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TNT publisher — 'Tacoman by choice' — reflects on long career leading region's newspapers

David Zeeck, left, testifies in Olympia last year, after lawmakers wanted to exempt themselves from the state Public Records Act.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
David Zeeck, left, testifies in Olympia last year, after lawmakers wanted to exempt themselves from the state Public Records Act.

David Zeeck grew up in West Texas, but considers Tacoma home.

“Texan by birth, Tacoman by choice,” the outgoing News Tribune publisher told Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick, referring to his biography on the newspaper’s website. Friday is Zeeck’s last day at The News Tribune, where he worked for a quarter century, including the past decade as publisher.

He says it took him until halfway through college to land on journalism as a career, despite having family ties to newspapers. But he never looked back.

“I’m doing it for the people who read this stuff,” Zeeck said. “I’m doing it to preserve journalism. I’m doing it because we have a First Amendment, and I think that’s important.”

Zeeck says journalism is a noble profession that attracts people who know how to sniff out a story — even and especially when sources don’t want you to.  

“You see people all the time who don’t want you to find stuff out,” Zeeck said. “That should be a reporter or editor’s instinct, ‘well there’s a story there, clearly.’”

Zeeck’s tenure has outlasted that of five Tacoma mayors, three Pierce County executives and three Washington governors. In addition to leading the Tacoma paper, he also was in charge of The Olympian and the Bellingham Herald in recent years. 

His work has taken him abroad to places such as Vietnam and China. Before his time in Tacoma, he spent 20 years at The Kansas City Star as a reporter and editor. He admits now: “I was more suited to be a coach, maybe, than being a player.”

His colleagues might agree.

“I’ve learned a great deal from him, but I also count him as a friend,” reporter Sean Robinson said upon learning of Zeeck’s retirement.

Craig Sailor, another reporter, called the departure “the end of an era.”

Perhaps that fondness stems from one of Zeeck’s mottos: “Be hard on the journalism and easy on the people.”

Being hard on journalism is another legacy he leaves behind.

“It’s substantial, the things we’ve done,” Zeeck said of the newspaper’s coverage, citing stories such as David Brame, the Tacoma police chief who killed his wife and himself. He believes probing by The News Tribune after the tragic story broke led to meaningful change in city government systems. It helped the newspaper reporters and editors hold themselves accountable, too, he noted.

But Zeeck counts a story from last year as one of the most important roles he played — and some of the most fun he had.

When the Legislature wanted to exempt itself from the state Public Records Act, newspapers made sure to stop it. Zeeck recalls a Sunday phone call from Kate Riley, editorial page editor at The Seattle Times, who asked him along with many others about an idea to simultaneously run editorials in newspapers across the state urging Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.

They did. And it worked.

“The public outpouring was unbelievable,” Zeeck recalled. “That was another case of being in the right place and doing the right things for the people of Washington. Those are the kind of things I’m proud of, the stories that have that kind of impact.”

So, why leave now? Zeeck says it’s time for somebody else to do the dirty work.

“I really want to stay here,” he said of Tacoma. While he doesn’t know what comes next, Zeeck is running toward the next challenge, he says — quoting former colleague Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“I’m certainly not running from The News Tribune,” Zeeck said.

He says it’s time for somebody else to lead the way as local Tacoma reporters commit acts of journalism and work to protect press freedom.

When asked why the latter is so important, Zeeck says it’s simple: “Does a fish know that it’s swimming in water?”

It’s one of his many “Zeeckisms,” as former executive editor Karen Peterson called them in a TNT farewell editorial. Others include “all hat and no cattle” (a self-important person, more style than substance) or “a long walk to a small pond” (she took forever to tell a story that didn’t amount to much).

Listen to Zeeck’s full conversation with Kendrick above.

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.