January 13, 2022

Paul Tash, the longtime CEO and chairman of the Tampa Bay Times, announced Thursday that he will retire July 1.

He will be succeeded by Conan Gallaty, a digital media specialist who came to the company in 2018. “Conan broke a corporate logjam to install a new digital publishing system for the newsroom,” Tash wrote in a letter to staff.  More recently he has overseen a cutback at the Times to two days a week in print and further development of its digital site and e-edition.

In a letter to staff, Tash noted that he came to the Times (his only employer) as a reporter in 1978. “The Times has held me in its embrace longer than my mother, my wife Karyn or my daughters,” he wrote. “I look to its future with bright optimism, recognizing that the next chapter deserves fresh leadership.”

Tash, 67, will continue as chairman of the board of trustees of Poynter, the nonprofit school for journalists that owns the for-profit Times. Mark Katches will remain editor of the Times and Neil Brown president of Poynter.

At an organization steeped in tradition, Gallaty’s appointment represents a break. Tash and his two predecessors — Gene Patterson and Andy Barnes — came to the job as accomplished reporters and editors. Nearly all of Gallaty’s experience, by contrast, has been on the business side.

I asked Tash if changing times dictated that a business person rather than an editor take charge. Not really, he replied. “I don’t think former editors are precluded. … Some have made terrific executives (noting Steve Swartz, CEO of Hearst.)”

The more relevant change, Tash said, is the nature of news presentation. “I’m someone who started in the age of ink and paper,” he said. “Now (leadership is passing) to someone who has much more experience with electrons and screens.”

In an email exchange, Gallaty, 45, who joined the Times from Walter Hussman’s digitally focused WEHCO Media in Arkansas, offered a similar take. After majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia, he wrote, “The bulk of my career has been in building digital products and business lines to help local journalism reach new audiences. This digital growth and development is essential to our success, so I’m confident I can contribute in a meaningful way. That said, my roots and my passion will always be in high-quality journalism. The culture of our company is centered on it, so it fits me perfectly.”

Tash’s 18-year tenure has been marked by extraordinary journalism but also extraordinary financial challenges. During that time, the Times has won seven Pulitzer prizes, most recently for exposés on failing and neglected elementary schools in St. Petersburg and a sheriff’s program in Pasco County to identify and harass potential criminals.

Another Pulitzer in 2009 was for the creation of PolitiFact — one of several fact-checking and media education programs now housed at Poynter — and its groundbreaking fact-checking work of the 2008 presidential election.

The Times bought and folded the Tampa Tribune in 2016, gaining control of the entire Tampa Bay market. However, steep declines in print advertising revenue continued and subscriptions flattened despite the broadened reach.

The company has had to borrow heavily, and last year closed its printing plant and sold that land to raise cash. It is in process of giving control of its underfunded pension plan to its federal insurer, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Tash has served on the Pulitzer Prize Board, as Patterson and Barnes did before him and Poynter president Brown does now. He also has had terms on the boards of The Associated Press and the Newspaper Association of America, now the News Media Alliance.

The interlocking structure of the Times and Poynter, crafted by Nelson Poynter, is unusual. Among other features, the CEO and chairman has exceptional power, voting a controlling share of stock and naming his or her successor.

“The structure remains very durable,” Tash said in our interview. “We created a school and preserved (the company’s) independence and roots. … In fact, I am most proud of something that didn’t happen. We didn’t lose that independence or local character when every other one in Florida of any size has (to chain ownership).”

When he spoke recently to the Kiwanis Club, Tash told me, he joked that he was the only fully-in-control leader of a Florida newspaper who could walk to such a meeting from his office.

Tash’s letter to staff concludes, “Thanks for everything you will do to support our company and Conan, just as you have supported me. … Leading the Times is the honor of my life’s work.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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