Tash's retirement comes 47 years after he arrived at the now-vaunted daily paper of record as a summer news intern, and 18 years after St. Petersburg Times CEO and chairman Andrew Barnes tapped Tash to take over the 138-year-old newspaper. Tash is the longest-running CEO in Times history.
"The longest so far," Tash told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay during a phone call last Saturday.
Times Publishing Co. President Conan Gallaty—who joined the company in 2018 as its first chief digital officer before a promotion to president in 2020—was hand-selected by Tash to take over as CEO; he is expected to become chairman of the board when Tash leaves the post this summer.
Gallaty becomes the fourth person to steer the Times since 1978 when former owner Nelson Poynter (whose dad bought the paper in 1912) died and tapped Eugene Patterson for the role. Nelson is the last individual to own the Times. To keep the paper independent, he left ownership to his nonprofit Poynter Institute. In 1988, Patterson named Barnes CEO and chairman; Barnes moved Tash into the role six years later. In a statement Tash said, "I have full confidence in Conan's capacity and his character."
Asked if he considered any people of color, or one of the many women on the Times masthead, for CEO, Tash told CL that he's been thinking about the selection of his successor since he took the job on May 15, 2004.
"Through the years, women and Black people have been very prominent among my considerations. That's not how things played out. Conan is an exceptional leader and the Times is fortunate that he will follow me," Tash wrote in an email to CL in the hours after his announcement.
Best of times, worst of times
In a longer phone call with CL, Tash said he made good on the Times' ambition to become a news organization representing all of Tampa Bay all while doing high impact journalism at a high standard, adding that "The Times achieved those things in the midst of the worst economic challenges for publishers in at least 100 years."
It's undeniable that the Times newsroom is an invaluable asset to the community. Its reporters and editors work tirelessly to put out the best possible stories day in and day out. It's the largest newsroom in Tampa Bay and one of the few outlets with pockets deep enough for longform investigative reports. The CL newsroom reads and reacts to the Times and its editorial board on a near-daily basis.
A Jan. 13 Times story announcing Tash's retirement gave the 67-year-old his flowers. Most notably, it lauded Tash, who became editor in 1992, for being at the helm as the paper went on to win seven of its 13 Pulitzer Prizes, including three in the local reporting category. The latest medal—for Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi "Targeted" series investigating the Pasco County Sheriff's Office—ended a five-year Pulitzer drought for the Times.
Some say Tash's pivot to digital—including the adaption of the Post's ARC content management system after years of using an archaic CMS—came too late. "If there was a Pulitzer Prize for fixing bad websites, he would've 100% done that sooner," Scott Pollenz, who worked in marketing at the Times for five years, told CL.
Others point to questionable financial decisions in their argument that Tash should have retired much sooner.
In 2002, board members at the St. Petersburg Times (as the paper was called until a rebrand in 2012) unanimously agreed to pay $2.1 million annually for 12 years to get naming rights on the Ice Palace hockey arena. The deal was valued at about $30 million. In 2011 the Times and Lightning extended the agreement through the summer of 2018.
Tash said the arrangement helped put the publication in front of younger people, be "associated with fun" and "establish ourselves as local in a place where our name could signal that we were from somewhere else."
After signing the Ice Palace naming rights extension, Tash guided the Times to one of its most controversial decisions to date: the 2016 purchase of the Tampa Tribune, the Times's main competitor, which began daily publication in 1895 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966. Some say the Tribune was weeks away from closing anyway. The New York Times reported that about 265 people lost their jobs when the Times purchase forced the Tribune's closure.
To commemorate the five-year anniversary of the bloody sale, former Tribune (and Times) columnist Joe Henderson recollected memories from a day when he watched Tash tell everyone to put their phones down as their new owner addressed an auditorium packed with suddenly former Tribune employees.
Tash told CL that he remembers looking out at that room of people and recognizing the gravity and grief of the moment.
"I did suggest as one newspaper man to other newspaper people, 'Let's give this moment some real dignity. And let's not have our cameras and our phones and our other devices on.' I did say that, and I'm glad I did. That was out of respect and regard for the very sad moment in the life of the Tribune that was about to happen," he said.
Henderson wrote that he thought it was "strange for a news person, especially one from a paper as vocal as the Times about transparency."
"They were all being told, 'You all just lost your job. We are shutting you down, and we now own you.' I was emailing my editor Dennis Joyce and saying 'I'm really sorry, this is terrible news, but do you want my story?,'" San Felice told CL. Joyce, who went on to work at the Times and is still there as assistant metro editor, replied.
"He was like, 'There is no Tampa Tribune.' I think that was my last email to my editor," San Felice added. "'There's no more Tampa Tribune, good luck.' It was just devastating."
"Tash also didn't allow the Tribune the common courtesy of printing a farewell edition, a completely classless move. He said he didn't believe in long goodbyes," Henderson added. "In one of the most callous statements I can recall, Tash would later say that sometimes bad things must happen, so good things can. Too bad, so sad, all you now-unemployed Tribune suckers."
"I would not have done that differently. And I've heard that criticism, but I've never heard the criticism from anybody in the community. I've never heard that criticism from a reader. I've only heard it from former Tribune staffers. I've never heard that from a reader," Tash told CL. "And I've never heard that we treated the Tribune or its people badly through that difficult transition. In fact, we treated the Tribune employees—not just in news but in a lot of places—with dignity and compassion."
Paper and people
Exactly 1,768 days later, Tash watched the Times' own printing plant complete its final paper. Roughly 150 people lost their jobs that night. The $21 million sale of the plant built in the late-1950s transferred ownership of the building and land beneath it to vulturistic global hedge fund Alden. Tash called the plant's last run one of the saddest days of his career.
"I felt keenly the passing of a great era of newspaper printing and production when those wonderful machines would rumble every day. But the world is going digital, and the pandemic accelerated those trends very, very much," he said.
Eight months after that, Tash sent employees a letter mentioning a federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) takeover of the Times pension plan after the paper's parent company was unable to pay the benefits. At the time, a spokesperson for the Times told CL that the Times employed about 350 people across all departments and that 143 staffers were currently affected by PBGC's assumption of the pension. The letter explained that feds, not the Times, would begin to pay the pension benefits in the coming weeks and that the Times had paid PBGC $17.4 million since 2009 to insure the pensions in exchange for a promise that PBGC would back the Times pension if needed.
"That time has come," Tash wrote, adding that "due to factors out of the Times' control, our pension is underfunded by approximately $100 million, and it would not be possible for the Times to fully fund the plan." Florida Politics pointed out that PBGC liens against the Times total more than $103 million.
The pension fund development, a signal of financial distress, came after news that the printing plant sale would help pay back investors who contributed to a $15 million loan to help float the Times. The group was called FBN Partners, for "Florida's Best Newspaper."
Last year, the Times editorial board, of which Tash is a member, came under fire for its full-throated endorsement of a new Rays stadium in Ybor City. One of the editorials didn't mention that the prospect of a new stadium moving to Ybor directly benefits Darryl Shaw, who was among those who loaned money to the Times. The board's also been soft of Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, another FBN partner.
"What drove the sale of the plant was the economic realities and the public health realities of the pandemic, not the need to repay that loan before I retired," Tash countered. "I would have been thrilled to see those presses humming every night of the week long past my own retirement."
Tash pegged the plant's sale on a "relentless logic." The world stopped and Times advertising cratered. That meant bi-weekly printing, which left Tash with an underused plant that either had to start printing for other publications or move elsewhere.
"Gannett was disinclined and other publishers were disinclined to come to us," Tash said. "Once that printing is placed somewhere else, then that means that the plant should be sold rather than sit empty as an unproductive asset."
But the loan from local bigwigs— with some investors remaining anonymous to this day—is just a slice of the tension during Tash's tenure at the Times.
Over the last few years reporting about the Times, CL has talked to at least a dozen current and former staffers; none have ever gone on record to talk about the culture and general atmosphere at the paper, and only a handful have ever provided insight on background.
After the news of Tash's retirement, one former reporter told CL that Times alumni have and still feel invested in the paper's future for understandable reasons, adding that there was always internal speculation about when Tash would bow out. On background, they added that it was hard not to be skeptical of leadership at the Times—especially and specifically Tash's role, given his tenure—when the financial measures to keep the Times solvent so often disproportionately impacted staff.
Tash's large salary was also a topic of concern and interest in the newsroom both before and after the FBN Partners loan.
Tax records show that Tash is not compensated in his role as chairman of the board of trustees at Poynter—he made much more as CEO of Times Publishing Co.
Poynter Institute's 990 tax forms showed that in 2014, Tash received $503,990 in total compensation, including $181,476 in base pay and $322,514 in bonus and incentive pay. Tampa Bay Business Journal points out that the figure was down from his 2013 pay package of $516,040. His total compensation in 2017 ($485,000) and 2018 ($488,000) was also significantly higher than reporters' salaries.
A different former Times staffer told CL that in discussions with editorial colleagues, the lowest full-time editorial salary they'd heard of was $37,000 and that it was not uncommon to see an entry-level reporter earning a salary in the low $40,000 range. Staffers were also told about a pay discrepancy study, but it's unclear if the study was even completed or if it examined discrepancies in pay between men and women or white people and people of color.
Asked about the criticisms over his salary, Tash again said he hasn't heard them.
"You may be correct, but you're saying something that's not known to me," Tash said. He pointed to his deeper paycut—15%, which he took with three other execs—as an example of how he wanted to show the entire company, not just the newsroom, that he too felt the sacrifice.
A 15% pay cut on Tash's reported 2019 compensation of $489,182, is roughly $73,377, leaving him with about $415,804. A reporter making $42,000 would be left with about $37,800 and scrambling for ideas about where they're going to come up with a few months rent.
Tash said he's never had any complaints about his compensation—even when he was a reporter making $13,000.
"I have no complaints about my pay, because it's been an honor to do the work. There were days I couldn't believe they were paying me to do this job," he told CL. "As a young reporter, I would marvel, 'I can't believe they're paying us to do this.'"
Still, you can't scan your Times press badge at Aldi and get a special discount on your Mama Cozzi's pizza, Winking Owl wine, cheese, Earth Grown meatless tenders and cauliflower rice.
And while a lot has changed since the late-'70s, when Tash got to the Times as a reporter, a lot is still the same—mostly the high-quality journalism that Gallaty told CL will remain at the forefront of the Times' mission. Gallaty will be tasked with making decisions about the newsletters, apps, website design and new newspaper formats that'll come across his desk.
While he's heralded as a business guy, Gallaty does have a background in journalism and spent his formative years as an editor.
"My roots, my passions, they've always been in high quality journalism. I've spent my career working in local publishing and local journalism, so it's at my core, and it's at the core of the Times," Gallaty said. "I think I can contribute in a meaningful way."
For now, Tash thinks employees will be back in the office before his last day.
"We've made the decision to bring people back a number of times, we just haven't been able to act on it because the damn virus keeps firing up," he said, adding that he misses the happenstance encounters with staff. "I would have liked to have brought everybody back to the office a month after we scattered on March the 13th of 2020, but it's gone a little longer than that."
And it won't be much longer until Tash—a self-proclaimed Midwestern optimist—has to figure out what to do after the Times, and in a city he thought he might only stay in for three or four years after landing that reporter job.
"I could not have imagined how important the Times would become in my life. It has held me in its embrace longer than my mother, my wife or my daughters," Tash said. "So it's a little jarring to think about my life beyond the Tampa Bay Times, but I'm sure it will be a wonderful and rich chapter to come, though it will be different from the last four-plus decades."
Still, Tash concluded, "I have no complaints."
UPDATED 01/19/22 9 p.m. Updated to make clear the federal takeover of the Times pension plan.