When the Tampa Tribune launched a scholarship for Hillsborough County's top high school seniors more than 50 years ago, no one could have guessed it would one day be turned over to the newspaper's rival, now called the Tampa Bay Times.
It was the scholarship's namesake, the late Tribune publisher Richard F. "Red" Pittman Jr., who sparked the newspapers' fierce, decades-long battle for Tampa readers. The Tribune ultimately lost, and the annual scholarship is now celebrated inside the Times' downtown Tampa offices. But son Richard A. Pittman said he was happy to work with his fathers' old rivals to keep the Tribune scholarship contest alive at a time when journalism itself is under attack.
"I think my father was hoping this scholarship would get students excited about digging for truth and fact, and reward them for being willing to stand up for their opinions by writing them in print," Pittman said during the scholarship reception this month. "Yes, it's a little weird that now it's the Tampa Bay Times continuing that tradition, but especially now, we need the Times and all print newspapers to survive."
When the Times bought and folded the Tribune last May, distributing the three $1,250 R.F. "Red" Pittman scholarships was the first task that surviving staff from both newspapers tackled together. This year's contest, the first under Times' auspices, maintained the scholarship's reputation for asking the tough questions on topics commonly avoided around dinner tables.
This year's applicants were asked to explain their views on the United States' "responsibility to the rest of the world versus its responsibility to its own people."
It was an essay that scholarship recipient Shaila Ghanekar actually looked forward to writing.
"It's weird because in the past year it seems kids are paying more attention to the news but they still distrust the news," said Ghanekar, who is graduating from private Berkeley Preparatory School.
"In our government class this semester we talked a lot about political bias in the media, but the more you doubt the credibility of news the more you look at it and the more you're exposed to different opinions."
Ansberto Vallejo, the Hillsborough school district's Supervisor for Career and Postsecondary Planning, said he was surprised to see how many students were willing to write an essay for the contest. This year's contest attracted more than 250 entries, representing more than half of the 400 students who earned eligibility by graduating with a GPA in the top 3 percent of their high school class.
Last year's applicant pool was much smaller, he said. Some students said they were nervous about answering the prompt, which asked for the criteria they would use when deciding how to vote in the presidential election. Others embraced it.
"I liked the challenge because all of the scholarship essays I had been writing were on topics like your upbringing or a personal struggle, but this question was something that everyone has a different opinion on," said scholarship winner and Hillsborough High School graduate Meghana Bhimreddy.
"I think my generation is growing up in a world that's so much more diverse than it's ever been and that forces you to adopt your own views and be able to explain them to people who have an extremely different life than your own," Bhimreddy said.
Second-time scholarship judge Stephen Lambert, the author and director of Hillsborough Community College's quality enhancement plan, said this year's essays showed that younger generations are paying attention to the news.
"I was struck by the quality of this year's entries," Lambert said. "They were not only well written but persuasive, so persuasive I began to re-examine my own ideas."
The ability to change a personal opinion when presented with facts is a skill that students, parents and teachers alike will have to exercise more frequently as more news agencies struggle to stay afloat, said scholarship recipient and Alonso High School graduate Darren Tran.
"No matter what you do, the most important thing you can do is tell the truth," Tran said. "Knowing that I can tell the truth through my writing and back up my opinions with facts gives me confidence that I have the potential to reach whatever goals I set for my future."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.