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Interview: 50 Years Later: The Fight for Tax Transparency

Posted on Nov. 9, 2020

On Tax Analysts’ 50th anniversary, CEO and President Cara Griffith reflects on the organization’s history as a longtime transparency advocate and how she plans to expand its legacy.

This post has been edited for length and clarity.

Chuck O'Toole: Cara, thanks so much for joining us here.

Cara Griffith: It's my pleasure.

Chuck O'Toole: We're talking about Tax Analysts' 50th anniversary today. First off, what a crazy year to have that fall in. Right?

Cara Griffith: This year has gone nothing like anyone expected.

Chuck O'Toole: Absolutely. The pandemic has just thrown everything off. I'm curious: From where you sit, how do you feel like Tax Analysts has weathered this crisis?

Cara Griffith: I have to say I'm really impressed with how well we have weathered this crisis. Very little of what I had planned for 2020 has occurred because we've just had to switch so rapidly and focus on something else. The pandemic created this level of crisis that really wasn't just a momentary event. It kept going and it's been a yearlong thing.

But overall, I have to say that we really weathered it well. We were in a good position to move our operations remote quickly. We had taken steps in previous years to accommodate inclement weather in case we had to do all of our publishing remotely. Everyone was prepped and ready. It's just that we had anticipated this process would be used for a snow day or two, not a global pandemic in which we are all working remotely for quite so long.

But overall, operations are going well. Things are running smoothly. I am always eminently impressed with the Tax Analysts staff. They really are the best. They work harder than you would ever expect. In this environment, they have been flexible and really shown how dedicated and hardworking they are and how much they care about the products. I think the products have not suffered at all and maybe are even better than ever.

I really feel like we were very lucky to be in the position that we're in and we've weathered the year so far quite well.

Chuck O'Toole: That's really good to hear. As CEO in this unprecedented situation, what was it like having to make decisions for a whole company in such uncharted waters?

Cara Griffith: It was hard. I won't sugarcoat it. It was one of those where you want to make the right decision the first time. You always want the staff to understand that you're making the decision in their best interest and you make it decisively. But we didn't have a playbook for this. There really was nothing that we could lean on and say, "Well, this has worked in the past and this has not."

I tried particularly early on really to do that over-communicating and then acknowledge, "OK. So, I made a call yesterday. As it turns out today, that wasn't the right call. And now we have to pivot and here's why." I tried to be transparent and honest about the decisions that I was making, because really there was nothing that I could look at and say, "This is going to work in this instance."

It was hard. I still do worry about the staff. I worry more from a mental health perspective of either people that are alone and don't have anyone else with them, or parents that are trying to teach their children while working. We're all adding extra stresses on to it. How long can we bear that? Those are some of the things that weigh heavily on me and I think about.

I ask myself, "What can I do as a CEO? What can I do as a leader to say, 'It's going to be OK. And here's why. Here's what I can do to help alleviate some of that stress.'" It's definitely still a work in progress. I'm grateful that the staff has been as flexible as they have and receptive to some of the changes that have really occurred on the fly.

Chuck O'Toole: I think folks have definitely appreciated the amount of communication that we've had and that's been really good across the board for the staff.

And here we are at the 50-year mark. Let me ask, are we done? Does the world still need a Tax Analysts? If so, why?

Cara Griffith: Yes. The world still needs a Tax Analysts without a doubt. They need a Tax Analysts because we do so many things. At the end of the day, we serve as an educator, we provide a forum for debate, and we serve as a watchdog. All of those are really, truly necessary in order to ultimately have that good debate and end up with good tax policy that leads to good tax administration.

We strive to educate our readers every day by explaining facts in a logical fashion and making difficult issues comprehensible to the extent that we can by presenting, "Here's what happened. Here's what everyone is saying."

That being said, we don't dumb down our stories ever. One read of any Tax Notes publication is evidence of that. We tackle those hard technical issues that really need to be covered. There are issues that are best covered by a publication like Tax Notes that is so familiar with the issues. You're not going to get this in the mainstream press.

We also challenge our readers to think broadly and to be exposed to a wide variety of different views and opinions. We're not in the business of cherry-picking our views and opinions. We put them all out there. Even those that may not be all that popular. Really, we are that educator.

By doing that, we are the forum for debate. We keep the conversation going. Our founder Tom Field's true belief that out of that debate, out of that clash of opinions, good tax policy is going to come.

I will say, I drank the Kool-Aid years ago and I truly believe that. It's that you need to be able to go out, vet all of the issues, and acknowledge opinions that aren't your own and that maybe you don't agree with. But it's really just so important to take a look at them, to understand, to see where the other side is coming from. 

Tax Analysts has for many years served as a watchdog for both taxing authorities and public institutions. We've been engaged in numerous lawsuits over the years. We've also scrutinized a lot of private institutions. That's an important role that a journalism outlet like ours serves.

Without a doubt, there's as much of a need for Tax Analysts today as it was when Tom founded the organization.

Chuck O'Toole: Where do you see the next big challenges in tax transparency then? You referenced some of the lawsuits we've done over the years. Are there any areas that you think could use more attention from an organization like ours?

Cara Griffith: That's a good question, and I think about this one quite a lot. It's hard to predict the next transparency challenge. I feel like a lot of times they find us. In many ways, we fight the same fight year after year.

I think for Tax Analysts, some of it is just continuing to cover and watch for different types of guidance. I do think that informal guidance in the form of email is replacing some of the formal guidance that we are accustomed to. But it does take a careful watching on things like that to notice that the number of this type of guidance has dropped over the course of the last two years.

What does that mean? It's not that they're not giving as many opinions. It's just coming out someplace else. There's some level of trying to figure out and find where the taxing authorities are going.

I think we'll also need to expand our outreach a little bit more, too, and hit state and international issues. International will be a very tough nut to crack from a transparency perspective in some ways because we're not as familiar with the laws in other countries. It's nice here in the states where we have the Freedom of Information Act. States, in general, will have some sort of law that is very similar modeled around FOIA.

It's a little hard to predict. There's one out there, and I look forward to it. That's a big part of Tax Analysts' history, and it really feels good sometimes to find those and then to figure it out.

I had a practitioner once tell me that I had changed the face of transparency in state tax administration. At one point, I kind of chuckled at it and said, "I didn't have that big of an impact." He said, "No, you did."

Then, I thought about it and we've had a lot of reporters or editors over the years who've had that kind of an impact on enabling taxpayers and the public to have access to the same guidance that the big companies can get. These taxing authorities are using internally as what's guiding them during an audit. It is a fun part of what we do.

Chuck O'Toole: That's a great history to look back on. It does make me think about something we've heard from time to time, too. Obviously a lot can change in a place over 50 years and I think we both heard the occasional criticism about Tax Analysts. Criticism that we've gone corporate and that we're not that scrappy little underground operation we were 20 or 30 years ago. What is your response to that argument?

Cara Griffith: I would have to say in some ways it's true. We are not that scrappy little underground organization that we once were. We're no longer in the basement of Tom's house. We're no longer in the building that we affectionately called the Taj, but it was not that even remotely. We are officially a force to be reckoned with. We, I think in the last couple of decades, have begun to really take ourselves and what we do very seriously.

We have some tremendous people that work at Tax Analysts. Our contributors are among the best in the business. We also compete head to head every day with large, well-funded for-profit companies. We have to take ourselves seriously. Our readers expect high-quality digital and print publications. They also expect regular enhancements. With more frequency now, I hear the word "innovation." They are thinking about that as well.

With the size that we are, for us to be agile enough to bring innovative solutions to our readers requires that we not fly by the seat of our pants. We have to think ahead. We have to plan. We have to be ready to implement.

With that being said, the heart and soul of Tax Analysts have not changed. I think we are still a group of people who question every piece of information we are given. In my mind, we are still "respectfully disagreeable," which was my favorite of our slogans over the years.

Chuck O'Toole: Mine, too.

Cara Griffith: It was a good one. We still are that group of people that are always willing to ask the hard questions. We're willing to push for access to documents. We're willing to go head to head with agencies. We're still committed to the best journalism and the best publications that we can.

So, for all of the fact that we do have to plan, we do have to be able to implement and provide readers with what they need, we're not giving up on our roots — at least not while I get to be in the seat that I'm in.

We are coming off of a couple of financially challenging years. We had a relationship end with a large reseller. We did have to take some years and really think about, "How do we replace that revenue? And what can we do? And how do we grow the organization?" As we've gotten through that, I don't think we've ever lost sight of the fact that we also serve the tax community.

As we move into our next five, 10, 50 years, I also want to take a hard look at how we can serve the tax community and the public broadly. Even though we've now gotten to a place where we are financially sound and we have processes and procedures in place, we're still Tax Analysts. Now we're in a terrific place where we don't have to give up on our roots and we can actually go out and serve the community better.

Chuck O'Toole: That's a really good segue there because I think we have a new initiative that you wanted to talk a bit about today. Is that right?

Cara Griffith: Yeah. I'm excited about this one. This goes with some of the 50th anniversary things that we were trying to do that sort of got overshadowed by the whole pandemic.

Earlier in the year, we put our code and regulations outside of the paywall, and that really was a first effort for us. Going forward, we will be looking to put additional content, in fact most federal tax-related law and guidance will be outside of the paywall. This is a fundamental change for Tax Analysts but really takes us to a place that feels right.

When you look at private letter rulings back in 1972, we sued to get these documents. It's only fitting that in our 50th year, we are able to say, "Let's make it so that all of those documents that we have acquired are available to anyone at any point who needs them." It's a really nice way of taking a hard look at what we can do. And that's one thing we definitely can. We sue for access to documents, and now we make them available to everyone.

Chuck O'Toole: That's terrific. That's going to be such a great resource for the tax community as a whole to have that much content. Just so we're clear, you're talking federal law and guidance, and it'll be our archives, too. Right? It won't just be going forward?

Cara Griffith: That's right.

Chuck O'Toole: Wow. That's quite a library that's going to be opening up for free. Do we have a timeline or next couple of months here, or when do you expect to see that roll out?

Cara Griffith: We're hopeful to have by the end of the calendar year, but given how technology projects tend to go, we're having right now our 50th anniversary virtual celebration on February 10. That's kind of the date in my head that I'm looking at to have all this done. We would be able to roll it out and actually really celebrate that as well as the organization come February.

Chuck O'Toole: Can you talk about that celebration?

Cara Griffith: Yeah. We had planned to have just a really nice, large event in April of this year and that didn't happen. We had initially postponed it, hoping that by December we would be able to do an in-person event. That is just not a reality right now. Even in the spring, it was difficult to say that we would be able to have, and people would feel comfortable having, a large in-person event.

So, we have decided to change our events and have it on February 10. It will be a virtual event. I'm still very excited about it. I was looking forward to having an in-person event and meeting a few of the founders of the organization that I had not met before. But one of the beauties of a lot of the virtual things that we've done right now is that we get to connect to so many more people. This will enable us to have a lot more people viewing.

We will be honoring Larry Gibbs, a former IRS commissioner and longtime pillar in the tax community. He's been on the Tax Analysts board. He's just an all-around terrific guy. It's going to be nice to give him a bit of honor as well. It'll be fun.

We get to have some additional speakers. You'll see more faces on the screen than you would have seen on the stage. That's the silver lining in having a virtual event as opposed to an in-person event. We're excited. It'll be a lot of fun.

Chuck O'Toole: Great. Again, February 10 is the date for that?

Cara Griffith: That's right. February 10.

Chuck O'Toole: Real quick, I just wanted to shift it to something a little bit more personal here. You just passed your three-year mark as CEO, and as you've mentioned in a LinkedIn post, you've had five different business cards over 15 years at Tax Analysts. Right?

Cara Griffith: That's right.

Chuck O'Toole: What's it been like to take the reins as CEO after such a long history with the company? Have there been any surprises or things you'd wished you'd known before going in?

Cara Griffith: That's the million dollar question. Honestly it has been a tremendous experience. I don't think anyone could have prepared me for the first year. It truly was just a whirlwind where the learning curve is steep and every day is different and every day presented a new challenge.

There were some days where I was just on top of the world and seeing my name on the outside of the CEO office was really, really special. There were other days when I would shut my door and I would put my head in my hands. I would think, "I may have bit off more than I can chew."

But it's been just an amazing experience. I feel like I was given such a rare opportunity to make my own mark on the organization that started my career. That I think is something that's very unique and it really is really special.

I do care so deeply about the company. I feel like I've been fully vested in its success for a lot longer than I've been CEO. I mentioned earlier that I drank the Kool-Aid, and I do totally feel that. I believe in the mission of the company. I believe in the importance of what we do. Now I get the opportunity to make sure that we continue on and that we become better.

I also care deeply about the staff. Having grown up, so to speak, at the organization I still know a lot of the people, and I've worked with them in various capacities. I really care about their success and about them personally, which has made the pandemic even more fun. I do worry about the staff. I want to make sure everybody's OK. Everyone's feeling good. The people at Tax Analysts have always been what makes it just so enjoyable to come to work. I have a lot of friends at the company.

It's been an amazing three years. I actually can't believe it's been that long. It feels like yesterday.

Chuck O'Toole: One last question then. When all is said and done, what do you want your legacy to be at Tax Analysts?

Cara Griffith: That's a hard question. In many ways, it's a moving target. My immediate goal for legacy, three years ago when I took the job, was to simply lead Tax Analysts through transition from its reliance on a large reseller contract to a place where the loss of a single subscriber doesn't threaten the overall survival of the organization. At that point, I wanted my legacy to be that I have set Tax Analysts up for another 50 years of existence.

Very thankfully that goal is so far underway and it happened a lot faster than what I expected. I thought it was going to be kind of a long haul. As it turns out, it really happened relatively well. I was able to get the right people in the right roles. Our sales staff and our marketing staff really just crushed it. I was left thinking, "Well, now I need a new legacy. You know, it turns out people really do appreciate and need Tax Analysts." What then?

I spent some time. Truly now what I want my legacy to be is to, yes, ensure that Tax Analysts is around for another 50 years, but also to ensure that Tax Analysts remains true to its roots and to its past while paying it forward. In the coming months and years, we're going to focus on how can we serve the tax community better? How can we serve the public?

One start with that is making more primary and secondary law available to all. But what comes next? We will continue to foster an informed debate through our publications, our webinars, conferences, podcasts. You name it, we'll try it. We will continue to press for the disclosure of documents. We won't waiver on that. But what also? What else? What can we do to better serve the whole community? I think that that is where my legacy will ultimately be.

I wrote down this quote. Tom once wrote, "Our publications are our principal means of public service. We seek through these publications to provide a forum for the discussion of a wide variety of tax proposals. Our faith is that sound public policy will emerge out of the interplay of ideas in a public forum." I truly believe in that vision. I believe it is still as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Tax Analysts best serves the public by getting the information out and by serving as a forum. But there's more to that. That is what I really want my legacy to be: to help Tax Analysts shine, to raise its profile, and to take it into that next place where we are serving the tax community.

We're serving our readers. In some way, we are serving the public. That is my ultimate hope. It's still a work in progress. I'm only three years in, so I still have some time, but that is really where I hope my legacy will be.

Chuck O'Toole: Terrific. Well, I think this new free documents project I think is a great step in that direction and really looking forward to seeing how the tax world responds to it. Anything else you want to add before we wrap up here, Cara?

Cara Griffith: This has been a lot of fun. It's fun to look back at the organization. I think people will appreciate it. At our gala in February, we will have a video in which Tom plays a big part. I think it will be a lot of fun to look at this last 50 years of Tax Analysts history from Tom's perspective.

I went back to the house where it all started and all of that fun stuff. It was really interesting to hear his perspective on it and his take on how things came about. I think that's going to be a lot of fun for readers. Also for those that don't know Tax Analysts as well to look at where did the idea come from. How did we get from where we were to where we are? It's a fun story. It was nice to get it from Tom's perspective.

Chuck O'Toole: Looking forward to seeing that. That'll be great. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time here, Cara. This has been a really good conversation.

Cara Griffith: Absolutely. Thank you. This was fun.

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