Tim Nickens · 2017
If Tim Nickens had possessed the size and strength of a linebacker, his career might have taken a different trajectory. As it was, the Jeffersonville High School student who was too puny to play football decided to write about it instead.
That first foray into journalism, at Jeffersonville’s The Hyphen newspaper, set Nickens on a path that continues today and has won him numerous accolades, including the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for editorial.
Nickens was a newspaper leader from the beginning, editing The Hyphen for two years and attending the IU High School Journalism Institute under then-director Mary Benedict. His former high school journalism teacher, Lois Engebretson, told the former IU journalism alumni magazine, Newswire, that Nickens liked to have fun, but he also had a serious side.
“I could always count on him to do a job, whatever it was,” Engebretson said.
In 1977, Nickens came to IU as a freshman. After a year off to work as a sports reporter at Jeffersonville’s Evening News, he went back to campus in 1979 and joined the Indiana Daily Student staff. He worked his way up the ranks, becoming editor-in-chief in spring 1982.
At the IDS, Nickens was part of a decision to print a yellow armband on the front page that students could cut out and wear in protest against a tuition increase.
“It got the attention of the administration,” he told Newswire after receiving the Pulitzer. “Even then, we felt we were in a serious profession with serious goals to inform readers of ways to participate in society, whether in the community or on campus.”
Two of his IDS colleagues told the magazine Nickens was a newsroom standout.
“He was such an excellent teacher even back then as a student,” said Bronwyn Williams, for whom Nickens was a mentor. “I just learned so much from him about writing.”
Williams, who went on to become a professor and director of the University Writing Center at the University of Louisville, said when Nickens was IDS editor-in-chief, he had a clear vision and high standards. At the same time, he ran the newsroom with a sense of humor, a willingness to admit mistakes and the drive to keep learning.
Daniel Brogan, the founder, president and editor of 5280 Publishing in Denver, said Nickens “was always the most followed guy in the room.”
“You can always count on him to have the calm smart insight into what to do in a situation,” Brogan said.
After graduating from IU in 1982, Nickens took a job at the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette before moving in 1983 to the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times as a reporter covering local government, criminal courts and state politics.
In 1995, he joined the Miami Herald as a state capital bureau reporter, but returned to the Times five years later, progressing from editorial writer, political editor and assistant managing editor of the metro desk to the editorial board, where he became deputy editorial page editor in 2004 and editorial page editor in 2008.
In 2012, a Tampa Bay Times team led by Nickens that covered the policies of Florida’s new governor was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in editorial. It didn’t win, but Nickens, along with columnist Daniel Ruth, was nominated again the next year in the same category.
The subject of their editorials was the Pinellas County commissioners’ decision to remove fluoride from the county water supply. Expanding on existing reporting by the news team, Nickens and Ruth read thousands of pages of research and interviewed dentists, families, politicians, and fluoride supporters and critics to examine the impact of the decision. The editorials helped lead to a reversal by the county commissioners, resulting in the restoration of fluoride in the water of 700,000 residents and the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for editorial.
In an interview with Newswire after the results were announced, Nickens said editorial boards must take a stand on important issues, rather than keep to the kind of objective reporting that may neutralize the truth. In the case of fluoridation in Pinellas County, he and Ruth determined that the evidence leaned heavily in support of the benefits of fluoride.
“It took our reporting, our research and our editorials to put scientific research into context,” he said.
Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times and a Pulitzer Prize board member, said after the award was announced that Nickens’ and Ruth’s work “shows the way a newspaper’s strong voice can rally a community to make a real difference.”
Nickens was part of a Times team chosen as a finalist for yet another Pulitzer in 2016, this time for public service. The Times submitted a comprehensive package of news stories and editorials uncovering the neglect of five predominantly black Pinellas County schools, rated among the lowest-achieving in Florida. The seven editorials called on school officials, business leaders and community members to increase school integration, establish fair discipline practices, reduce violence and otherwise rectify the inequitable conditions experienced by black students. The news stories submitted as part of the public service package were entered separately in the local reporting category, and won.
Nickens has garnered numerous other awards, including the 2012 Walker Stone Award for editorial writing, presented by the Scripps Howard Foundation, and second place in the 2016 National Headliner awards. His work has been recognized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors.
Nickens serves on the board of directors of Times Publishing Co., the parent company of the Tampa Bay Times, and he is a trustee and former chairman of the Florida-based First Amendment Foundation. In 2014, he received the IU Media School’s Distinguished Alumni Award in Journalism. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Bridget, with whom he has two grown children.
— By Anne Kibbler