Paul Tash at Tiger Bay: “Corruption” in Tallahassee and the future of print journalism

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Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times, believes the political culture in Tallahassee is “in many ways corrupt.”

In a luncheon Friday afternoon, Tash was in the “Tiger’s Den,” speaking to a group of Suncoast Tiger Bay members and guests, which included several local government and business leaders.

On the Tiger Bay website, the event at the Clearwater Marriott on Roosevelt Boulevard,was billed as saying Tash could be argued as the “most powerful person in town.” 

“I have to use the word advisedly,” Tash said about political corruption in Florida. “I don’t mean that it is corrupt by taking bribes for personal use. I think that the process has been corrupt to the point that individual citizens and the public good are being clearly overlooked.”

Among the more than 100 people in attendance were State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Pinellas County Commissioners Janet Long and Karen Seel, and Andy Barnes, former president of the Times.  

Tash opened the conversation with a reference to the last time he spoke to Tiger Bay and some of the political changes since then.

“The last time,” Tash said, “there was a controversy to take fluoride out of the water. So here we are, almost 18 months later, and some good things have happened. First, Pinellas County has some new commissioners. Second, fluoride is back in the water again.”

He credits the Times for the impact the paper had in changing the 2011 vote by Pinellas County Commissioners to remove fluoride from the county’s drinking water.

“It’s a great and lasting public health benefit for lots of people, including kids,” Tash continued. “And last, the Tampa Bay Times won a Pulitzer Prize for making the first two things happen.”

In addition to heading the Times, Tash is also chair of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the non-profit school for journalism located in St. Petersburg. Poynter is the owner of the Times.

In the Q and A discussion, Tash responded to the continuing “abuses” by designated members of Florida’s Public Service Commission, something that the Times has regularly reported. Of the need for a “grass roots” effort or constitutional amendment making commissioners an elected office, he sees it as part of the cyclical nature of state politics.   

“Everything comes around, doesn’t it,” Tash replied, eliciting a few chuckles from the audience.

“I remember when they were elected, and the Public Service Commission became appointed as a reform,” Tash said, “because the elected official’s campaigns were being financed by the utility companies.”

Earlier this year, Tash was elected chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, succeeding Denver Post Editor Gregory Moore the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Tash touched on the future of print journalism in a changing economic landscape. He discussed how the Board has begun to recognize online journalism and virtual newsrooms.

In 2013, the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting went to InsideClimateNews, a virtual news startup based in Brooklyn, N.Y.  Reporting on the 2010 “dilbit” oil shale oil spill in a pipeline Michigan, the small news site with a staff of only seven became the third online-only publication to win a Pulitzer in reporting.

When asked if the trend awarding online newsgathering, like the Huffington Post, was an “indictment of new media versus old,” Tash reminded the audience that newspapers are not through just yet.

“The vast majority of these prizes are awarded to work being done by commercial journalism,” Tash says, “rather than the ProPublicas.”

Tash referred to ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom doing investigative reporting in the public interest. In 2010, it became one of the first online sources to gain a Pulitzer. The ProPublica piece, about doctors in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, appeared in both The New York Times Magazine and on ProPublica.org.

Tash also added that many recent reporting Pulitzer Prizes were at organizations that have been through bankruptcy protection.

Through the desire for investigative journalism runs deep throughout many newsrooms—virtual or real–the challenge newsgathering faces, according to Tash, is to go beyond the “philanthropic,” and adopt more traditional business models.

“Whether people move (to online news sources),” Tash says, “Has more to do with paychecks than prizes.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.