Who owns the St. Petersburg Times? Why it matters to readers

A letter from Andrew Barnes to Times readers

By ANDREW BARNES

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 26, 1999


As I wound up the year’s work a few days ago, I signed a very big check, $22.5-million. It was profit this newspaper publishing company has earned and set aside over the past few years, and it went to our owner, the Poynter Institute.

It was a pleasure to send the check off. A debt created nearly 10 years ago is paid. I’ve never burned a mortgage, but it must feel the same. Ownership is secure. It’s time to turn to new challenges.

But we also savor the moment, and mark the importance of this newspaper’s highly unusual ownership.

Nelson Poynter, a Hoosier who came to love St. Petersburg, owned the majority of the St Petersburg Times, having bought it from his father, Paul Poynter. He created the Poynter Institute, which is a school for journalists now located on Third Street South in St. Petersburg. (Actually, Poynter, a self-effacing man, called it the Modern Media Institute, and we changed the name after his death in 1978.)

The Institute had two purposes: to teach journalists young and old, and to keep his newspaper independent and free to serve its communities. Newspaper publishing, he wrote, is a sacred trust and must always be carried out in the public’s interest. Ownership by a distant corporation would make that impossible.

The problem was, he didn’t own all the stock. His sister, Eleanor Poynter Jamison, owned 200 shares. Poynter tried repeatedly to buy the shares. His successor, Eugene Patterson, tried to buy the shares from Mrs. Jamison, and after her death from her daughters. They failed to do so.

Just as I came into this job in late 1988, we learned the stock was in the hands of a Texas financier named Robert M. Bass. He wanted somehow to parlay his stake into ownership of the whole paper and have us send him more money in the meantime.

Those of us running the paper fought back. Our loyalty was to the newspaper and its communities, and to the school, not to a financier’s greater wealth. After two of the most challenging years of my life, a deal was struck that included the debt to Poynter, which was $30-million until we paid $7.5-million earlier this year. Now the debt is paid. The Poynter Institute owns all the stock. That stage is done.

The setup boils down to this: a profitmaking, tax-paying publishing company owns the St. Petersburg Times and several magazines: Florida Trend, Congressional Quarterly and Governing. The company’s earnings after taxes go to build the business and to support the Poynter Institute.

That’s not how it works at most newspapers. Corporate owners in distant cities all too often lack familiarity with local people and issues. They may not even know newspapers very well. As a result, the only thing that counts to the owners is dollars, and readers suffer.

Some of the differences:

If our owner demanded profits be twice as high as they are, it would inevitably cut into our ability to hire enough people and buy enough newsprint to really tell you what is going on in our communities. We run a nicely profitable business so we can be an excellent newspaper; all too many companies print newspapers so they can make a lot of money.

The price of our paper is low. We keep it that way so all citizens can be informed, not just the well-to-do. We believe our democracy depends on informed citizens.

We give away money to local charities. We support political debates. We support dozens of scholarships annually. We believe it is our duty and privilege as citizens to do so.

We have spent large sums over the last 25 years extending the paper’s range, north through Citrus County, and now including Hillsborough as well. If an owner had been demanding immediate profits, we could not have done so, and we would not have become Florida’s largest daily newspaper.

This newspaper serves its readers, its advertisers and its staff, and it does so in that order. Readers come first. Several newspapers in America have recently allowed business interests or advertiser pressure to interfere with this bond between a paper and its readers. We will never do that.

Journalism sometimes requires hard acts. That is why reporters can never really be friends with the people they cover. For the whole newspaper, too, journalism sometimes requires that we anger the advertisers who pay our bills, damaging our own business in the short term, so we can serve our readers in the long term.

* * *


Having a publishing company owned by a school raises questions of who’s in charge. Poynter set it up so one person would have the command, not a committee, because he believed a committee might not make the necessary tough decisions. As CEO, I also vote the stock in behalf of the Poynter Institute. I was picked by Patterson, my predecessor, and in turn have named Paul Tash as my deputy and successor when the time comes.

“But what,” Poynter was asked by his lawyer when he instructed that it be established so, “what if one of those guys wants to take the money and run?” To which Poynter is said to have replied, “You’ve got to trust someone.”

Poynter believed in the Suncoast but would not have dared imagine the growth the region has seen. He certainly believed in this newspaper but did not foresee how large it would become.

He saw the challenge of television, indeed tried unsuccessfully to own a local station, and the paper has prospered through that challenge posed by broadcasting. He did not foresee electronic publishing but would certainly have encouraged our efforts to be a part of this new way of reaching readers.

I believe he would have smiled to see that the check with which we paid the $22.5-million debt was imprinted “Barnett Bank,” though the funds will actually come from the successor NationsBank, which is actually now Bank of America.

Banks have come and gone. His newspaper, and the school he created to own it, remain. Our commitment to serving the readers of Tampa Bay’s communities remains undimmed.

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