Paul Tash · 2013

Paul Tash

As a journalism student at Indiana University, Paul Tash earned an elite scholarship and internship to work at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, an experience that led to his hiring as a fulltime reporter a few years later.

“I came in 1978 thinking this was a place to get started, that I would be here three or four years,” said Tash, a South Bend native.

Instead, that “starter job” evolved into a career in which he soon will mark 35 years with the newspaper, where he now is chairman and CEO.

Along the way, he paid his dues as a reporter covering politics in Tallahassee, city editor, metropolitan editor and Washington bureau chief. In 1990, he was tapped to lead the company’s statewide business magazine. Just two years later, he became executive editor of the Times, a position that put him on the leadership fast track. Today, Tash leads Times Publishing and also is chairman of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit school for journalists that owns the company.

Tash never imagined such a future when he signed up to work on the Andrew Jackson High School newspaper. Bitten by the journalism bug, he joined the Indiana Daily Student staff at Indiana University in Bloomington, eventually serving as editor-in-chief and landing the Poynter internship. After graduating summa cum laud in journalism and political science, Tash won a Marshall Scholarship, earned a bachelor of laws degree from Edinburgh University, and then returned to the Times.

Decades later, he is enjoying a season of accolades, receiving both IU’s and the School of Journalism’s Distinguished Alumni awards, among others. Tash said he is honored to be inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, where he joins fellow Hoosier Nelson Poynter, former owner of Times Publishing and founder of the nonprofit school that bears his name.

“Mr. Poynter entrusted his life’s work to those who came after him,” Tash said. “But he also said, ‘Don’t let the dead hand rule,’ that it is not up to each generation to do what he would have done.”

Tash has led the company through tough times. Shrinking advertising revenues led Times Publishing to temporarily cut salaries and lay off some workers as it has pursued new revenue streams.

“The twin challenges in journalism are that we’ve had the second worst economic reversal in the last 100 years, and, at the same time, we have seen the arrival of competitors in the digital space,” Tash explained.

Poynter’s belief that people should be bold in making the most of the opportunities in front of them, no matter how challenging, is one Tash tries to adopt as his own. The company continues to push for more audience share throughout the Tampa Bay market, even changing the name of the venerable St. Petersburg Times to the Tampa Bay Times, now the state’s largest newspaper.

Other innovations include the 2004 launch of a free newspaper at a time when other newspapers were shrinking their news pages, and this year’s overhaul of the company’s Web products to keep up with changing technology and user preferences.

Yet the company continues to focus on news. Tash said he is proud of his colleagues’ work that has won nine Pulitzer Prizes for the newspaper, five during his time, and two of which were announced on the same day in 2009. One was for feature writing, long a strong suit at the Times. The prize for national affairs reporting went to the company’s Web-first product, PolitiFact.com, for its coverage of the 2008 elections.

To Tash, this dual Pulitzer win validated the company’s strategy: to continue to provide strong reporting while crafting new ventures. And that, after all, is taking a page out of Poynter’s book.

“Many of his enduring values still guide us,” Tash said. “One is that a strong independent press remains essential to a healthy democracy.”

Poynter’s most unique legacy may be the ownership arrangement at Times Publishing. The company is owned by the Poynter Institute.

“The most forward-looking of all his ideas was that he recognized chain ownership and public ownership have some advantages, but long term, they will put some strain on companies,” Tash said. “This independence is not a magic bullet, but it does create the ability to look toward the long term rather than the next quarter. It gives you the latitude to make some decisions that pay out over time.”

When those who worked with Tash consider his career, they hail his unflagging support of journalistic principles.

IU Professor-of-Practice Tom French, who followed a similar path from Indiana Daily Student editor-in-chief to intern to full-time reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, saw Tash as a role model.

“I’ve never known another reporter or editor so committed to the role journalism plays in a democracy, serving as a watchdog on our public institutions and as an advocate for the downtrodden,” French wrote in a nominating letter.

Anne Hull, now a national correspondent at The Washington Post, recalled in her letter that Tash the reporter taught by example.

“He is perhaps the fiercest there ever was,” she wrote. “As he rose up through the leadership ranks at the Times, he was a steely advocate for reporters and would not bend in the face of pressure from powerful outside forces.”

Tash recalled some of those instances, including the paper’s long-running investigative report on the Church of Scientology and, in 1997, an expose on massive fraud and corruption at the National Baptist Convention.

For Tash, 58, another milestone looms. Times Publishing’s mandatory retirement age for its board of directors is 65. He muses about teaching someday – not journalism, but a course on U.S. history from Nagasaki to 9/11 – and he expects to have more time for family, including his wife, Karyn, a high school teacher, and his two daughters, one a doctor in residency and one in law school.

Until then, he will continue to serve on boards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Associated Press and the Committee to Protect Journalists. He’ll continue his daily habit, picked up in an IU phys ed class, of starting each day swimming laps before work. And he’ll consider the next phase for Times Publishing.

“The next couple of years will bring even greater focus on identifying and preparing a successor,” said Tash, only the third leader since Nelson Poynter. “That’s important work.”

By Gena Asher, Indiana University School of Journalism

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