ST. PETERSBURG — On the morning of May 4, 2016, Tampa Bay’s newspaper subscribers emerged to scoop the day’s edition from their stoop or curb or driveway, and the man they saw smiling back from the front page was Paul Tash.
“Times buys Tribune,” the headline read, followed by: “After three decades, sale ends bay-area newspaper battle.”
Tash stood alone in the story’s lead photo, holding a copy of the paper where he’d worked since the ‘70s. Down the front page ran a column welcoming Tampa Tribune readers to the Tampa Bay Times’ subscription rolls.
“You can count on one hand the number of cities that can sustain more than one daily newspaper,” Tash wrote, “and the Tampa Bay region is no longer among them.”
Six years later, Tash has this page framed in his St. Petersburg office. Not the glass-paneled, seventh-floor suite he took over when he became the Times’ CEO and chairman in 2004. The small corner office in the fourth-floor newsroom, the one by the coffee pot, where views of the bay are mostly blocked by the towers that have sprouted since. The office he’ll leave this week when he retires as the longest-serving leader in the paper’s 138-year history.
After ceding the CEO job to Conan Gallaty in January, Tash, 67, will step down as Times chairman July 1. He will remain chairman of the Poynter Institute, the nonprofit journalism school that owns the Times, but will no longer run the newspaper company.
Tash, who rose from intern to editor to executive, led the Times during a perilous era in print news, when papers saw revenues plummet as the internet siphoned ads and eyeballs. Tash made decisions they pay CEOs to make, some correct and some costly. As the company’s stoic public face, he didn’t waver.
Commanding, demanding, intimidating, relentless — Times employees have used a lot of big words to describe him. More than anything, said former Times and Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth, “he sees himself first and foremost as a journalist.”
“My dad would say, ‘There are three things that are important to me, and each is weighted equally,’” said his daughter, St. Petersburg attorney Kendyl Tash. “‘My country, my paper and my family.’”
It’s not every day Paul Tash’s paper puts his photo on the front page.
It happened after the Tribune deal. It happened in 2011, when Tash announced the St. Petersburg Times was becoming the Tampa Bay Times, reflecting “the growth of our newspaper and our vision for this region.” It happened in 2017, when Tash arranged loans from local partners to steady the paper’s financial footing, and again in 2020 when the pandemic cut its print edition to two days a week. It happened after five of the paper’s eight Pulitzer Prize wins on his watch.
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“He became the paper, and the paper became him, and it’s hard to separate the two,” said former Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, a Poynter director and curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. “He was such a product of that newsroom, and so shaped by it — and in the end, it was really shaped by him. The man and the place seem inextricably connected.”
Raised by schoolteachers in South Bend, Indiana, Tash came to the Times via an Indiana University internship named for Poynter, and was quickly seen as “a golden boy, destined for great things,” said his former editor Mike Foley.
“He was a city editor’s dream,” said Foley, now a journalism professor at the University of Florida. “He was willing to do anything for a story.”
Once, after a school board member complained about long meetings in hard wooden chairs, Tash spent an afternoon testing the seats used by other Pinellas decision-makers — judges, jurors, commissioners, council members. The school board was right, he determined; their chairs were the worst for comfort and posture. (Judges’ rears, he wrote, had it best.)
Another time, for a piece dissecting the sartorial choices of the county’s male officials, Tash posed for a photo in a houndstooth sport coat and wide striped tie. Beneath it, a caption: “Paul Tash, who wrote this article, thought it only fair to show his style of dress.”
Patterson and Barnes pulled Tash up the ranks, naming him city editor at 28. There, he applied his exacting standards.
Tim Nickens, a reporter in those days, once wrote a brief about a postal worker sentenced for drug charges who worked at a post office on Central Avenue. Tash, knowing well the location of every post office in St. Petersburg, came to his desk.
“I want you to go down to the bay,” he said, according to Nickens. “And I want you to start walking down Central Avenue. And I want you to walk all the way down Central Avenue till you get to the beach. And I want you to call me when you find a f--king post office on Central Avenue. Now write a correction!”
As the head of Florida’s largest newspaper, Tash had the ear of many a public official. Rep. Charlie Crist, a former governor, said he and Tash “occasionally meet up for a glass of wine at the yacht club and break bread.” Tash once sent then-Gov. Jeb Bush an email “on a relatively inconsequential matter” on the day of his brother’s second presidential inaugural. Bush wrote back that day. He ran into Sen. Rick Scott at a recent funeral; they “greeted each other cordially,” Tash said.
Intern, reporter, city editor, metro editor, Florida Trend publisher, Washington bureau chief, executive editor, CEO, chairman — at each rung of the ladder, Tash met sources, made connections, built capital. In an enormously competitive journalism state and market, he saw it as the key to keeping the paper strong.
It was Tash who in 2012 encouraged Nickens and Ruth to write a series of editorials decrying Pinellas officials’ decision to remove fluoride from the county’s water. After each one, Tash would ask about the next. A year later, fluoride was back in the water, and Nickens and Ruth won a Pulitzer Prize.
“He thought the Times’ voice could really make a difference, and we could right what he saw as a serious wrong,” Ruth said. “Even a decade later, he’ll talk about how important that was to him.”
We’ve gone long enough without an obvious disclosure: Paul Tash is my boss.
Not my direct boss; more like my boss’ boss’ boss. He won’t read this until it’s published. I’m certain he’ll say it’s too long.
He’d sometimes stop by my desk to ask about a story, a thing he does with so many reporters. Other times, he’d drop an email about a piece he liked, or a line to correct, or a news tip he’d heard. Some reporters dread assignments that come from the very top. Tash’s tips tend to pay off.
When my father died in 2018, Tash sent a handwritten note.
“Grief is the price of love,” he wrote, “and I am so sorry that your family must pay it now.”
Tash gets back to people. It’s the Indiana in him. It surprises readers who complain about a story, or the cancellation of a comic strip, or the Sunday paper that landed in a puddle.
“I take those seriously,” he said. “Some are a little surprised when they hear back from me. Someone will start with a taunt: ‘THIS LETTER WILL NEVER GET TO YOU, I KNOW…’ Well, it actually did get to me.”
James Zambroski didn’t expect it. The first time the Tampa subscriber emailed Tash, it was to complain about a story. Tash wrote back to say he sympathized.
“I didn’t need a response to feel validated,” said Zambroski, 69. “It was not a pat-on-the-head thing, like a form letter, or where a staffer had sent it. Paul managed to respond to the specificity about which I wrote. That was indicative of the fact that he was reading.”
Tash has a fun side. He does the family shopping and cooks big holiday meals, maybe with bread pudding or fruit pie for dessert. He swims 100 miles a year. He loves to ski on water or snow; on a recent family trip to Montana, he made it down a mountain after breaking his leg. He likes jazz and plays euchre and “thinks he can dance,” Kendyl said. The grandkids call him P.T. He signs texts to family LYM: “Love you most.”
If this side rarely surfaced in public, neither did the weight of the job. Even during the pandemic, with most employees working from home, Tash came in every day, still wearing a tie, because he thought it “good form.”
“I hope he was able to unburden himself in quiet ways with others, because you never saw that from him in a professional way,” Lipinski said. “He never once that I saw gave off any hint of defeat or discouragement. He was always about figuring it out. Even in some really dark hours.”
In 2002, just before Tash became CEO and chairman, the Times reached a $30 million deal to rename Tampa’s Ice Palace the St. Pete Times Forum. It was a direct shot across the bow at the Tribune.
Tash, said former Tribune managing editor Ken Koehn, was “laser-focused” on the Trib’s home turf of Hillsborough County. It made sense. The Times dominated dense Pinellas County; Hillsborough offered room for growth. The Tribune drew readers and advertisers the Times did not, and Tash wanted them.
“We were keenly aware that our demise was his end goal,” Koehn said.
But the Times, like all newspapers, faced greater challenges than the competition across town. Readers were dropping subscriptions and moving online. Around the 2009 recession, the Times began unloading tens of millions’ worth of real estate, including its St. Petersburg headquarters; sold off subsidiary publications; and cut its payroll by dozens. It borrowed loans and faced liens over payments to its pension.
By 2016, the Times and Tribune were bloodied, years removed from peak profits. The Trib might well have folded. But when the chance came to acquire it, Tash moved.
The day the sale was announced, he met the Tribune staff in a conference room. Those who recognized him immediately knew it was over.
“You published your last edition this morning,” Tash told them.
It was, in Koehn’s words, “a punch below the belt.”
“You had a more than 100-year-old institution that was snuffed out in silence,” he said. “Can you imagine if the Times closed and no one wrote a story about the legacy of Nelson Poynter and the many journalistic achievements of the Times?”
Said Tash: “I took no pleasure in telling a lot of people at the Tribune that their newspaper had published its last edition, and many of them would not be employed at the Times.”
He’s sure he’s made mistakes as a leader. He no longer rues them like he did as a reporter, when, he once wrote, “I kicked myself far more harshly than an editor would ever contemplate.” He’s older now, a bit mellower.
But the biggest decisions still weigh him down.
On the night of the last locally printed edition, Tash showed up to thank press workers. He grabbed a copy off the line and went off alone to read it. The melancholy of the moment sticks with him.
“It was a sign of the huge changes occurring not just in our business, but in the world of publishing,” Tash said. “I could also feel the time passing for me.”
Some Times and Tribune alumni lament how things have changed since the days when revenues were healthy and far-flung bureaus pocked the map. They talk about how things might have gone with a few different business decisions. Tash, as the face of those decisions, takes his hits.
The Times has fared better than other dailies. Gone not only is the Tampa Tribune, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. Others were snared by big chains and hedge funds, their staffs and production cut, too. The Times remains Florida’s largest newspaper, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, and one of the largest in America. Since 2005, it’s won more Pulitzers than all but seven papers, including a record three for local reporting.
“I had a tough hand to play. He had a harder one,” said Andy Barnes, Tash’s predecessor as CEO and chairman. “And he’s done as well as could have been done.”
The day the Times bought the Trib, Nickens wrote an editorial about the takeover and gave it to Tash to look over.
Today, the Times becomes the region’s only daily newspaper, Nickens’ draft read.
In blue pen, Tash crossed out region’s only daily. Above it, he wrote one word.
One December night five months before the Tribune sale, Tash went out for Thai takeout. When he got home, he found his wife Karyn unresponsive, their daughter Kaley on with 911.
It was a seizure. Out of nowhere. And it was bad.
Doctors put Karyn in a medically induced coma and scanned her brain. Behind her forehead was a tumor the size of a plum. Kaley, an infectious disease specialist, told her father to prepare for the worst.
Tash flashed back to the day in 2009 when the Times, for the first time, won two Pulitzer Prizes in the same year. He got home that night to a message from his younger brother Keith, who said doctors had discovered a tumor in his brain. It was the worst kind, in the worst place. Keith died eight months later.
Karyn’s tumor was benign, but still serious. The first surgery, two days before Christmas, lasted 12 hours. Tash spent “a good bit of that 12 hours” on the phone with attorneys negotiating the Tribune purchase, by that point well underway. One complication led to another surgery, and another, and eventually 15, including one days after the Trib deal.
Tash wasn’t living two lives, but he may as well have been. Memories from then feel like visions from parallel planes, “separate threads that are twisted around each other only in a place or two.” Colleagues would ask how Karyn was doing, and he’d thank them for their concern. But he didn’t let the burden show.
“He was able to focus singularly on something he had worked his whole professional life toward, bringing it over the finish line,” said Neil Brown, Poynter’s president. “But having been in the room with him, there were calls from doctors, from home, things like that. And he was always able to stop, take them, be there for Karyn.”
In 2017, with the Times’ finances reeling, Paul and Karyn invested “a large part of their retirement savings,” Kaley said, in a partnership designed to push through the worst of it. Tash recruited seven local partners, among them Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and veterinary entrepreneur Darryl Shaw, into a loan agreement ultimately worth more than $15 million.
“The fact that he said he would step up right alongside whoever else invested money, I think it meant a lot,” Shaw said. “It stood behind the credibility of his persona and what he believed in.”
The loans got the Times through the aftermath of the Trib deal. Karyn, now retired from her job as a teacher, has made “a full and robust recovery,” Tash said.
They’ll celebrate their 40th anniversary next year.
Six years to the week after the Times bought the Tribune, Tash was back in a different Tampa newsroom. The Times was favored to win a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into safety conditions at a local battery recycling plant, and employees had gathered at the Tampa office next to the Straz.
Tash was two months from retirement. One final Pulitzer would be “a wonderful exclamation point on the work that we have done together,” he said.
As a reporter, the biggest story Tash covered came in 1980, when a ship crashed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, causing a partial collapse that killed 35. He was in the shower when he got the call. The scene was chaos: cars in the water, a rescue mission underway. He called in dictation from a pay phone, jostling for position with other reporters.
“The first publishing of that information to our readers of the St. Petersburg Times occurred 24 hours later,” he said. “Just think of how different, and how much more robust and prompt, that dissemination of journalism would be today.”
Tweets. Videos. Push alerts. The coverage would be intense and relentless, as it was in so many Florida newsrooms after tragedies like the Pulse nightclub massacre or Surfside condo collapse.
The paper Tash is leaving is much smaller than the one he took over. But he believes it might cover a bridge collapse better than it did when he himself wrote the story.
“The world has splintered in a lot of different ways,” he said. “But the Times still has the capacity to make it stick.”
When the Pulitzer was announced, the Times staff cheered, the winners hugged and a photographer took a picture for the next day’s front page. Tash wasn’t in it. He stayed off to the side, watching his newsroom celebrate, Tampa’s skyline in the windows behind him.