’ve always wondered – somebody’s gonna come up with screens that are foldable and manipulatable. That’s gonna be perfect for a newspaper. But the idea of what they’re doing, is there any uglier website than a newspaper’s website? No. It’s so unattractive because they’re trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. They’re trying to jam this printed product that goes out at 4:30 a.m. into a living, breathing organism which is a website. And so here is the easy thing for me to say: they don’t have the right people thinking about the solutions to it. I think if you have a Bezos, you need 20 more Bezos and not just because of the money but because he has been able to revolutionize an industry. It’s the same people at Ginet that have been there for 20 years that are making the business decisions for them now and the product has changed. No, I don’t think journalism is there because one former journalism that is working is TV, like TV stations didn’t have the problems that newspapers did, or newspapers basically gave away their stuff for free, then they wanted to put it back behind a paywall which is the dumbest economic system I’ve ever come with. The ambiguous paywall system is so bad, is so stupid, there are so many holes, there are so many ways around it, it doesn’t make sense. TV didn’t have that problem. TV just became bigger and more important into our lives. They didn’t give away their content for free. And so, there is definitely a way to do it, it’s just I don’t think the people that are making decisions for many of the newspaper companies are the right people to be doing it.
Joe: I definitely agree. In defense, the information on the Internet became free, and so it was the Internet that decided that written content should be free. Not the Internet, and it wasn’t really a mechanism in the beginning for video to come through that, so it’s TV still had a monopoly on video distribution.
Peter: Sure. You’re right.
Joe: Yeah. One thing when I was talking into the intro about when the Latvala incident, when I saw that, the more I thought about that from a influence and – which you have a magazine called Influence which should be mentioned to you – and power standpoint, that’s a positive. Are there negative sides to that influence when you walk into a room and make that kind of a ripple? Can you deconstruct the emotions you feel when you hear that story back?
Peter: I want to almost answer with the quintessential job interview question which is, ‘Well, my number one weakness is that I’m too hard working.’ Yes, it sucks sometimes to be too powerful and I will go back to the original questions and say that I try not to think about influence one way or the other, but 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? And so, case in point, there’s a fundraiser literally this weekend, it’s on a Disney cruise. We love the Disney cruise, for anybody that follows me on Facebook they’ll know that automatically. There’s a political fundraiser on there and I was told specifically, ‘You can’t come,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ Not that I was going to go anyways, it usually takes a while to plan that. But it’s people were going to want to come and relax and if you’re there and you’re live blogging so and so, having a drink at the champagne bar they’re not gonna feel comfortable. So that’s a number one thing. Number two, and it’s kind of why I stopped writing about St. Petersburg politics. 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.
Peter: Now I’ve never been punched but we wrote a very strong blog post critical of a local champagne bar here that opened up recently. And I’m not joking, there was a situation at our club and it was on Mother’s Day, where the brother of the bar owner physically accosted my wife and I because of the criticism of this champagne bar. Now I know all this going into it, 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, who is even in the process. My wife worked for Charlie Crist, was his senior advisor and I know before we even dated that she had a lot of problems with things that I would write. And so, there’s a lot of uncomfortability there.
Joe: Do you make an effort to reassure your friends that off the record is off the record and that they can talk with you, or do you just accept that what you are is a political being or a public being and…?
Peter: Well I’ll go back to your story. Remember, I had to tell Senator Latvala that it’s off the record.
Joe: Yeah, sure.
Peter: I would say my very close friends, I have a rule that if there’s a drink in hand I will say that I’ve made it a point that a lot of my close friends aren’t in politics. But it’s also tough because I’ve lost a lot of friends. Like the former mayor, Rick Baker, was a mentor but we were critical of his losing mayoral campaign. Very tough. I haven’t talked to Rick Baker since he lost the election. 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. In fact, I just had a client the other day say to me that his wife was upset about something that I wrote. So, there is a great deal of risk and reward in that. I think that if you’re Adam Smith at the Times you just write what you write and your salary is not dependent on who you upset. In fact, the more people you upset, the better if you’re a good investigative reporter and I just don’t have that luxury. You asked about my affiliations at the beginning and I used to be more involved in the community, I was on the board of Tiger Bay, I was a board member of the Chamber. But I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable for those reasons. And so if one person was uncomfortable I felt like that was too many people and so at this point whether it would be… I had been president of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association, I just have come to realize that they are better off without me for a variety of reasons and it’s easier for all involved.
Joe: That’s heavy.
Joe: I’m starting to taste that as well with the Catalyst and it’s even weirder for me because it’s a project, right? It’s something that the St. Petersburg Group is doing that’s an experiment and it’s not in any way ever gonna be my full-time thing, right? And so, A) I went in with objectivity as the guiding, in fact the podcast that we’re doing was originally gonna be called ‘Objectimy’ or ‘The Objectimist’ which is a weird word I made up.
Peter: I’m glad it’s not that [laughing].
Joe: [laughing] Thank you. Saying no is as important as saying yes sometimes. But the idea was that I was gonna bring on two folks and not say who they were, not say their name and talk about an issue with the challenge of being objective, and then the hook was going to be to reveal who they were. And the idea is this is an anti-silo exercise, right? And so yeah, obviously when you go on shows and the first thing you do is shut down when you hear who they are.
Joe: But even if you figure out who they are within 15 minutes or 20 minutes, your brain has had to absorb that information in a slightly different way, a slightly more open way.
Peter: That’s really smart.
Joe: And then because St. Petersburg Group is the umbrella over the Catalyst and we are about elevating St. Pete, then my mission is not necessarily truth in the traditional journalism sense, my mission is making our community smarter and better and more connected and more appreciative and solutions-based. And so, I have the benefit of not having to write a lot of negative stuff. In fact, we don’t write negative stuff, we write solutions-based things and that doesn’t mean fluff, it means solutions-based, right? And we’re smart enough to know the difference. And that’s where I think we’re not succeeding yet, I think we’re writing good content, but I would like to get more into using the brain power that I have connected to me to do that, so…
Peter: The challenge for you guys amongst many, and you and I talked about it before – if everybody could do this people would be doing it. What they usually end up doing when they start a website is they write about the five or six things that they know best and then they punch themselves out and then they’re satisfied. They got it off their chest that they didn’t like the blue recycling bins, right? And then they wrote about that twice, somebody noticed it, they wrote it on their Fa—but you can only write about the blue recycling bins three times if you’re gonna write a local blog. And I don’t like the word blog.
Joe: Me neither.
Peter: If everything is good on the Catalyst then nothing is bad, right? And something has to be bad for everything to be good.
Joe: Yeah. I understand relativity for sure.
Peter: [laughing] Yes, I do get it. And I think man, if you guys landed a left hook one in a hundred… man, doesn’t that strengthen the other 99?
Joe: Agreed. And I’m not saying we never will, but I’m saying for everything that’s bad there’s a solution to make it good and I’d rather write about that. So, it’s not acknowledging that through is bad…
Peter: So wait, if there’s a bad champagne bar you think you can actually turn that around?
Joe: If there is a bad champagne bar I probably wouldn’t write about it. Instead I would write about a problem with the solution that’s available.
Peter: Well see, this is – and I love podcasts, I really do…
Joe: Sure, yeah.
Peter: This is the challenge of St. Petersburg right now. Okay, we are blessed to have people like you, right? This building wasn’t here, right? Or this building wasn’t like this.
Peter: There certainly wasn’t Rococo across the street.
Peter: In fact, isn’t Rococo still this hidden gem of a restaurant? It’s gorgeous, incredible wine list and I don’t think 90% of the city has even had…dinner yet here. What St. Petersburg right now, right at the crossroads, and we’ve seen this, is – so we’ve got all these assets but then you get douchebags that want to turn it into – 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.’
Peter: And that’s what people… there are law firms, big law firms, and I’m not being critical when I say this so I want to put space between the word ‘douchebag’ and when I’m talking about this but think about the big law firm Johnson-Pope. They’re set up in St. Petersburg still because they’re waiting for… I think when they wrote it they said there’s so much real estate development that’s going to happen, especially if the Trop goes. We know there’s an explosion of growth still gonna go through here. Think about just around this neighborhood between All Children’s. There’s so many nice houses as there is houses that you and I would probably not want to live in. Think about when you have another hundred doctors here or Johns Hopkins puts in another hundred million, how this is going to fill up, etcetera. If you look at the big debate over – and correct me on the pronunciation – but the public art at the pier, the Barbara…
Peter: …Echelman. Okay. Isn’t that the quintessential debate happening in St. Pete? We’ve got this great thing – the public waterfront. We’re gonna have this pier. I like the Echelman art. In fact, I just got back from Barcelona and there’s that really atrocious Frank Gary goldfish piece which I’m sure they wonder why the hell did somebody put a 200-foot gold medal goldfish looking thing that could be like a conquistador hat right on our beautiful beach? And now that you look at it, it’s signature. And that’s kind of the argument that we had here where it’s like well in night time that art looks great; during the daytime it looks like a cat’s head exploded. And I think that’s the battle. And so, I invite people like you to fight more on it.
Joe: That’s a great example of how my philosophy would overlay that. And my own philosophy would overlay that in that all the perspectives are right – they’re just different perspectives. And one thing we were talking about the other day was offshore drilling, right? So offshore drilling, the oil company has the rights to do that, creates an asset on their books, it’s a positive financial thing, it creates an asset for the government, it creates an asset for the state. The flipside of that is it introduces environmental risk. And so, both of those are true, it creates an asset and it creates environmental risk. The art is good but it also maybe takes away some of this green space. And so for me, the net damage to the people’s openness to receiving my information is not worth giving an opinion. Because it’s arbitrary, right? Just which perspective I happen to hold, there’s not to me one logical winner. And maybe there is a slight and again it’s just my opinion. So, I would rather have people, when they give their attention to me, it be about something that I find value in giving a solution for. So that’s I guess, a better way to articulate it is there has to be a worthy ROI on entering the discussion where I feel like there’s a clear injustice. And if the art goes there or it doesn’t go there it will be a slight injustice but to some people.
Peter: But if you take a bigger – if the Catalyst reaches the level…
Joe: …that it will…
Peter: …that it will, people are gonna want that from you whether or not you like it or not.
Joe: Yeah. And we do this. One way I stepped up and I challenged the status quo was we did a series called St. Pete 2.0. And the idea is, is I’m tired of listening to this Renaissance talk. We’re on the culm, we’ve got potential, right? And a lot of this again is from being on a lot of boards and committees and just seeing people talking about potential. And I’m like, we’re ten years in or 15 years now into this potential, so what the heck lies on the other side of potential? Let’s make a checklist of what do we need? So, we’ve got great museums, I like the Et Cultura, right? So, we have a little South by Southwest action going here – that’s a good thing for a city to have. We need to get some startup wins out here, right? So, I’m in the startup space, I do work with a lot of startups both in my investing and at Big Sea. And we can talk about how we are a great place for startups, but the best way to be a great place for startups is to get a few multi-hundred-million dollars companies to come out here and all of the sudden we actually are getting the kind of love that we want. And so right now I’m focusing my resources in the St. Petersburg Group on building a new kind of Incubator that will focus heavily some acumen on…
Peter: So, I should pitch you later on a couple of…
Joe: You can pitch me.
Peter: Well, you can pitch all you want.
Joe: But the point is, is that I’m saying to be St. Pete 2.0 we need some hundred-million-dollar startups to come out here, so I’m gonna go make that happen. Or we need a voice that’s uniquely ours, which is what my time with the Catalyst is.
Peter: I know that you have a governing philosophy here and it’s attractive and it’s worthwhile. It’s not that I counter, I just say you know what? You’re doing so much for the community; don’t you worry that somebody’s gonna come along and put in too many, or the wrong condominium buildings, and then suddenly… We could lose this, this could be lost. We’ve seen it happen and we saw it to Tampa. Remember Tampa was the next great American city? And it took them up until last week to maybe get back to where they were supposed to be back in the 1980s. There used to be those signs, I don’t know if you’ve lived here all your life or not, but it was Tampa it’s literally the next great American city. And that never came to fruition. And I just worry that this could all be lost and we could so screw up the stadium deal, which we’re bound to do. The stadium is a bad situation, it’s a non-winnable situation. So, it’s just a matter of how bad does that situation get before we’re all done with it? But what happens if you take out the stadium and somebody doesn’t come along to redevelop it? And let me go a second level. Remember, there’s also the bad which is… I like to tell people that are new to this area – we were one of the last cities to have a genuine race riot. You get South of 13th Avenue, those people aren’t part of St. Pete 2.0.
Joe: And that’s ironically where I feel much more comfortable weighing in, because that’s a clear injustice, right? There’s nobody on the other side of that, or very few people on the other side of that saying, ‘We don’t want our kids to be educated well.’ So, if I’m gonna fight I’m gonna fight there.
Joe: But more overarching than that is simply that yes, I do care about those things, but I feel I can be uniquely positioned to wield an influence dictated from a brand standpoint by logic, right? And so, I feel like I can be more effective in protecting against that because of maintaining…
Peter: …almost an integrity.
Joe: Well, it’s integrity but it’s an integrity of thinking, right?
Peter: Right. It’s an integrity of the process itself.
Joe: So, it’s not just about being honest, it’s not just about…
Peter: Well, you’re right in a way.
Joe: It’s that, but it’s also thinking, I’m logic first, partly second opinion, second personality.
Peter: 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? One of the weaknesses of the Chamber by definition is that there isn’t anybody from West of 34th Street really involved in it. There’s some businesses and everything like that but what always turns out in these elections is, is everybody thinks downtown is gonna get all the money and West of the Interstate is gonna be… that kind of fueled Rick Kriseman’s rise, he’s the first mayor from the West part of town. And so, I want to bring up something that you said, the Tier 2 city. And I wonder, how do you get comfortable – not you, but how do we get comfortable with that? It was very hard for us when we came back from Europe, if you’ve been in Rome and you want to resist, well, over in Rome you’re like – hey, by the way, that city’s been around for 2700 years, okay? So yeah, they’ve got statues there. So, slow your roll. And so, you don’t want to just bring that all back. Why isn’t St. Pete, New Orleans? Well, because it’s not. So, it’s I think another challenge that we face is saying this is it, just let things be and being content with the greatness that we’ve got going on.
Joe: Sure. Well, yeah, if I found things in Rome that I felt we should do here I would just do them and then if it worked it would work and people would get on board. I think that one of the down sides to the whole what I’ll call downtown board people, which is Chamber boards and city boards and stuff, is just the politics and the infrastructure and the walking on eggshells a little bit, and everybody has their interest protected and all that thing. And so, I think there’s just for me an efficiency to talking about things too much and just my time is limited and I have the list of – it’s same… problem you have as resourcing, right? – by the team of five people, then the things that I have coming down the pipe would get done nicely. But right now, they’re just a heap of things.
Peter: What’s the first thing you would do if you were king for the day in St. Pete?
Joe: I don’t know, I’d have to think about that.
Peter: I don’t know what it is either, but I wonder, just pick your brain on that.
Joe: Yeah. I’m a student of the Beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg and then…
Peter: One looking up there?
Joe: Yeah. And even I think of Bob Dylan singing at a little café in Soho, right? And Soho has that feeling because he was there and not because he became famous but also because somebody wrote about it, they made it romantic.
Joe: Right? And you think about Ginsberg reading at the City Lights Bookstore out in San Francisco or the Grateful Dead playing on their front porch and stuff and that will happen.
Peter: Is that what the Catalyst is?
Joe: It’s not the Catalyst, it’s a general philosophy, they have some more and we build BeachDrive.com as well. So, I want to build mythology around the chefs on Beach Drive, I want Beach Drive to be a place that you go that we set up an expectation of a feeling – this is what brand value is, right? And brand value is the most beautiful value in the world because it’s completely free and it’s not a zero sum, it’s truly a value that can be given… there’s technically an expense to people if you go to one place instead of another, but the idea is if people will come to St. Pete because they want to feel a certain way, because we told them Beach Drive will make them feel that way, and then they come there and we start the story and we finish the story because they met the chef and they had the food, and that’s all good for everybody, right? And so, to me telling the stories of the people and showing them in that way that brings people in the community together, so you’re walking down the street – ‘Oh, there’s chef Ted from the Mill,’ or whatever. And not just chefs, obviously, there’s politicians and people who are doing great things. I’m a big fan of Randy Russell and Karen Chassin at the Foundation. When they’re walking on the street I want people to know the kind of work that they’re doing.
Peter: So – and this is just again, because of the podcast and I have a propensity to debate – okay, like an issue that I had. The mural gets put up on the Smith Real Estate building…
Joe: That’s who owns this building, by the way.
Peter: But do you know the mural that I’m talking about?
Joe: The one on 4th Street?
Peter: No. There’s this Moon Under Water and the Smith Real Estate building by Annata.
Joe: Oh, okay, yeah. Yes.
Peter: And I’ve made some public comments about it. Mine was, ‘Hey, we don’t need a mural here.’ And people were like, ‘Oh, no, murals are great. That’s what St. Pete’s about.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I get that but we could use a mural on 9th Avenue and 5th Street. We don’t need anything more on Beach Drive.’ Just using that specifically, and it’s gonna be the overarching theme of this podcast is that’s what I’m worried about, is oh, well we’ve got the mural and now why don’t we put in…? My argument against the champagne bar going in, and it’s an issue I think on a legal matter for the other landlord, is we already had Tryst there.
Peter: We had a high-end bar there. Well now we’ve got two. Tryst was told, and I am not taking up the case of Tryst, I was just told that Tryst had something in its land use agreement, there wasn’t supposed to be another high-end bar here. We don’t need another Italian restaurant, we’ve got Bella Brava, and I fear that that is endemic of everything in this town.
Peter: Which is every – like when we were talking about the pier right now, how many restaurants do we need? Let me ask you a larger question – do we even need the new pier? And the Times asked that question. And now we’re going to have a pier, that’s seems like that’s a settled issue. But nobody stopped to say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t spend 70-80 million dollars on a pier, we built that at a time when access to the waterfront was limited so we needed to have something etcetera.’ I guess I’m just saying I enjoy my role which is count— I know you and I are diametrically different on it, where you’re raising great questions and you’re providing the mechanism. I think that’s even more important, which is you’re almost like you’re rolling out the ball, which is we don’t have enough of, we don’t have enough people to roll out the ball just for the teams to get even started playing. Whereas I’m an ***hole and it’s why I don’t leave my house as much and I told you that when we were talking about setting up this podcast, I’m like uh… because I will say, ‘Hey, that champagne bar doesn’t belong there, that mural doesn’t belong there, why does Stillwaters and Bella Brava now have 15 valet spots?’
Peter: If you ever walked there, it’s growth issues.
Joe: But the thing you’re talking about is all a specific tranche of issue, right?
Joe: If I were to come to you and say there is a grub worm that’s on the South side that’s around Lake Maggiore and they’re now using a new kind of mower and it’s killing all the grub worms and we’re not gonna have a certain kind of moth and they just really got passionate about why don’t you weigh in on that, right?
Joe: I guess my philosophy is I weigh on the things that I can do the most good with and I leave the other things to people who are the most passionate about that area.
Peter: Well, I’m only bringing up Beach Drive because you have the website. I don’t feel this strongly about 4th Street.
Joe: My investment in Beach Drive is a larger investment in making people happier here because of their perspective on the city, it’s not specifically to worry about the nuances of Beach Drive, I leave that up to the business owners of Beach Drive. And so, I say I value that you have thought about it and researched it and are intelligent and have an opinion about it and I want to give a platform if that’s helpful to put it out on, but I’m ignorant, right? I’m just ignorant. And so, it’s not a place for me to put my voice just for the sake of putting my voice because I don’t know, right?
Peter: I get it. And this has been incredibly informative, I’m getting a better sense of what your larger goal is and in fact with all that you’re doing for St. Pete, because eventually I’m gonna come back to the St. Pete market in a way, I will probably be after maybe another year because you get the blogger you need or you deserve, not the one you want. And I think that there is a lack – and that’s again, I can’t say it enough, I’m so glad you guys are doing what you’re doing because there’s a lack of public intellectualism in a way. It’s very limited, there’s limited form, limited engagement, and then big issues pop up like put a public… wouldn’t the Catalyst have been an ideal spot for a year-long discussion about whether or not we put that public art on the pier’s space?
Peter: So, everybody can make their argument. But there really wasn’t, it was so small and heated. It should’ve been a community-wide discussion.
Joe: And it’s a nuance, I totally agree and we would’ve been a good platform for that. And we are a community sourced news source, so every section of the Catalyst has an equivalent form in the contribution center, right? With the exception of influencers, that’s a nomination thing. But we did a series called Agile Education, and so there is a series where it wasn’t ignoring problems but it was going around we’re gonna spend our resources on investigating something. We went and visited with PTEC and we went and looked at Suncoast Developers Guild and how they’re building a new coding class, right? And these are the things that if this information gets out and spread these are the people that are educating, filling the jobs that our corporations need to succeed in building the talent pool that we need to bring more businesses down here, which then solves a lot of the problems, right? So that’s where we put our resources, we said we can help make people better about understanding the educational opportunities here, better about the mindset…
Peter: It’s win-win.
Joe: It’s win-win, yeah. One of the companies, Nielsen and I think or Jabil, they have a big policy now of taking people with certain personality traits and bringing them in and training them into the roles that they need because they know if they have these tendencies and personality, they can make them… So instead of worrying about building classes and places that they can’t really control, they’re taking it into their own hands. So now other businesses have started to adopt that sort of mindset and said, okay, instead of complaining about how there’s no talent down here I will see how other companies are solving that problem and I will go solve the problem that way, I will hire this smart person and make them the employee that I need. But I would you welcome to come back, I think there is as you know with the magazine called Influencers there’s an art to influence and I think that taking some time away and getting a fresh perspective, I will look forward to you reentering the space.
Peter: Yeah, it just goes back to what I was talking about… I was writing about my neighbors.
Joe: You choose what you write about, right?
Peter: Well, you choose what you write about. My wife loves a community up in Tallahassee, it’s called Southwood, where a lot of the influencers and the state political world live. And she’s like, ‘I could live here,’ and I’m, ‘No, we couldn’t.’ We walked down the street and you would see the people that I had just written 700 critical words of. And so, the same situation that we faced in St. Petersburg. Now you said something like why are we talking about our…? I wish people would stop talking about, we have this potential and two things came to mind when you said that. Number one – I don’t think that there is a good sense of the history of how we got to where we are at right now. I’ve had a debate with a lot of people that you would probably know, I’m like how many Renaissances have we had? Is it one long boom? I think the most important decision that was made was the reopening of the Vinoy. It’s not because I love the Vinoy, which I do, but with that you started to transform just the basic footprint around Beach Drive, which would then transform other things. Some people say the decision in ’86 to start building the stadium may have been the consequential… I would make the argument that it really began basically ’90, ’91 and into Rick Baker’s first term, that that began the boom. You look at you got St. Pete College where it’s at in downtown St. Pete, you got the Palladium where it was and you got American Stage where it is. And people don’t realize that that used to be all reversed and none of it was working, the Stage was at where the Palladium was and St. Pete College wasn’t where it was. And he got together with a guy, Carl Cutler, who was the president of St. Pete College, got him to basically build a footprint down there so that they could put American stage there. And he did this crazy three-way tray that would’ve made an MBA GM envious. And I always tell people, ‘Where is the best place for the stadium right now?’ And they’re like, ‘It’s the dog track.’ It really is. When you think about it, if we had to start over we would probably put it in either Toy Town or the Dog Track because it would be able to get the Pinellas funding mechanism, but it would still be close to St. Pete and you’ve got the huge transportation areas for it. That’s like a three-dimensional chess there. And so, I don’t know that a lot of the new people in town that are making a lot of good noise. And I guess that’s – I don’t know, it’s like saying that rocks weighed more back when I was a kid. I enjoy, and it’s why I would want to be back involved, as connecting some of the history. I used to be involved more with St. Pete Preservation and I like what Peter Bell and Martin Kai did with the walking tour so that you knew how that building got to be where it is. And you have to know this stuff, like Sundial is such a complicated story because it was Baywalk before that. How is Sundial working and Baywalk collapsed, right? That’s a genuine question. And you realize that they had security issues and there were micro-riots and things like that down there. Somebody’s eventually gonna buy that from whoever owns it now or whatever from Bill Edwards or whatever the convoluted thing is. When those people come into town will they even know what Baywalk was? Or will they just look at it as this successful real estate development now, and so they’re like, ‘You know what? Why do we have six security guards here?’ And will there be somebody to say, ‘Well, we have six security guards here because in…’ I remember one of the first things that I did when I got back from living in Tallahassee my last time, it was on the night before my birthday, I went and participated in an Israeli-Gaza, it was during the second Infidada – there was a 200-300 person Israel versus Palestine protest right under Dan Marino’s. No wonder nobody went down there, right? And I wonder the next people that come in, will they even know…? Right now, when we’re talking about the stadium, on the stadium deal, as people are talking about it… I was basically for a little bit the campaign manager for the group, how people opposed to… we were keeping the Rays stadium from moving down to Al Lang. Well, why did that happen? And I think so much of that history informs what the rays are doing now. And so, I just think that one of the big challenges, and it’s something I almost challenged with the Catalyst because I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative, and I don’t even think it’s opinionated, but connecting the dots – look at 400 Beach Drive, that building, do people know what that was? That that was a two-story building before that, that Robert Irvine, the big chef…? I think there’s a lot of missing history out there.
Joe: Sure, totally. And we’re making an effort, we built StPetersburgPier.com and we paid actually Monica Kyle who used to run the Preservation Society…
Peter: I love Monica.
Joe: She wrote a history for us, ten pages on all the piers on stpetersburgpier.com. And we had Peter Betzer in last week and he gave us a full history of the Downtown Partnership and how they bought the land to get USF St. Pete on there, and talked about a lot of these same movers and shakers and people’s…
Peter: And I’m sure, I’m not putting it on you, I wish more people would take this forth.
Joe: So, I agree. But then the follow up point to that is the age-old question, it’s an ROI, right?
Joe: So yes, that information has value, but to collect, produce, chronicle, promote and get that information out there, there’s a lot to that and I’m interested in it for sure. And my goal is to what lessons can we learn from it, and the more lessons you can extract from it, the bigger the ROI on taking the time to find that, right? So St. Pete 2.0 has an element of history to it so we understand where we’re coming from, it also has an element of where we’re going, and so that’s the age old question, is I think the challenge as archivists or as distillers of our history we have to be able to bring enough current day lessons, enough anecdotal entertainment or whatever to make it worth finding that out though. That’s why I was challenged, because I’m igniting on things like that that I would love to dig into and it’s just we only have a four-person staff and wanna go to six and its always resources.
Peter: I got people that pitch me all the… why don’t you do a site that focuses on Lake County politics? And I’m like, ‘Alright, good. Do you want to give us $14,000 for three reporters?’ And they’re, ‘Oh…’ We have the largest political reporting footprint in the state, something like.. I would say we have, month to month I probably dole out 25 individual checks, some people full time. I don’t think people understand when it comes to building one of these sites. It’s all labor. This isn’t like you’re buying widgets. It’s like if you don’t get in some income for it you cannot pay the writer. I always say literally, at the end of the day I’m an ad salesman and I’m collecting checks. I’m like, ‘Hey, you’re late on your cheque.’ The reason why that matters is because I’m gonna be late paying Jim Rosica, my reporter in Tallahassee. It’s not like I’m not going to pay for fuel that month or whatever – I’m not going to pay someone’s salary. And so that’s I think the biggest challenge. And the Times goes through that. I think 70 or 80% of their budget is human.
Joe: Just because I’m at as similar as where you were a while ago with regard to building the publishing up, can you tell me a little bit about the… speaking of history, and obviously you did the St. Petersblog yourself for a while, then how did you start adding who, were you first gonna staff people and how did that grow?
Peter: Sure. Having a kid changes everything, right? And so, you wanna start to delegate. So, in 2012-2013 I needed to start bringing some people on and I didn’t think any reporters would wanna join them, and I didn’t have the budget for it either. So, I started – I went on Facebook, I said, ‘Hey, I need some political writers.’ And I think the formula was if you’d write me 25 blog posts I’d pay you $1,600.
Joe: Twenty-five blog… so how many words, of 400 words or 600?
Peter: Yeah. And that would always be, they’re like, ‘Well, how many words?’ And I would say…
Joe: ‘Whatever you want.’
Peter: …two words.
Peter: If it’s an incredible story and you can tell it in six words I don’t care. If it takes 1,200 words, that’s on you. And so, I brought in – I believe Karen Cyphers was the first person that I brought in. She’s got a PhD, a brilliant woman, she’s now at Sachs Media Group which is in Tallahassee, one of the state’s biggest public relations firms. She does their data analytics operation and she was just really good at finding interesting nuggets. And this is before the way Google would send out a press release about Google trends and this is what’s trending and stuff like that, she was finding that stuff out six years ago…
Joe: Human version of that.
Peter: Yeah, she was a human – so she was constantly – in fact we put out an email called ‘last call’, it’s a 07:00 o’clock recap on the day. Each day it includes an original, kind of like the way USA Today had this little snapchat artwork. We do something like that about something going on in Florida or interesting set – that always comes from Karen. And then the second person I hired and he’s still with us is Phil Ammenn who was basically a brand writer, and he’s doubled his salary from starting up basically getting together I don’t know, five or six years ago. He’s my right hand and it’s his birthday actually today. But he keeps the trains running on time and we have a lot of trains. We put out the morning email, the evening email, we write 25 or 30 stories a day, we have a weekend email, he organizes the staff etcetera. So, he has probably our most important job. Mitch Perry was the first real journalist that we hired. Mitch and I knew each other from doing this kind of stuff, radio shows and TV shows together. I believe that what we are doing, what you’re doing is basically what all newspapers were doing 20 years ago. And so, it was kind of natural for Mitch to leave Creative Loafing, especially Creative Loafing was having some tough times and he jumped over to us. And then from there we just kept adding, and it’s been… I think I liken myself to the Tampa Bay Rays in that we constantly feed to the bigger programs. 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. We hired Gary Shelton away from the Tampa Bay Times, which he was the big sports reporter in town. And so, we are able to attract natural journalists. We had Scott Powers in Orlando, he was the leading political reporter in Orlando, probably still is. And we do it with a different budgeting, our folks run through walls. We’ve gone through a lot of people because it’s like turning around an aircraft carry with some of these veteran journalists, they’re like, ‘Hey, I wrote my 600 words today,’ I’m like, ‘I needed that by 10:00.’ And we’ve had issues with that. Now my kind of formula is like the Rays in a lot of ways, getting them very young. And so, I hired – he was just going to the Tallahassee Democrat, but he had been the editor of the FSU newspaper. And another one that was at the Alligator and was gonna go to the Gainesville Sun, and he’s with us. So maybe getting them at a little bit younger and not having to unteach them bad habits.
Joe: Other than the obvious good writer, diligent, tenacious or whatever, are there any qualities that you look for, you think, that are specific to you when you’re looking at these young writers?
Peter: With us you have to know politics. And that sounds obvious, but a lot of people go out as general assignment folks and they think that they can lend themselves to politics. We are a political website for Political Insiders, so you have to know your stuff, you have to be an expert in the subject matter. Speed is an important quality… I think I like to use another baseball metaphor – I look for five tool players, that they can do social media, that they can write, that they can write for speed, that they can scoop and that they write clean. And it’s a challenge when you find one of those folks and you cycle through a lot of folks to get to that. It is a buyer’s market, there’s certainly more unemployed journalists and writers out there than there are jobs in the industry. We have the advantage… I always go back to – and it sounds obvious but it isn’t – I look for smart, I look for savvy. And we can teach you all of the rest but it goes back to our educations. I would rather have somebody that has a liberal arts degree and has 15 or 20 different inspirations than just a standard J-school graduate that’s trained in the art of journalism but isn’t inspired in the same… I like people with hobbies. That’s a big thing, especially as you go through and you look at people’s Facebook pages, I think people are really who they are on social media. Yes, we are all our better selves but you can get to the core. And I will tell you, and I think it was one of my mentors who told me, ‘Really look for their hobbies; not that they have to be particularly good at them, but if they have interesting hobbies it’s one of the quickest things to notice.’
Joe: So financially you have this staff that you’re paying, I know that you have a couple streams of income, you have your advertising through your publications or your websites and then you also do some consulting as well. Talk about the a, if you’d go back – I’m mostly curious in obviously if you’d go back ten years would you have built in a different way, or do you think if you put more into the publication side of it that that would be…? My acumen is to how you could put more into it? You put a lot into it, but…
Peter: I wish I had done it cleaner, I wish I had not got into the head butting with the Times.
Joe: Do you have too many outlets? Do you wish you would’ve streamlined into one brand, or are your brands all different puzzle pieces, right?
Peter: Well, just as we’re talking about art history, remember our lives changes when we bought the domain floridapolitics.com. That just became so important to us and we paid an enormous price for it and literally the guy was gonna sell it off Ebay and I said no, you’re not. And I had an emergency meeting of my investors so I could get what I thought… I thought it was gonna take 50,000, it didn’t take 50 but it was a lot of money. I went in to my wife and I said, ‘If we had to do it all over’ – because ‘stpetersblog’ is such an awkward name and it limited us in so many ways. I said, ‘If we had a domain name…’ She’s like, ‘Well, if we could’ve gotten “floridapolitics” that would’ve been awesome but that will never be available.” I’m like, well, I need to borrow the credit card, because it is.’ But I couldn’t change that at this point. But I would say I had such a rough time at it at the beginning, a lot of it on my part because a lot of new media, especially in the political sphere, is punching at the established folks, when you get limited out on things and I wish I had been cleaner about the conflict of interests that I had between being a consultant and publishing. Now it doesn’t matter, now in a way I’m bigger than having to worry about those things and I’ve got reporters, so they can just do the straight news story. But when it was me, when I would write a story on Jeff Brandes, well I was also working for his campaign, so of course you’re getting the scoop. And so, 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 journalism, in the Florida political journalism sphere, to how I entered the market. 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.
Joe: Don’t say it.
Joe: Fake news.
Peter: Or fake. In a way I always… this is a terrible joke, but I’m like we were the Russians before the Russians did what they did. That’s what we did, we got involved and we write a story and we jack it up on Facebook. To me it’s so ridiculous that – isn’t that always the way with 70-year old white male politicians where they’re just like, ‘Well, the Facebook really got us into trouble.’ And I’m like, we’ve been doing this since 2010. How are you just discovering the idea of getting people to argue with each other on Facebook and…? So overall, if I have a great regret when it comes to the publishing part it would be I would have liked to have done it a lot cleaner.
Joe: This has been great, I’ve been looking forward to sitting down with you.
Peter: Thank you for having me.
Joe: Yeah. And so, we end every show with a shout-out, and this is a chance to specifically I think someone who doesn’t get the love they deserve that you know that’s doing great stuff in St. Pete and that you want to shine a positive light on.
Peter: Is it only one or can I rapid fire, just a stream of conscious?
Joe: I’m all for the rapid fire, go for it.
Peter: I really like what Ryan Griffin… and I’ve not always gotten along with Ryan, we used to play basketball hard nose against each other. Love what he’s doing with Trophy Fish down there, I think that that’s a great addition to the restaurant scene.
Joe: He’s also one of the main players in the Grow Smarter as well, he’s kind of the chair of the operation.
Peter: He’s doing a lot of good stuff. I increasingly like what the Downtown Partnership is doing relative to what I thought the Chamber should be doing. I think there’s a lot of smart thought coming out of the Chamber, I give credit to Steve Kornell. You start to take some of these council members for granted after a while. He’s been making the right votes now for a while. I know one big issue right now that’s gonna be big in St. Pete is the massive increase in water rates and it’s because of all the water issues that the city has had and he’s tried to hold the line and I see him, he pops onto people’s Facebook pages, and not in a negative way, but really talks to them about the issues. I want to give a shout-out to the four City Council members, I think it was Ed Montanari, Kornell, I think Darden, I don’t remember, maybe Foster who did vote against the public art at the pier – not because I was against the public art but I think that they’re holding the line as so many people do want to rush in to make St. Pete even better, and that we need to have more conversation about what we’re doing. It’s very easy, but there are some great city counsellors. It’s not even people that I’m working with or anything like that, but I think if anybody is listening, they really should pay attention to the Tampa City Council races because they’re going to define not just the future of Tampa, but really the future of the region. Tampa is reasserting itself as the centerpiece of the region. Eight years ago, it was obvious who the City Council people were gonna be. There are no more Bob Buckhorns or Dick Reckos in Tampa politics. It really will be a new generation of leaders and it’s so interesting what’s happening in Tampa in terms of the number of projects that they have going on right now, I think that that’s something. And finally, it was just a steal day. Let’s give a shout-out to our friends at Cassis, chef Jeremy and I can’t think of everybody – Philippe who is the owner there, I know that some of the people that are on, Kahwa and Tryst are a part of that, 2nd and 2nd… But it’s really cool that they’ve added that. If we can get another round of restaurants off of… If there is Beach Drive and then there’s Broadway and then off Broadway – if we can get off Broadway finally built out it will be really nice.
Joe: Awesome. Thank you.
Peter: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is the CEO of Big Sea and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Joe brings a strong acumen for strategy and positioning businesses. He serves on several local boards, including TEDx Tampa Bay, which grew his desire to build a platform where the area’s thought leaders could share their valuable insight with the community at large.