Opinion

Reflections on the Dave Zeeck era: News Tribune icon a ‘Texan by birth, Tacoman by choice’

Then-Executive Editor Dave Zeeck outside the newsroom of the News Tribune in 2006, two years before he would be named publisher.
Then-Executive Editor Dave Zeeck outside the newsroom of the News Tribune in 2006, two years before he would be named publisher. News Tribune file photo

Every business, nonprofit or other institution that wants to project a genuine heart for its host community would be smart to go out and find a Dave Zeeck.

The News Tribune had the good fortune to land the original model nearly a quarter century ago.

Since coming to Tacoma from the Kansas City Star in 1994, Zeeck has served as our tireless ambassador – first as the TNT’s executive editor, then as publisher for the last decade.

He’s a man with a personality as wide open as the High Plains where he grew up, a towering figure with a Northwest Texas charm that helped him make countless connections in his adopted Pacific Northwest home.

In my role as editorial page editor the last three years, I sometimes tell people the Editorial Board is the TNT’s open door to the community, and Zeeck is our big Texas handshake.

For many of us, it’s hard coming to grips with the fact that we’re losing him. Zeeck recently announced he’s stepping down as publisher of McClatchy papers in Tacoma, Olympia and Bellingham, in search of another grand adventure. His last day is Jan. 11.

To put his remarkable staying power at the TNT in perspective, he outlasted five Tacoma mayors, three Pierce County executives, three Washington governors and five University of Washington football coaches.

Befitting a newsman of such longevity, Zeeck has come to be many things to many people.

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Matt Misterek has been an editor at The News Tribune since 2003. He became editorial page editor in 2016. Dean J. Koepfler News Tribune file photo

To the public, he’s a frequent emcee and debate moderator who seldom says “no” to an invitation.

To TNT employees, he’s the boss who cares about your life outside the office. He found moments of fun in an intense deadline culture, and wasn’t above wearing an XXL-sized Carmen Miranda costume to a staff recognition event. (Though he appears to have had all photographic proof of the incident destroyed.)

To paper carriers, he’s the hands-on boss who showed up at the distribution center early on Thanksgiving mornings to help stuff ad inserts.

To newsroom staff, he was the last line of defense on difficult reporting projects, an editor notorious for dissecting stories and sending his journalists back to the drawing board.

(Memories of getting “Zeecked” still bring flop sweats to reporters and editors like me who worked under him.)

But he could also lift newsroom morale, reminding us even in our industry’s toughest years what a privilege it is to write the South Sound’s first draft of history and hold powerful people to high standards.

Perhaps nothing defines Zeeck more than his passion for press freedom and the First Amendment. He’s an amiably irresistible force for open government, as no small number of public officials can attest.

For those of us who spent hours with Zeeck on the Editorial Board (including 31 hours interviewing candidates before the 2018 elections), he will always be a community thought leader of the first order. Usually the most opinionated person at the table, he can distill a complex rhetorical point to a few sentences.

At times I’ve been envious. But mostly I’m grateful for the way he’s challenged me to hone my reasoning skills since I arrived as a newsroom team leader 15 years ago – like “iron sharpens iron,” to quote the biblical book of Proverbs.

Good argumentation happens when a few sparks fly. Great journalism depends on it.

I asked my Editorial Board colleagues, past and present, to share their own reflections about the big man from the Texas Panhandle.

‘The key to successful journalism is love’

By Patrick O’Callahan

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the difference between a good job and a great job is not the money or even what you do. It’s the people you work with.

Dave Zeeck was one of the people who made journalism at The News Tribune a great job.

Dave was genial, good-natured, upbeat. He enjoyed people. He seemed to find something endearingly amusing in just about anyone.

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Former editorial page editor Patrick O”Callahan Dean J. Koepfler The News Tribune

I’ve met few people with his analytical powers. It was a joy to watch him think. He saw to the heart of complicated issues instantly. That’s a rare talent. In someone who leads a news organization, it’s priceless.

What impressed me most about Dave was his natural decency. I couldn’t picture him doing anything unethical or dishonest. In the 21 years I worked with him, I never heard him say an unkind word to anyone. He didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, but he was a serious Presbyterian who lived his convictions.

The key to successful journalism is love. Love for your readers, for your community, for the pursuit of truth, for the English language that lets you tell the story. David Zeeck had that necessary love.

– Patrick O’Callahan came to the TNT as an editorial writer in 1987 and was editorial page editor from 2008 through 2015.

‘He has a secret superpower’

By Cheryl Tucker

I was in on many editorial board interviews with Dave Zeeck over the years and learned that he has a secret superpower: the ability to ask THAT question, the one that cuts through the BS to the heart of the matter.

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Former editorial writer Cheryl Tucker Dean J. Koepfler The News Tribune

Peering over a pair of reader glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose, he would ask it in such a disarming way that the object of his question was caught completely off guard.

As publisher, Dave was concerned about how issues affected everyday people and how the board’s decisions could be a force for making the region a better place to live and work.

His departure from The News Tribune is a loss not only for the paper but for the South Sound community that he has served so well. I wish him all the best in the next chapter of his life.

– Cheryl Tucker worked at the TNT 38 years and retired as editorial writer in 2016.

‘It almost breaks my heart’

By David Seago

I am really sorry to see Dave Zeeck go. I am sorry for Dave, sorry for The News Tribune, sorry for the Tacoma and Pierce County community that is losing the best newsman and publisher it ever had. In fact, it almost breaks my heart. I’m sure that Dave will leave with a heavy heart, too. I wish it were not so.

Although Dave is retiring as the paper’s publisher, his heart was in the newsroom. He relished the invigorating daily miracle of putting out a newspaper. He loved the fight to hold public officials accountable and never backed down. But he would also listen and acknowledge the mistakes newspapers sometimes make. He embodied and always insisted on the highest ethical standards.

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Former editorial page editor David Seago

Dave is a born leader. He likes to say he is “a Texan by birth, a Tacoman by choice.” He cares deeply about this community. Although he was reluctant to leave the newsroom and take on the publisher’s role of running the entire operation and making budget every year, he was clearly the best person for the job. He did it well.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a terrible time to be a newspaper publisher. The economics are grim. Like many other newspapers, The News Tribune has suffered. Dave held the banner high for good journalism in demoralizing times far longer than I thought he ever could.

He persisted because newspapering is in his blood, and because he knows a city without a strong newspaper is a city without a heart. Bon voyage, Dave. You left a mark.

– David Seago worked at the TNT for 40 years and retired in 2008 as editorial page editor.

‘Zeeckisms’

By Karen Peterson

I’ve been gone from The News Tribune for a year and a half, and I still can’t get them out of my head: the Zeeckisms.

If you’ve had any amount of conversation with the man, you know the cornball phrases that roll off his tongue with a soft Texas drawl.

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Former executive editor Karen Peterson Peter Haley Staff Photographer

Some are just for fun, although editorial board members may have applied them occasionally to candidates we met during endorsement interviews:

All hat and no cattle = A self-important person, more style than substance.

A long walk to a small pond = She took forever to tell a story that didn’t amount to much.

Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then = Congratulations on that fine thing you say you did, but it may have been just dumb luck.

Other Zeeckisms give you a window into his leadership style and what he cares about:

No surprises up or down = Trust me enough to tell me what’s going on, and I’ll do the same for you. Worked equally well for newsroom colleagues, public officials and readers.

Tough on the journalism, easy on the people = Zeeck enforced the highest ethical standards and expected much of each of us. He also was the first person out the door when a staffer got into a car accident or a community member had a death in the family.

We will conduct our work with an affection for the community = We care enough about this place where we all live to praise what’s going well and point out what could be done better.

In the most difficult situations, he asked simply: “What’s the right thing to do?” The answer often was amazingly clear.

Where the Zeeckisms all came from, I don’t know. But taken in total, they say a lot about the man. And they guide me still. I couldn’t have asked for a better boss, mentor or friend.

Godspeed, Dave Zeeck. As editor and publisher, you kept flying the plane all the way to the ground. And what a wonderful landing.

– Karen Peterson was a TNT editor for 17 years, followed Zeeck as executive editor and retired in 2017.

‘Everyone gets the same treatment’

By Karen Irwin

It would take a trunk of superlatives to do Zeeck justice, but if all you’ve got is one word, honorable would be it.

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Editorial writer Karen Irwin David Montesino dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

I’ve had the privilege of watching this veteran journalist converse with members of Congress, legislators, a governor, citizens with grievances and fellow TNT staff members, and everyone gets the same treatment: Meet with Zeeck and expect to be heard.

He comes at you with a dogged curiosity, which can only come from a person who truly cares.

He is coach and teammate all in one, a rare combination indeed, which leads me to the conclusion that I lied.

It takes at least two words to describe the man I’ve been lucky enough to call boss: honorable and irreplaceable.

– Karen Irwin has been editorial writer at the TNT since 2016.

‘The smartest guy in the room’

By Dale Phelps

I once saw James Carville asked about what it was like working to elect Bill Clinton president. He said the job was made easier by the knowledge that his guy was always the smartest guy in the room.

Realizing that not all comparisons to Clinton are flattering, I’d say something similar about Dave Zeeck. Our jobs here have been made easier by him always being the smartest guy in the room.

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Executive editor Dale Phelps Dean J. Koepfler The News Tribune

That’s particularly helpful on the Editorial Board. We host all sorts of politicians, elected officials and business and community leaders trying to sell us on their particular agendas. Dave has the ability to engage and even disagree with visitors and not have them leave feeling unheard or diminished.

It’s that combination of intelligence and humanity that makes Dave special.

Several years ago I took some time off work to go to my hometown to be with my parents during my mother’s final days. One day I returned to the house just as my father was hanging up the phone. I asked who had called. He said it was Zeeck. I asked if I was supposed to return the call. My father said no, that Zeeck had called to talk to him and see how he was holding up.

They didn’t really know each other. They had met maybe once or twice. Yet Dave found a way to help lighten the load for my father during a tough time.

I’ve worked with Dave for the better part of the last 40 years at two newspapers. We’ve committed a lot of good journalism during that time, but my lasting memory will be that I’ve had the good fortune to work for a good and decent man who also happened to be the smartest guy in the room.

– Dale Phelps has been a TNT editor since 1998 and became executive editor in 2017.

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