Tax forms show Poynter operates at a surplus in 2017 as finances continue to improve

November 5, 2018

For a third consecutive year, Poynter reported a surplus — $93,000 — in a filling to the Internal Revenue Service for 2017.

Revenues were up to just over $6 million and expenditures increased, too. With some large gains in grant funding and earned income expected this year, the Institute appears to have put behind it a period of multi-million dollar deficits and contraction.

Several large grants received in 2016 but only partly spent that year made the surplus look larger: $627.000. But the Institute lost $519,000 on an operating basis. 

This year, said Jessi Navarro, Poynter's vice president for business and finance, the $93,000 represents revenue less expenses incurred.

“We have moved from a period of contraction that was necessary given the economic pressures on the industry, into a period of growth in which we are responsive to a fast-changing — some might say volatile — journalism environment,” said Poynter President Neil Brown. “Even with this growth, we continue to live within our means.”

A decade ago the Institute got the majority of income from dividends — roughly $6 million a year — from the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), which Poynter owns. Those have stopped as the Times, like all regional newspaper organizations, struggles with sharp and persistent declines in print advertising revenues and slow-to-develop digital revenues.

But the Institute over time has succeeded in diversifying and building back up its base of revenues. The largest single source of support is contributions and grants, totaling $3.5 million for 2017, a small increase from the previous year.

Tuition revenue contributed $1.8 million. Other sources of revenue included rent from outside tenants for part of Poynter's building, investment income and the proceeds from the annual Bowtie Ball fund-raising event.

The Institute closed the year with assets of $39.9 million, almost exactly the same as it had at the end of 2016.

That total includes as a receivable asset a loan of $6 million Poynter made in 2015 to the Tampa Bay Times parent, Times Publishing Co., to facilitate buying the Tampa Tribune. None of the principal nor any interest payments were received in 2017, though the Times covered the salaries of two executives who worked part of the year at Poynter.

Poynter owns Times Publishing and carries Times stock (the Institute's largest asset) at a book value of $22,366,624, a figure that does not change year-to-year.

Other assets include Poynter's building, equipment and the land it sits on, valued at $7.8 million, and securities investments of $3 million.

Savings and cash totaled $650,000 at the end of the year.

The financial information is contained in a so-called Form 990, which nonprofits are required to file annually to maintain their tax-exempt status. The form resembles a tax return but also contains the sort of information found in the earnings reports of public companies.

While exact figures for the current year are not yet available, there have been several big changes in 2018.  Poynter purchased PolitiFact for $1 million (in forgiveness of principal on the loan) from the Times. As part of a tax-exempt nonprofit, PolitiFact can more easily solicit and receive grants from foundations and contributions from individual donors. PolitiFact franchising and advertising revenue also now accrue to Poynter.

Also in 2018, the Institute received a large grant over two years from Google.org to participate with Stanford University and others in MediaWise, an initiative to build media literacy among teens.

With those two revenue boosts and other growth, the Institute is expected to expand to a $9-million-a-year operation from a $6-million one in a single year.

“Through initiatives like PolitiFact, MediaWise or programs that elevate the quality of journalism on topics such race or health care, we are growing Poynter’s influence and relevance, " Brown said. “Be it helping local news organizations thrive, or being the leading brand on media ethics and leadership training, we are committed to improving the future of journalism — and that will mean even stronger financial footing for Poynter.”

The 990 format requires Poynter to report payments to trustees as well as its highest-salaried employees and includes the compensation of several executives who work at the Times. Three of the highest earners were Times CEO and Poynter Chairman Paul Tash ($485,185), vice president Andy Corty ($336,206) and chief financial officer Jana Jones ($286,169). None of those salaries count as expenses in Poynter's budget.

In a year split between being editor and vice president of the Times and President of Poynter, Neil Brown was paid was paid $296,649 in 2017. Three faculty members — Butch Ward, Al Tompkins, and Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride  — earned more than $100,000, as did Navarro, chief media writer James Warren, and Tina Dyakon, director of marketing and advertising.

Ward has since retired, and Warren left Poynter.

Looking ahead, Brown said, “In 2019, we will continue the momentum, working with our partners and funders on creating fresh and meaningful programs. Recent investments in technology will also pay off with a better user experience for consumers of our e-learning and media news work.”