Changing of the Guard at ‘St. Pete Times’

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By: Jennifer Saba

It’s taken 12 years to get to this point. On May 16, Andrew Barnes will officially pass the baton to Paul Tash as chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Company. With it comes the enormous responsibility of keeping a major newspaper and important journalistic institution truly independent.

Newspapers change leaders all the time, but this is a different sort of publishing company. This one was set up to ensure that its newspaper ? the St. Petersburg Times ? remains out of the hands of newspaper chains. It operates under a unique ownership structure established by Nelson Poynter. Upon his death in 1978, Poynter’s interest in the paper went to what is now known as the Poynter Institute, which he founded in 1975. The Times Publishing profits now feed both the newspaper and the Institute. The company will not break out ratios, but does confirm that several million dollars a year in dividends go to the Poynter Institute. The Times Publishing Co. also includes Congressional Quarterly, Governing magazine, and Florida Trend magazine.

As it now stands, the chairman/CEO of the Times Publishing Co. has controlling interest. When one man or woman is chosen as leader, that person can conceivably decide to put the company on the block. Much is at stake when the chairman/CEO picks a successor.

For one thing, it helps to know if the potential leader realizes there’s more to publishing life than making a pot of money, says Andy Barnes, outgoing chairman and CEO, who turns 65 in May. (The company’s bylaws hold that any member of the boards of directors must retire by age 65.) Barnes also wanted to hand over the Poynter legacy to someone who won’t sell the keys to the kingdom. In fact, once appointed, the new chairman/CEO is encouraged to start looking for a replacement, even if that person won’t be stepping in for, say, 12 years.

That’s exactly what Barnes did once he was appointed to the position in 1988. “It forces you to think, what if I get hit by a falling safe ? what would happen [to the company]?” Barnes asks.

With that in mind, long ago, he picked 10 people that he thought would make good leaders and also opened the process to anyone who wanted to throw his or her hat in the ring. Barnes then asked them to write essays addressing the opportunities and challenges of leading an independent paper. He got a variety of responses, of course. “When you ask people to write,” he says, “you get a map of their minds.” Indeed, some were “grossly inappropriate,” some were loaded with too much consultant speak, some were thoughtful but not a real fit. From that, Barnes quickly narrowed the field down to a handful of people.

It became increasingly apparent after a series of conversations with Tash that he was the man for the job: “You give someone great responsibility and watch how they handle it. It was clear that Paul was doing very well as executive editor. He seemed to be a person with equanimity, good humor and high intelligence,” says Barnes, who will remain chairman of the Poynter Institute for a few years at Tash’s request.

Tash seems steady, dependable, even a bit on the studious side. Yet he has an easy manner, E&P learned during a sit-down in a midtown Manhattan Marriott in early March.

Originally from South Bend, Ind., Tash itched to get out of Fighting Irish land. “When you grow up in South Bend, you’re either a big Notre Dame fan or you’re eager, like I was, to go somewhere else,” says Tash, whose voice sounds exactly like Tom Brokaw’s ? the NBC news anchor who holds an honorary degree from Notre Dame.

Tash chose Indiana University, where he majored in journalism and political science. It was there he was introduced to the St. Pete Times; Indiana was also Nelson Poynter’s alma mater and Poynter created a scholarship which included an internship at his paper. In 1975, the summer before his senior year, Tash headed for Florida.

After college, Tash won a Marshall Scholarship to study law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, but decided to return to newspapers. He wrote to several, “all of which were generally encouraging but specifically noncommittal, except for Gene Patterson and Andy Barnes at the Times.”

Tash has been with the company ever since, a paradox in an age where people hop around every few years. He admits to being “an unlikely agent of radical change, given that I have grown up within the church and my hands have been on the controls in some significant way for the last several years.” Duties he will take on once mid-May rolls around include direct responsibility for the company’s affiliates, editorial pages and the Poynter Institute (Tash will retain his Times editor/president title).

There is a risk that perhaps Tash is a little too ingrained in the Times, that the paper could become too static, but he vows, “We will continue to advance our position as a newspaper for the entire Tampa Bay area.”

Barnes, who came to the Times from The Washington Post, puts it more more bluntly when addressing the issue of staleness: “Yes, there’s a danger, but consider the alternatives”? namely, choosing an outsider who doesn’t know the territory.

The Times may be almost unique among papers but it’s still bent on making a nice profit, and it’s confronted with the same obstacles that all papers face. “I would say the biggest challenge facing all news organizations is the declining interest in news over time,” says Tash, citing plunging voter participation rates over the last 30 years. “Its one of the ways you look at the news business and newspapers ? as a text for that democratic exercise. Part of our franchise isn’t as much a given as it once was.”

He quickly says that putting out a “lively, interesting, vibrant newspaper” will combat some of that. For now even before he officially takes over, Tash is mulling over who might replace him ? just like Barnes did, 12 years ago. “The key responsibility of this job,” he says, “is to hand it off in good shape to someone who is well prepared and situated to carry on.”

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