Poynter records a $627,000 surplus for 2016, thanks to a strong year for grants

For a second consecutive year, Poynter reported a surplus — $627,000 — in a filing to the Internal Revenue Service for 2016.

The result was driven by a particularly strong year in revenue from grants together with continued expense reduction, down 18.3 percent from 2015.

The $3.4 million in grants and contributions was a 58 percent increase over the previous year. However, more than $2 million was earmarked to be spent in 2017 and beyond. 

Taking that into account, Poynter ran at a loss for the year of $519,000 on an operating basis. That was a 58.9 percent improvement on 2015 results and 67.3 percent better than the operating loss recorded for 2014.

Jessi Navarro, Poynter's managing director for business and finance, said that with 2017 nearly complete, she anticipates another surplus and improved operating results. Much of the additional grant money in hand at the end of 2016 was released over the course of this year.

"After nine consecutive years of expense reduction, 2017 will be the first year we spend more than in the previous year" she said. And during that same 10 years, "we are on track to more than double our operating revenue."

Asked about the current state of Poynter's finances, president Neil Brown, who began his work last month, said: "In the last three years a lot of important heavy lifting has gone on to reconcile expenses with the realities of our revenue. Now we have reached a point where we can grow again."

The institute expects to hire several new faculty members and others in coming months, Brown said.

In 2015, a surplus of $900,000 was driven by gains on the sale of land adjacent to the institute and an office building, together contributing revenue of $2.8 million. There was nothing comparable last year, but the surge in grants made up a good chunk of the difference.

The largest of the grants was from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark's foundation, Newmark Philanthropies, which has pledged $1 million over five years to endow a chair in journalism ethics. Indira Lakshmanan was named Newmark chair in mid 2017.

The Knight Foundation provided two large grants, one to modernize the platform for Poynter's News University, the other to train and support digital transformation efforts in local newsrooms.

The institute closed the year with assets of $39.7 million, up slightly from $39.1 million at the end of 2015.

Details of its balance sheet shows as a receivable asset a loan of just under $6 million Poynter made in 2015 to the Tampa Bay Times parent, Times Publishing Co., to facilitate buying the Tampa Tribune.

The Times purchased the Tribune in May 2016 and immediately folded the publication. Times Publishing is expected to repay the loan with interest as its own finances improve by adding subscribers and selling advertising with an expanded audience.

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 and the land it sits on, valued at $7.5 million, and securities investments of $2.8 million.

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.

Other details of Poynter's 2016 finances revealed in the 990 include:

— Revenues were $5.9 million. The amount from training partnerships with major media companies including Gannett, the Associated Press and McClatchy and tuition for in-person seminars was essentially unchanged.

— Salaries and benefits accounted for about half the Institute's expenses.

— Poynter netted $168,000 from its second Bowtie Ball gala, honoring NBC newsman Tom Brokaw. That was up from roughly $100,000 for the first edition of the event in 2015. (The 2017 Bowtie Ball, honoring PBS anchor Judy Woodruff, was held last weekend and will show another increase).

— In 2015, Poynter became home to the International Fact-Checking Network of more than 100 news organizations in 40 countries. The network has received additional funding and expanded in both 2016 and 2017.

Poynter once got most of its annual operating income in the form of dividends from Times Publishing. At a peak these totaled $6 million, but they have been suspended for several years as the paper faced financial challenges.

The institute has steadily built its income from other sources and also now rents space in its building to a variety of tenants and for various events.

The 990 format requires Poynter to report payments to trustees and include the compensation of those who work at the Times. The three highest earners are Times CEO and Poynter Chairman Paul Tash ($484,500), vice president Andy Corty ($330,745) and chief financial officer Jana Jones ($285,113). None of those salaries count as expenses in Poynter's budget.

At Poynter, former president Tim Franklin was paid $258,899 in 2016. He resigned in mid-2017 to become senior associate dean at Northwestern's Medill journalism school. Five faculty members — Roy Clark, Butch Ward, Al Tompkins, Vice President Kelly McBride and Katie Hawkins-Gaar — earned more than $100,000, as did Navarro and chief media writer James Warren.

In sum, Poynter's finances continue steady improvement and the near-term prospect is for more of the same.

Are President Trump's attacks on the media and the furor over facts and fake news a plus for Poynter?  "People are more hip to the challenge and value of a vigorous and independent press," Brown said. "That makes Poynter's training mission as relevant as ever, and funders also are more aware (of that need). So, yes."

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