Nelson Poynter's vision for his newspaper — and how he made it happen

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Nelson Poynter. 

At a time when profits were flowing like water and newspaper publishers might easily have grown complacent, Nelson Poynter was instead a restless visionary.

He believed in building out the excellence of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) and wanted to be certain it would remain independent, free of chain ownership, for decades to come after his death.

He launched what he called the Modern Media Institute (now The Poynter Institute) with only a vague charter but a conviction that it could grow into a significant school and strong force for journalism values.

And in his spare time, he and wife Henrietta thought up Congressional Quarterly, initially a way of recording how members of the House and Senate voted, then, for years later, an authoritative source on how Congress worked.

The 40th anniversary of Nelson Poynter's death is an occasion to revisit the way-outside-the-box solution he constructed and how it has worked out. Not without significant challenges, the arrangement has so far proved durable. The Tampa Bay Times remains independent and a leader among metros in ambitious journalism.

Jumping all the way to 2018, we see more and more of remaining family-owned papers being swallowed by chains — on May 29, the Batten family's Landmark Communications sold its flagship Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk to Tronc for $34 million.

Independent papers — family-owned or not — are now hard-pressed now to keep up with expensive digital technology, much easier for chains. They also lack the scale to pare back expenses by consolidating business functions and print page production.

Over time, family control inevitably gets diluted among successive generations. Often there are tension between those who want honor family tradition by staying on and others who prefer to cash out with a sale.

Nelson Poynter faced a fork in that road early on. Neither his third wife Marion nor his daughters had an interest in the day-to-day management of a news enterprise.

So he took care of his heirs separately and left his controlling stock ownership of the Times to the freshly created nonprofit Institute. Then and now, the Times pays taxes on its profits, but the ownership structure was meant as a buffer against excessive profit demands and has consistently served that function.

A second of Poynter's decision was equally novel. As he explained in the 15th and last of his 1947 Standards of Ownership: 

"A publication is so individualistic in nature that complete control should be concentrated in an individual. Voting stock should never be permitted to scatter."

Following through on that as he reached retirement age in the early 1970s, Poynter chose noted journalist Gene Patterson as his successor — chairman with sole voting control of both the newspaper and Institute boards. Patterson picked Andy Barnes as his successor. Barnes chose Paul Tash as his.

In most companies the CEO works for the board rather than vice versa. I asked Tash in an interview this week about the dual role and its authority. "It's quite unusual," he said. "Unique is an overused phrase, but maybe..."

Tash, whose personal style is anything but czar-like, said that he accepts the need to make final, important decisions himself. "But both Andy and I have worked to broaden the involvement of many other people in those choices," he said.

In his early 60s, Tash will face his turn picking a successor within a few years. "It's desirable, — if possible," he said about the new CEO having a long experience at the Times organization as both he and Barnes did. 

What is essential, though, is something different. "You have to have someone who takes the responsibilities of the system to heart" — that is the twin touchstones of excellent journalism and independence.

Each of Poynter's three successors has been tested. Patterson, a charismatic leader and superstar editor and writer, not always detail-oriented as a manager, secured the paper's journalism commitment and high standing within the industry.

Barnes, in his first days in the job in 1988, faced a nasty takeover bid from Bass family corporate raiders, allied with heirs of Poynter's sister, who held a minority share of Times Publishing stock that Nelson and Patterson tried but had never gathered in. 

The raiders figured that Barnes, who stood to walk away with millions if the deal went through, might be an easy mark. They were dead wrong. Barnes dug in resolutely for an all-consuming two-year fight before buying in the shares and sending the Bass group back home to Texas with much less of a haul than they had hoped.

Tash pursued an expensive and protracted foray across the bay into Tampa for decades. Ultimately he established dominance, buying and folding the rival Tampa Tribune in May 2016. That made the Times a true metro with coverage of both big cities and a reach up the coast to Clearwater and, further north, Pasco and Hernando Counties.

As for journalism excellence, the Times has won 11 of its 12 Pulitzer prizes in the years since Poynter's death. Patterson, Barnes, Tash and current Poynter Institute president Neil Brown have all served on the Pulitzer board — an index of how the rest of the industry views the organization and its leaders.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who was regularly hammered in Times editorials and who deployed his communications team to write regular rebuttals, nonetheless said that he regarded the paper's Tallahassee coverage as essential reading.

How have independent newspaper owners fared who took the more conventional path of family control and scattered ownership shares (including going public)? The Sulzbergers remain steadfast in commitment to their version of "a sacred trust" to keep The New York Times independent and expanding. The McClatchy family has held on to its chain, despite having to pay interest and principal on a crushing debt load for the last decade.

But many other household names in the newspaper business — Pulitzer, Knight-Ridder and more — have vanished as companies. 

The Bancroft family, who had already chosen to employ professional managers to run The Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones properties, sold for $5 billion in 2007 when Rupert Murdoch offered a huge premium for their stock.

The Graham family had guided The Washington Post through four generations and was assumed to be as permanent as the Sulzbergers. But Donald Graham and his niece Katharine Weymouth decided in 2013 that they had neither the capital nor a clear plan for the next steps needed at the Post. So they sold the paper for $250 million to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has provided both.

To take the temperature of remaining family owners, I turned to Tom Slaughter, executive director of the Inland Press Association, which runs a twice-yearly conference focused on their particular set of issues.

No doubt the pace of families exiting has accelerated the last few years, Slaughter said. "They are all under tremendous pressure," doing a version of digital transformation without much access to needed capital or tech expertise and watching print advertising's woes getting worse without pause.

And the families do have the sort of problems Poynter had anticipated — succession issues, diffuse control among a third or fourth generation, a split between active managers and passive investors (much of whose wealth may reside in the declining asset).

Some are worried that the window to sell and salvage at least something will close soon. Meanwhile, there are plenty of buyers with cash — big chains like Gannett, GateHouse and Tronc, smaller ones like Ogden Newspapers or Adams Media.

Still, Slaughter said, "the family owners group remains one of the franchise activities Inland sponsors." Attendance has held steady in his seven years as director. Families like the Blethens of the Seattle Times or the Belo descendants at The Dallas Morning News and many at smaller papers are hanging on.

You could also argue that a string of billionaire owners have recently been taking back important metro papers to hometown ownership — John Henry of The Boston Globe, Glen Taylor of The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and, once a $500 million deal with Tronc closes, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong of the Los Angeles Times.

The Times/Poynter Institute structure has not been widely adopted over those 40 years. Tash jokes that he has received many inquiries about how it works, but interest seems to wane quickly when a family learns they would need to give their stock away.

The Ayers family of the Anniston Star in Alabama and Loeb family of the Manchester Union-Leader in New Hampshire have established links to journalism education programs. Philanthropist Gerry Lenfest established his own institute to take ownership of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its digital properties. That has the contemporary twist that the Lenfest Institute funds in-kind programs to build reporting and digital capacity at the paper rather than being paid dividends as was Poynter's plan.

In St. Petersburg, the independent-at-all-costs directive has not been a straightjacket. Like other papers, the Times has seen the value of collaboration, for instance combining its Tallahassee bureau with the Miami Herald's.

The Poynter Institute and the Times use each other as laboratories to test ideas. Within the last year, the ties have grown closer with Neil Brown moving down the street from editing the Times to running Poynter and ownership of the Times's PolitiFact enterprise transferred to the Institute.

Since newspaper profits went sour with the recession of 2007-2009 on top of digital disruption, the Times has paid Poynter dividends (once a reliable $6 million a year) only sporadically. The Institute has been forced to build a new revenue base with custom contracts, foundation grants and contributions like Craig Newmark's $1 million gift for a new chair in journalism ethics

2018 finds both of Nelson Poynter's creations still standing, pretty much as he imagined. The inevitable question, though, is how durable the arrangement will remain in the future.

Tash paused before answering that one. The structure is fine, he said. "The question is the shape of the business of news [in the future]. There are many questions of what will happen around [its] economics"

The Times' local advertising base after the Tampa expansion is doing fine, Tash said, but "the world of Sears and Penny's, and Toys R Us and Macy's" is in turmoil and much of national retail advertising seems gone for good.

The Times and the rest of the industry are struggling to cope, Tash said, with "two big shifts — print to electronic and advertising to reader revenue." 

How those will play out going forward is far from certain.

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