‘A true gentleman’: Steve Key retires as HSPA executive director

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Ruth Witmer
Hoosier State Press Association

With less than two weeks to go before retiring from HSPA, Steve Key’s desk, normally stacked with deep layers of files and papers, is partially cleaned off. Some boxes are packed. The Legal Hotline is ringing.

Key came to HSPA as an intern in 1993 and will retire as executive director at the end of April. His three decades in between have been filled with advocacy for Indiana newspapers and advice and assistance to the state’s publishers, editors and journalists.

“Think of what has changed in newspapers since Steve came on board,” said Larry Hensely, HSPA board president and general manager at The Hoosier Times.
“I’ve been doing this 27 years and Steve’s been doing it longer than I have,” Hensley said. “It’s amazing, all the stuff he has in that head of his.”
Key graduated from Butler University in 1977 with a degree in journalism. He worked for newspapers for 13 years in Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana before deciding to attend law school.

On the advice of his wife, Gayle, Key sought out the guidance of a career counselor who said tests indicated he would be suited for international law.

“Gayle said,‘Well, if you can get accepted in law school we’ll make it work.’ I’ll go to my grave not knowing if she said that figuring it was a safe thing to say and I’d never get in — I fooled her and we made it work,” Key said.

“He’s so brilliant in both realms, both journalism and law,” said Kathy Tretter, editor of The Ferdinand News. “He’s been such an asset to every publisher in Indiana.”

Kathy Tretter, editor, Ferdinand News

He received his law degree from the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis in 1994.
Key had been hired as an intern at HSPA by then-executive director and general counsel Dick Cardwell, but he didn’t have a job lined up beyond that.

“I was scared to death going through the graduation ceremony,” Key said. Aspiring lawyers were stepping up to the mic, stating their names and where they intended to work. Many said Marion County.

“I began to panic during the ceremony because I thought I’m going to graduate from law school not having a place to work and my wife is going to kill me,” Key said.
“But as it turned out, the board and Dick decided to basically create a position for me at that time,” Key said. “They haven’t been able to get rid of me since then.”

Key credits Cardwell’s successor, David Stamps, as the mentor who helped him shape his role and prepare him for the day he would take over as executive director himself.
With experience in both journalism and the legal field, Key has been described as a unicorn, uniquely qualified to lead HSPA through the challenges of advising journalists on legal issues and lobbying for and against legislation in the Indiana Statehouse.

“He’s so brilliant in both realms, both journalism and law,” said Kathy Tretter, editor of The Ferdinand News. “He’s been such an asset to every publisher in Indiana.”

Tretter said for small papers like hers that don’t have the resources to hire their own legal counsel, Key’s assistance has been invaluable. Her first call to him was in the 1990s.
“I have the utmost respect for him, for the things he’s done, for his passion and his championship — he has been a champion of our industry,” Tretter said.

The landscape of newspapers has changed dramatically in Key’s time at HSPA and most recently during his years as executive director, said Robyn McCloskey, president of the HSPA Foundation board of directors and CNHI regional publisher. Those changes include having one publisher for multiple properties, navigating the digital era and the very definition of a newspaper.

“He’s led us through that with humility and grace,” McCloskey said. “He has just been steadfast in his support of newspapers.”

At the Statehouse over the years, victories have come in a variety of forms from fighting to maintain the status quo on certain issues to establishing the public access counselor position to this year securing the ability for the public to speak at school board meetings.

Mark Miller, HSPA board member and former editor at the News-Banner (Bluffton), said Key’s integrity, knowledge and devotion to Indiana newspapers is widely known. In talking with friends at the Statehouse who have worked in different capacities, Miller said they all agreed that they would be hard-pressed to say which side of the political aisle Key might lean towards.

“I don’t know if there is a better compliment for a person in this kind of role,” Miller said.
Key said with all of the challenges he’s seen newspapers face, he’s optimistic about local journalism. “There’s no lack of demand for it,” he said.

“Just talking about a true gentleman,. He breathes it, he lives it, he’s the symbol of HSPA.”

Larry Hensley, general manager, The Hoosier Times

The young generation that wants to change the world needs to get used to the idea that if they want local journalism, and they do, they have to pay for it, Key said. It’s the local journalists who are informing people about what the government is doing and what’s going on in the community, including stories of tragedies and families in need of support.

“Those community efforts are more often than not sparked by that feature story that was done in the local newspapers,” Key said.

Amelia McClure has been hired to succeed Key as executive director. Key said he’s excited for McClure and knows she’ll do a great job serving HSPA.

Key said he looks forward to spending time with grandchildren Jon, 4, and Blake, 2, to travel with Gayle, time at the lake and more attention to volunteer organizations like the Friends of Ernie Pyle and the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Key will assist at HSPA on a contract basis through December 2022. He’ll continue to answer questions for the Legal Hotline at a new email address, legal@hspa.com and on his cell at 317-509-1507.

For now, the office phone rings and packing isn’t quite done.

“I’m working my way across the desk so you can actually see it,” he said.

In boxes is a potpourri of items including his framed law degree and a gag gift from a co-worker that has remained on his desk for many years and through several office moves — a Milk-Bone dog biscuit to remind him to stay out of the doghouse at home.

As Key nears retirement he said it’s been a privilege to work at HSPA. Editors, publishers and board members noted the number of people Key has touched and helped during his career.

“Just talking about a true gentleman,” Hensley said. “He breathes it, he lives it, he’s the symbol of HSPA

1 COMMENT

  1. It was a pleasure reading your article. I particularly enjoyed reading the back story of one of IAHCSMM and now HSPA’s most influential and law abiding person. Mr. Steve Keys will be missed tremendously…

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