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Business Observer Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 7 months ago

CEO of Florida's largest daily newspaper looks ahead upon retirement

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Venerable news organization, during an era of sweeping changes in how customers consume content, is about to get a new CEO.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

In 1976 Paul Tash, then a senior at Indiana University, experienced something that’s eluded every other college student nationwide ever since: being at a school with a men’s basketball team that delivers an undefeated national championship season.  

“It was magical,” Tash says. “That team was just such a treat for the whole university. When they won the championship by beating Michigan for the third time that season, in the final, there was exhilaration, of course. But I also felt a little sense of letdown. The quest was over. And I knew as well that my own time at Indiana was coming to an end.”

Going on 46 years later, Tash is about to make another big life transition: he recently announced that July 1 he will retire as CEO and chairman of the Tampa Bay Times, the largest daily newspaper by circulation in Florida. Hired as a reporter in 1976, Tash worked his way up to being named CEO in 2004.

Like the 1976 Hoosiers, Tash has overseen some championship-level accomplishments in his 18-year tenure as CEO. The list includes seven Pulitzer Prizes — more than half of the 13 the paper has been awarded since it was founded in 1884. And Tash’s 18 years as CEO makes him the longest-tenured chief ever for the paper, a for-profit entity owned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a St. Pete nonprofit.   

The wins have drawn national attention to the paper, which acquired its biggest rival, the Tampa Tribune, in 2016. On the flip side, some well-documented losses, many coming in the past five years, put a dent on Tash’s overall record.

The company, for example, took out a $12 million loan in 2017, and, unusual for a large metro daily paper, the financing came from some well-known local civic and business leaders. That list included Tash and his wife Karyn; local auto dealer and philanthropist Frank Morsani; and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. The loan came when the overall daily publishing industry was taking a beating, with print advertising revenue — long an industry cash cow — in rapid decline.

'I think we were right to keep the standards high and to keep the focus on journalism. I think readers appreciate that and it makes the Times more vibrant and more of a presence in the business and political community. We have stayed more than relevant.' Paul Tash

To counter those hits, the Times, not unlike many other print-centric daily news organizations, has made steep cutbacks. In the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, the Times went from a peak of 406 full-time newsroom employees to some 200, according to trade publication Columbia Journalism Review. The paper has laid off at least 60 more employees since then, and also instituted salary  cuts and furloughs. More recently, it closed its printing plant in St. Pete so it could sell the land to raise capital. It now outsources its printing. And that printing itself is a shell of what it was: In 2020 the Times went from seven days a week to two, Wednesday and Sunday. The Times, according to a September report from the Alliance for Audited Media, has a Sunday circulation of 203,227.  

Tash, 67, has been grooming a replacement for several years: Conan Gallaty, who has experience on the digital media side of the publishing business, will be the next CEO. Gallaty, who has been with the Times since 2018 and was named president in 2020,  previously oversaw online strategy and operations for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, among other roles for other media companies.   

Mark Wemple. Paul Tash, retiring as CEO of the Tampa Bay Times in July, started working for the newspaper in 1976.

“The Times has held me in its embrace longer than my mother, my wife Karyn or my daughters,” Tash wrote in a note to employees announcing the retirement, according to a post on Poynter’s website. “I look to its future with bright optimism, recognizing that the next chapter deserves fresh leadership.”

In a recent interview with the Business Observer, Tash looked back at some key decisions and discussed the future of the publishing industry, among other topics. Edited excerpts:  

More than four decades with one newspaper is somewhat unusual. Why did you remain the Times for your whole career?

It can be an itinerant business. I thought I would be here three or four years and then move on. But one thing led to another and the folks here were always quicker with new opportunities than I knew to ask for. I was city editor at 28 years old. How preposterous is that? I was metro editor and then editor and publisher of Florida Trend magazine. (Business Observer founding editor Matt Walsh worked with Tash at Florida Trend for several years.) Then I was Washington bureau chief and then executive editor. I was 38 years old when I became executive editor of the paper in 1992.

What was the transition like in 2004, going from overseeing the non-revenue producing newsroom to also being in charge of advertising, on the revenue generation side?

I had a taste of it at Florida Trend. That was a really good introduction. It was a small enough organization that you could see how the different pieces worked together. In the early 90s, there was a big recession, and we had two other business magazines at the time, one in Georgia and one in Arizona. And that recession was crushing Arizona. So that magazine we closed shortly after launch. And we sold Georgia Trend. Florida Trend worked, but it took some staff reductions and retooling to get it through the recession. So that was an early opportunity to see how the different pieces fit together.

I’ve always had an interest in the business and how it worked and how all the different pieces come together that resulted in a paper on your driveway.

What was the tipping point that led to one of your biggest moves as CEO: the acquisition of the Tampa Tribune?  

After the recession in 2008-2009 there was a bounce back in 2010. And initially it looked like this recession, as sharp and deep as it had been, would follow the pattern of previous recessions, that you would come back to where you had been and start growing again. So in 2010 the business started to come back. But in 2011 it started to slide again. And it continued, particularly on the advertising side. And so that was a sign we had entered a new phase of the publishing business.

At the same time, that made it all the more important we make good on our generational ambition to be the news organization for all of Tampa Bay. In that environment it was vital we consolidate the business because a divided market was going to be even less viable for a local news publisher like us.

Media companies of all sizes have scrambled for years to build sustainable and profitable models around digital content. What’s been the biggest obstacle to successfully executing a print-to-digital transition at the Times?

Trying to get the timing right. And delivering for the people who loved you for the form of printed news while attracting new customers who don’t care as much about it. People would sometimes say, ‘why don’t you just switch’ (to digital?)  Well, you can’t just throw a switch. It’s a process of trying to serve those people who want a newspaper on paper, and helping those who are willing and interested in a dual experience, of print and digital, and attracting and serving those interested only in the electronic format. Getting the timing and emphasis of that right is really difficult.

What are some key decisions you made as CEO that turned out right?

I think we were absolutely right about aligning our identity with the identity of Tampa Bay, rather than just St. Petersburg. (The paper changed its name from the St. Petersburg Times to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012.) We were absolutely right about that. And I think we were right to do that even before we acquired the Tribune.

I think we were right to keep the standards high and to keep the focus on journalism. I think readers appreciate that and it makes the Times more vibrant and more of a presence in the business and political community. We have stayed more than relevant.

And I think we were right to fight like hell to keep our independence as a company. Look around in Florida at the daily news business. I think every daily news publishing organization of consequence has changed hands at least once in the last five years and maybe twice, as the consolidation of the marketplace continues. And the Times alone remains independent and locally connected. And I think those distinctively local roots are a business advantage.

What decisions do you wish you had a mulligan on?

I’m not much on backward glances. But had I recognized more quickly how profound the changes would be from 2010 and 2011, we would have pushed further and faster.  But on that point, if we were slow then, we were not at all slow at the beginning of the pandemic. If we were a little too sanguine about how things would return to the way they were before the recession, if that was a mistake, we didn’t make that one again.

If you think about the last two years, when the world basically shut down, we didn’t just wait on things to get better. We totally remodeled the business and leaned into the changes the pandemic would bring. And we didn’t expect things to snap back to the way we were. So we pushed very hard on digital. We reduced the expense of print. We educated our subscribers on the ways to make greater use of and the advantages to the digital format. We also made some decisions that were very painful: we retooled the workforce and we outsourced our printing.  We were not complacent about what the future would bring and a return to the good old days.

Journalists and the media business in general are at generational lows in surveys that look at valued and trusted industries. How can the industry improve its standing?

We’re a little bit like Congress, right? Everybody says they don’t like Congress, but the members keep getting reelected. But I think the emphasis on local connection and being concerned about what’s of greatest interest to your readers and your community is the way to stay vital and successful. We need to demonstrate that we are doing things that are not easy, but we are doing it because we care about the community. I think that’s an easy case to make.

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