Although the Tampa Bay Times has a national presence, its greatest impact is, arguably, its reporting on what’s going on in the Tampa Bay area and the state of Florida. Yet when Paul Tash, the paper’s president and CEO, came before the usually aggressive members of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, most of those who got the chance to ask him a question focused on their concerns about the phenomenon known as “fake news” and other related aspects to the emergence of Donald Trump as the country’s 45th President.
“Fake news – that is, fake news that has been entirely made up, has been with us for a long time,” Tash said in his prepared remarks, as images of famed covers of the Weekly World News were displayed behind him. “But nobody really expected you to believe this,” he said of such over the top stories.
But he said fake news took a dark turn last year when a detailed conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” happened. That was the story about the perception by a North Carolina man that a pedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton was operating out of Washington D.C. pizzeria. It ultimately resulted with that man terrifying customers and workers with his assault-style rifle as he searched the establishment.
Tash said the way the Times answers fake news and truth from fiction is with PolitFact, its ten-year-old journalism project that captured a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and has since spread to other news organizations across the globe.
If there was a central theme to the CEO’s remarks, it’s that it was up to the public to care about quality journalism.
“It’s up to news organizations to help figure out what’s true, what’s fact and what’s fake. But that won’t matter unless we care.”
The Times financial situation has been well documented in the media. The paper took out a $28 million loan in 2013, and borrowed another $13.3 million just before purchasing the Tampa Tribune last year. When asked about how the paper’s finances are doing in 2017, Tash said “we are cash flow positive,” and said that the acquisition of the Tribune last May has helped expand its circulation.
Nobody’s cash flow is better at the Times than Tash’s, who made $487,000 in 2015.
He acknowledged that print journalism is “not an easy business,” and said the fact that retailers like J.C. Penney’s and Macy’s are closing stores could also constitute a problem for the paper, since that could reduce the money that those retailers will spend on print advertising.
After the Times purchased the Tribune last year, the paper announced that it would expand its editorial pages, and include more right-of-center voices. Tash said one of his priorities for this year is to “continue to connect, or reconnect, with the good people who voted for Donald Trump.”
“That was not the editorial position, that the newspapers took,” he said regarding nearly every paper in the country’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president (only six major papers around the country endorsed Trump). Trump won Pinellas County last fall.
“I want to make sure that we stay in touch, and stay connected,” he added.
There were a few questions that came from Tiger Bay members about the Times coverage of local issues.
Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Susan McGrath questioned the Times endorsement of Philip Garett over incumbent Steve Kornell in the 2015 St. Pete City Council District 6 race. It was a a recommendation, McGrath asserted, that “many believe was motivated by interests to keep the baseball team in the Bay area.”
Tash punted on the response, saying he couldn’t recall the particulars of that editorial decision, quickly segueing to affirming how valuable the Times recommendations are, particularly in local judicial races.
And Tash wasn’t about to take the heat for Big Journalism everywhere when it came to the reporting on Clinton. When Pinellas County Democratic activist Bill Bucolo asked if there was “selective enforcement” of the press making a large issue out of certain things such as the Whitewater scandal of the 1990’s, he said most definitely not.
“There were questions being raised and they deserved answers and I would say the one of the problems that Mrs. Clinton has is the basic tendency to try to coverup,” he said, adding that it was one of the things that “diminished her candidacy. This steady, incremental, by degree kind of grudging recognition of what was later revealed to be true.”
“The Republicans think the selected enforcement works against them, and not the Democrats,” he said, adding, “We do our best to be even handed.”