Since he was in the eighth grade, Tim Nickens knew he would be a journalist. What began as a dream to become a sports writer turned into a 35-year career reporting for two of Florida’s top newspapers and winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Nickens is Fluent in Floridian. Over the course of his impressive career, he has reported on many of the cultural events that have defined the 21st century, including 9/11, Hurricane Charlie and both election recounts in Florida.
On this episode of Fluent in Floridian, Nickens discusses his career in journalism, the way the industry has changed, his thoughts on today’s young voters, and his new role as Editor of Editorials at the Tampa Bay Times.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m Chris Cate, and in this episode created by Salter Mitchell PR, our executive producer April Salter, the CEO of Salter Mitchell PR, talks to Tim Nickens, the editor of editorials for the Tampa Bay Times. In their conversation, they talk about Tim’s path to becoming one of Florida’s leading voices on issues impacting our state, and about the series of editorial columns that won Tim a Pulitzer Prize. They also discuss the future of daily newspapers, the power of editorial boards, and much more. And you can hear it all right now.
April Salter: Tim, we’re so glad to have you as a guest today on Fluent in Floridian. Welcome back to Tallahassee.
Tim Nickens: Thanks, it’s great to be here.
April Salter: Great. And so Tim, you’ve come from a long history in the newspaper business: a journalist for many, many years now, the editorial page editor for the Tampa Bay Times, notably the top newspaper in the state of Florida. What drove you into journalism?
Tim Nickens: Well, when I was about 12 years old, I wanted to be a linebacker in the NFL, and it was clear that I was too slow, too short and had no strength to do that. Like every 12 year old, then I thought that I’d be a sports writer. And then of course it turns out that every other kid that’s slow and too short … Who’s the guy in Indiana? … wants to be a sports writer.
I did a little sports writing, but then I got into it right then, starting in high school.
April Salter: So you worked for the high school newspaper? Do you have any big scoops back then?
Tim Nickens: I worked for the high school newspaper in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and that was great experience because there, we had a high school advisor who really let me as a junior and senior when I was the editor, pick the stories. And so we did stories about how the security firm that guarded the school at night didn’t have a license. And then we delved into weighing the issues about why juniors and seniors couldn’t take freshmen and sophomores to the prom.
April Salter: This is big stuff.
Tim Nickens: Big, huge controversy.
April Salter: Right, right. And so basically you’ve always been in the journalism field, and you’ve certainly seen a lot of change over the years. What are your thoughts about the future of newspapers in particular?
Tim Nickens: If I knew that, I’d be rich. But I think we’re at a pivotal time, where every newspaper’s trying to figure out how to increase revenue and how to still capitalize on the internet and the digital age. And of course, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, they figured that out, and they can make a lot of money in the digital space. But for regional newspapers like ours, or smaller ones, it’s still a challenge, and I’m not sure that’s going to be the model. I think we’re going to need a lot of different revenue streams as print advertising continues to decline.
April Salter: And so in place of the daily newspapers that people are used to, people are getting these niche stories out there. They’re getting niche publications, online publications, and we’re seeing that certainly in the state capital, where we have Sunshine State News, we have the News Service of Florida, we have a lot of paid services, and we also have now the Florida Phoenix, which is coming out on a regular basis, and reporting news in the capital. How do you think that changes the dynamic for the daily newspapers?
Tim Nickens: Well, the daily newspaper still has to find its own voice, because now you’re not the only source of news, like it was when I was here in the late Eighties and mid-Nineties. You’ve got to convince readers for one that you’re a known brand. The others are still relatively startups; you don’t know if they’re going to be here in three to five years, and they have found their own way by taking in a lot of cases a certain political bent. And a newspaper like the Tampa Bay Times or the Miami Herald, that should be one of their strengths, is it’s an independent, objective source of news, and you have to guard against that … falling into one of those other boxes. That’s one way.
The other way is you’ve got to continue to build your brand, like the Tampa Bay Times has, with the buzz, and you’ve got to be compete with them both 24/7 on digitally, and on Twitter. But then you also have to offer something different that a lot of them don’t offer, which is experience, expertise, and doing those longer-range and investigative pieces that take a lot of time and a lot of energy.
April Salter: And speaking of those kind of pieces, certainly the Tampa Bay Times has a long history of great journalism, and you’ve had a big role in that, and are one of the few people that I know who’s won a Pulitzer. And so you’ve had the experience of advocating on the editorial side, as your investigative team was looking at issues. In your case, it was fluoridation. Can you talk a little bit about that series that you were part of, and that you helped win the Pulitzer for?
Tim Nickens: Sure. So in Pinellas County, in 2011, the end of 2011, start of 2012, they were building the county budget, and they had decided to stop paying for putting fluoride into the drinking water for about 700,000 users in Pinellas County, which is St. Petersburg and Clearwater. And we did a news story about that, and they were claiming that it was basically just a budget cost, to try to save money. And I think we may have done an editorial at the time, but they went ahead and they did that in the budget and they cut fluoride out of the water. And at the beginning of 2012, Paul [Tash 00:06:17], who was the chairman and CEO of the Times and my direct boss, kept saying, “You know, I think there’s something else more there with fluoride in the drinking water. We ought to work on a campaign on the editorial board to try to get that fixed.”
So I took it on with a colleague, Dan [Ruth 00:06:35], who was both a columnist and a member of the editorial board at the time, and there weren’t any other news stories at the moment because everything else was done. That’s one of the things I think people forget about the editorial board, is that the best opinion writers often have really strong reporting experience in the background, and have done a lot of news stories for years and a lot of good reporting on unasked questions.
The first thing we did is we brought in the fluoride opponents, which’d be kind of a wacky group, right, because you’d think fluoride in the drinking water, that had been established since the 1950s, that this is good for you. We brought the opponents, and we said, “Bring your best stuff. Bring everything you got.” And a couple of guys came in and they brought a stack of stuff, and they brought studies from China and different places that showed fluoride was terrible for you, and they tried to make five or six points. And then we talked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and we basically said, “We want the top health officer, the top dentist guy in Atlanta.” And we got him on the phone, and we sat around the conference room, and we went with those top two or three experts, because they call fluoride basically one of the best things that happened in the 20th century for public health.
We went through those. Each of the issues that the critics had raised, and then they knocked it down with established science, and that was the first piece. And we put a big headline on it, put it on a big section, and I think the headline was something like, “The Decay of Common Sense.” And we just knocked those things down, and we started. And I thought, “Well, that went pretty well.” And then of course Paul Tash came back in said, “Well, what are you doing next?” We embarked on this campaign, and I think one of the reasons it was successful, was that we were able to put a human face on it. We went to the county health department, and we talked to [Dennis 00:08:38] there, but we also talked to people … poor families that were showing up for free health appointments, free dental cleanings for the kids. And a lot of these are grandmothers and aunts and things like that. They weren’t necessarily up on science, but they knew that is important to have good, strong teeth. And they knew that fluoride had to play a part in that.
We talked to other dentists that take insurance, and we talked to other families that had made decisions to get fluoride treatments at their dentist that they could afford to do that, but of course low income people often can’t afford that, and they depend on that drinking water. So we were able to put some faces on, and some voices, and it wasn’t just the voice of the Times, but we had pictures, and we did it in … They had some good graphics. And then we were fortunate enough that there was an election in November of 2012, and we’d been doing this campaign, and so a couple of the challenges made it a pledge that the first vote they would take would be to restore fluoride to the drinking water. And of course we backed those candidates and they won, that was the first move they took, to restore fluoride to the drinking water.
April Salter: Yeah, I think people don’t realize the role of advocacy. They think of all newspapers as the same, all parts of the newspaper as the same, and don’t really understand how important that advocacy role is for the editorial page. Have you seen that change at all in terms of the space that you have to do it, the personnel et cetera? How has that changed over time?
Tim Nickens: Well, it’s changed quite a bit, because the editorial board, which used to be called sort of the ivory tower of the newspaper, and the idea was that the editorial page editor would be sitting around in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe. And my predecessor did. Unfortunately, he also had about three times the staff I have now, so like most parts of the paper, it’s gotten smaller. And that’s changed the way we do things, and we have less space certainly for columns, but we still have at least one Tampa Bay Times editorial written by the editorial board every day, sometimes two, because I think it’s important for the newspaper as an institution to part of the community conversation, and to advocate for things on behalf of the community and the state, and what’s best for voters and for the readers.
We don’t write very much on international issues, particularly those that don’t directly affect Florida. We write some international issues, particularly those that affect Floridians, whether it’s healthcare or offshore oil drilling or Cuba policy. And of course you can’t help but write about President Trump every now and then, but we don’t write about him every day. We try to focus predominantly on state and local issues where the voice of the Tampa Bay Times matters.
April Salter: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And Tim, you’ve had so much experience as a reporter, coming up through so many different positions in the newspaper industry. As you think back on your career, what are some of the most important stories that you think you’ve covered? You were involved in the 2000 recount, you’ve covered every kind of natural disaster, fraud, scandal, all kinds of different things … Talk about a couple that really stand out for you, that are memorable or [crosstalk 00:12:20].
Tim Nickens: Well, some of them are important, and some of them are just fun.
April Salter: Right.
Tim Nickens: But I will focus a little bit on Tallahassee, so I came to Tallahassee in January 1987. Bob Martinez had just been elected governor, as the second Republican governor since reconstruction. That was interesting, and so he somehow decided to sign on to a deal with the still Democratic-controlled legislature to impose a tax on services, everything from accounting to legal fees to advertising. And as somebody that was … knew I didn’t quite grasp the significance of that, of spreading the tax base, broadening the tax base, and taxing services as well as goods.
Then it all blew up just a few months later in August, because the governor was getting a ton of pressure; lots of newspapers, but not the St. Petersburg Times, were furious about the tax on advertising. I can remember there were blank pages in Rolling Stone magazine then, because the advertisers would pull out in Florida; there was just a blank page. And so I can remember a late August Friday afternoon, where we were in an old press center now torn down by the state capitol round [inaudible 00:13:50] Street, and one of my colleagues getting a tip from a lobbyist, which often happens … comes from a lobbyist, late on a Friday afternoon, that, “I think the governor might be doing something, pulling back on the services tax.”
Sure enough, that tip wound up … The next day, we found ourselves in the … standing outside the house of the governor’s chief of staff, Max Stipanovich at the time, with all the legislative leaders inside with the governor, and how they were going to deal with this. That was a good education, because that lasted … that was sort of a crisis mode, and it lasted until about December, and they eventually caved, repealed that, and instead added a penny sales tax on goods, and that’s been now, what, more than 30 years. That’s the last tax reform Florida ever had.
April Salter: Right.
Tim Nickens: And so that’s really a shame.
April Salter: Tim, you were the political editor at the St. Pete Times during the 2000 election and the Bush v. Gore spectacle. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like, and how you … what it was like for the political editor to be calling shots on coverage?
Tim Nickens: Well, I both got to call the shots, but I also wrote a lot of stories, because that’s basically a player-coach sort of a job. And in those days, the newspapers had a lot more revenue and you could also travel a lot more, so I’ve been able to travel predominantly with George W. Bush throughout the campaign all over the country, go to the political conventions, the whole nine yards. We wound up … came back and wound up in Florida with Bush a day or two before the election, and you knew it was going to be close, but you didn’t know how close, of course. And so that night, I can remember [inaudible 00:15:50] reporters being in the newsroom that night, and you’re writing it one way, you’re writing it one way, and we had actually started packing the thing up, and it started getting closer and Gore started getting closer, and the margins started getting thinner, and we were almost out the door and our reporter, who was up in Tallahassee on the 18th floor of the Capitol in the elections office, called and I think it was about 2:30 in the morning, and said, “Uh … ”
April Salter: “We might need to hold the press on this one.”
Tim Nickens: “This is going sideways here,” and I called … The Attorney General was Bob Butterworth at the time, and was key advisor to Al Gore, and I called him then about three o’clock in the morning, and he was like, “He’s not conceding, he’s not conceding. It’s not done.” And of course then … we didn’t go home, and I put on an extra edition, and for the next 35 days, [crosstalk 00:16:52] my wife. And of course, I had already been traveling all over the place, so I was tired out. I was waiting for a break, and of course nobody had a break then until December.
April Salter: Yeah. You’ve also had to deal with a lot of real tragedy as you have to cover tragedy breaking in the news. Talk about 911 a little bit, and what that was like, trying to make decisions on coverage.
Tim Nickens: 911, I had just been appointed about three weeks prior to be the metro editor of the St. Petersburg Times, and that meant I was generally in charge of all local coverage, and in charge of maybe 50 reporters or so. And that morning, I was already in the office, and I was watching the Today show like a lot of folks, on the monitor above my desk. And the first plane flies into the building, and like, “Huh, was is that?” And they start talking about it, and the next thing you know, it wasn’t very long and that second plane hit, and then you knew you had a catastrophe.
Of course, everybody in the newsroom was standing there watching television, and so [inaudible 00:18:01] said, “Well, wait a minute. You can’t stand there watching TV. We got to get moving.”
April Salter: Right.
Tim Nickens: And I called the managing editor at home, and said, “Two planes just flew into the World Trade Center.” He was like, “You’re kidding.” I said, “No.” “What have you got? We gotta get moving.” And we put on an extra edition; I went to three or four reporters and said, “Get to the airport. Get to Tampa International right now to get to New York.” They got to the airport, but of course the airlines were all shut down, so they run out to their car and they started driving. And they made it to Washington the first night, and followed from there, and then kept going on to New York. And that was something.
April Salter: Yeah, that was … It’s amazing to look back and think about that day, because I think for most Americans, we knew that it was a game changer, that it was truly changing our world as we know it. And I just wonder what that, from a newspaper standpoint, that responsibility to educate people and to help them have hope, because that seems like it would be an important part of what you had to do.
Tim Nickens: That, and to bring it home and to try to explain what other families were feeling, what other families were doing about taking the kids out of school, what other families were feeling about is it safe to go to the mall.
April Salter: Right.
Tim Nickens: Because we weren’t obviously in a position to figure out … to do huge stories on the attackers, but we could certainly do how it was impacting our community in Florida, and also then … You gotta remember, that’s not pre-internet, but it’s close to pre-internet, and so it was more important than ever for the newspaper to be a credible, dependable voice, a reassuring voice, and to get people as much information as it could from all the sources you had, all the reporting.
April Salter: You know, it makes me think about that generation of kids who, like your daughter and my daughter and sons, they were in school at that time. They were kids. And now they are … They moved on, and they are this next generation of leadership, and the next generation of voters, and really transforming the world as we know it. What are your thoughts about what the world that they face, and the kinds of things that they’re going to encounter?
Tim Nickens: Well, I think they face a much more complicated world than even when they were little, or certainly when you and I were younger. They’ve got this whole social media impact. We didn’t have to deal with that, and there’s so many young people that are just guided by what they see on social media and what they read on their phones. Unfortunately a lot of that is not necessarily accurate. So they have a tougher time I think, sorting out … They’re getting more sophisticated at it, but I think sometimes they have a tougher time sorting out what’s factual, what’s real and what’s not in that social media age, and then you see, and it’s … In politics as well, there’s … The world is so interconnected just generally now compared to the past, and I think a lot of the younger kids are remarkably adaptable to that, but some of even their older siblings or certainly some folks our generation or a little bit younger are having a hard time adapting with that.
April Salter: And as you look at this new generation, we certainly saw in this past election that the millennials and the next generation is speaking out, voting and showing up in ways that people have been waiting for for a long time. What are your thoughts on the sort of political activism that you’re seeing from the [Parkland 00:21:51] kids and others? What do you think? What difference do you think that makes?
Tim Nickens: I think that’s great. I think it’s … unfortunately Florida out of Parkland was born out of tragedy, but the way those kids, particularly in Parkland, had such a role model … And I think the other kids of that generation picked up on that, and the way they were able to enthuse them was remarkable. The question now that we’ve gotten past the election in Florida, the progressive candidate for governor didn’t win: is this going to be sustainable? These kids now are going to be going to college; are they going to be able to keep up the activism? What about the kids behind ’em, and are they going to remain engaged even though they haven’t necessarily had a huge win?
If they’re looking at the broad picture of course, the Democrats retook control of the House in Washington. There’s some excitement about presidential candidates now, but are they going to be able to sustain that energy? That’d be the key.
April Salter: I think Governor DeSantis has just been elected; I think a lot of people didn’t really know where he stood on issues, and so far he’s been kind of a surprise in a lot of areas, particularly in the environment. Do you have any thoughts about his leadership as he moves forward, things that he should be thinking about, or advice that you would give? You’ve seen a lot of governors over the years, a number of great governors. Do you have any words of wisdom that you would offer to the administration as they try to move forward?
Tim Nickens: Well, I suggested he continue to be an independent thinker. He demonstrated that in his first couple, three weeks, and we’ve written … certainly the Times did not recommend him. We recommended Andrew Gillum. But I’ve written several very complimentary editorials about some of his staff selections, some of his environmental positions in particular, his move to pardon the Groveland Four in … the four African American men who were wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 1949. And I think all that opened a lot of eyes. Talking about allowing medical marijuana in smokable form. Appearing there with John Morgan who got that amendment on the ballot.
April Salter: Right.
Tim Nickens: Who would have imagined that? But I think some smart things have been written about that, about DeSantis is only 40 years old. He’s the youngest governor of the century. He’s certainly conservative, but I think he brings maybe a more … hopefully, a more practical approach, and he’s not as tied to maybe some of these long-held positions by the older generation in his party. Now, I still think … He hadn’t gotten to his first legislative session. He hasn’t proposed his first day budget yet, so while we’ve been complimentary a lot, I’m sure that when we get to things like the future of public education and the future of Medicaid, that we’re probably going to have some differences.
April Salter: Governor DeSantis has indicated based on him being a Congressman, that he really believes in the strength of the legislature, and the importance of the legislative process in terms of policy making. What are your thoughts about the role of the governor versus the role of the legislator and how that might play out in the legislative session?
Tim Nickens: Well, I think he might rethink that after he goes through his first legislative session, because they might do some things that he’s not all that comfortable with. It’s my opinion … I think that the last eight years with Rick Scott as Governor, the legislature’s really had more control than the chief executive at a lot of times, because they just were more determined, and they were more ideologically-driven a lot of times, and Governor Scott had a very narrow agenda. And the legislature had a very broad agenda when it came to everything from education to healthcare to home rule, all sorts of stuff.
It would be interesting to see if DeSantis engages on more issues. I think the early signs are that he probably will, and he’s going to find that he’s not going to always agree with legislators that frankly have gotten accustomed to having their way.
April Salter: You’ve seen a lot of legislative battles over the years. You’ve seen how they play out. Any thoughts about the 2019 session, what the battles will be ahead of us, what … where do you think the real soft spots will be?
Tim Nickens: Well, it’ll be interesting to see how the Senate and the House work together, because the House is generally activist, and the Senate is a little more pragmatic. But the House is very conservative, both … not just fiscally, but also socially. And so it’ll be interesting to see whether the Senate is going to act as a check on some of those things regarding Medicaid, public education and the expansion of both charter schools and potentially vouchers for private school tuition, block grants for Medicaid, which would basically in my opinion ration healthcare, where you would only spend as much money as you’ve got, and you’re either then going to cut medical services or not let anybody else enroll.
DeSantis is going to have to I think wind up being referee in some of that.
April Salter: And certainly we’ve had a big change in the Supreme Court, so there’s not a backstop for some of those issues, so that will be interesting to see how that plays out. What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court, the new mix of the Supreme Court?
Tim Nickens: Well, that’s going to take the Supreme Court in an entirely different direction than it’s been in decades. And those folks that DeSantis has placed on the Court, all appear to be very accomplished, and so it’s not a question of their qualifications, but they largely come from the Federalist Society, and they’re going to be more conservative and have a different approach than the three justices that have left. So what does that mean practically? I think you can look at a lot of issues when it comes to redistricting, the power of the legislature and executive power … I think abortion rights, depending on what happens at the US Supreme Court now that you’ve got two new justices there, could be a question.
These folks that he appointed are all pretty young, so they’re going to be there for decades. They do have the potential to reshape Florida.
April Salter: Absolutely. Well Tim, we always wrap up the show with four questions. And the first one is, who is a Florida leader that you admire? This could be somebody from Florida history, or someone who’s still active in their work.
Tim Nickens: I admire Lawton Chiles a lot. He … I covered him up close when I went to the Miami Herald for a while, and covered the 1990 and 1994 campaigns. I learned a lot, both from Chiles himself, Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay, and the goals of that administration. I just went to the … They had a 20 year reunion, sort of on the anniversary of his death. It was good to see a lot of those folks. And you can tell whether it’s from infant mortality … the way he negotiated that record tobacco industry settlement. Those are things that still have lasting impact 20 years later. So he ranks at the top of my list.
April Salter: And Tim, what Florida person, place or thing do you think deserves more attention than it gets right now?
Tim Nickens: Well, I’ll make a plug for St. Petersburg, because St. Petersburg, when I got there in 1983, basically rolled up the sidewalks at night. There were not really any places to eat downtown, not hardly anywhere to stay, and now, it’s just undergone a remarkable renaissance, and filled with restaurants and bars and tons of new luxury apartments, and a very dynamic place and you go downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, and I’m like, “Where did all these young people come from?” Which is a good thing. And where do they work?
April Salter: It’s certainly an exciting city, and it’s great to see St. Pete and Tampa area just continue to grow and be such exciting places. And Tim, for you when you want to go and visit a Florida location, whether it’s a city or a favorite restaurant, where is your favorite place to go visit?
Tim Nickens: I haven’t been there in a while, but I always like St. Augustine. My wife and I always have a good time, and just the pace, the uniqueness of the city, and you’re close to the beaches … Lots of good food, and I always think that’s a fun place to go.
April Salter: Absolutely. And finally … I think I know the answer to this question, but do you have a favorite sports team?
Tim Nickens: Well, of course my favorite sports team out of state is the Indiana Hoosiers. They’re having a tough time this basketball season. And then of course in baseball season, I switch to the Tampa Bay Rays, ’cause it’s really cool to be able to walk from your office to a Major League game.
April Salter: And how do you think the season’s going to go for 2019?
Tim Nickens: For the Rays?
April Salter: Yeah.
Tim Nickens: Well, we’ll see. As usual, they’ve turned over the payroll, and a lot of the players, and they still operate there with a small payroll. But I think as always, they’ve got a chance to play with the big guys.
April Salter: Great. Thank you so much for your time, Tim. We really appreciate visiting with you.
Tim Nickens: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway, and a team at Salter Mitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered, by offering issues management, crisis communication, social media advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast, and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com, or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.