Why we're looking back at Nelson Poynter and his exceptional vision

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

In 1975, Nelson Poynter, the owner of the St. Petersburg Times, wrote a memo with explicit instructions about how the paper should cover his death whenever the day came. 

“Most newspapers overplay most deaths of newspaper people,” Poynter wrote. “Let’s not do this in my case. A one-column head, no comment or a bunch of silly tributes. And it’s a one-day story… You might include that I have observed no one really likes to go to a funeral. I am trying to be considerate of my friends who might come to my funeral by having none.”  

Three years later, Mr. Poynter died of a stroke. He was 74. Times Editor and President Eugene Patterson wrote Mr. Poynter’s obituary (he took no byline, and Poynter’s widow Marion honored the request that there be no funeral). But Patterson’s story did quote Mr. Poynter’s memo.

“Important in the story is to emphasize that there’ll be no change whatsoever in the Times Publishing Company as a result of my death. I’ll haunt you like the devil if the above is not carried out. Just live up to the Standards of Ownership thereafter.”

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of Mr. Poynter’s death. At the risk of belatedly overplaying a newsman’s passing, Poynter will publish several stories this week looking back on the man and his exceptional vision. 

That vision led to him to create what is now the Poynter Institute. Upon his death, he left his newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times – now the Tampa Bay Times – to the Institute as a means to preserve its independence. Since his death, the school’s reach and influence have expanded enormously; we educate 100,000 people annually, in person and online, with training and programs that aim to elevate the quality of journalism in order to improve democracy.  

At the crux of Mr. Poynter’s vision is a document he wrote August 6, 1947, titled “The Standards of Ownership.”  The first of the 15 standards is the most quoted: “Ownership or participation in ownership of a publication or broadcasting property is a sacred trust and a great privilege.”

Related: 10 quotes from Nelson Poynter that hold up 40 years after his death

From there the document outlines Mr. Poynter’s key principles – his vows not to let the paper’s ownership fall to chain companies; the need to achieve financial stability in order to ensure news and editorial independence; to provide fairly for its employees; and to keep control of the news organization local. 

Was he a seer who knew that later generations of newspaper families would lose interest or prefer to cash out their stake thereby putting control of news in the hands of a few big corporations? Standard No. 6: “A chain owner cannot do justice to local publications or radio stations. His devotion and loyalty to any one area is bound to be diluted or divided if he has other ownerships and interests.”

How could he know in the 1940s that profound technological advance would so dramatically change the way news and advertising are produced and delivered? 

But he did know. “As custodians of one of democracy’s essential freedoms we are guilty of technological backwardness. We have been remiss in discovering new tools to implement that freedom,” he said a year before finalizing the standards. “As an industry, we must improve and expand – or we will dwindle and die.”

Did he suspect “fake news” would be part of our media lexicon? Standard No. 3: “The owners…cannot compromise with the integrity of the news and information that is sold or given to the public.”

Nelson Poynter was a believer in all that journalism could do. On our site this week, you’ll hear more of his thoughts about news and the business of producing it. You’ll learn about his second wife, also a journalist, and her own influences on the free flow of information. We’ll take stock of how local, independent news organizations are doing today (spoiler alert: there are far fewer of them than 40 years ago). And we’ll celebrate, at least a little, the school that bears his name and its work at the core of his belief.

The second world war had been over just two years when Mr. Poynter issued his standards. Days before, he wrote to his father: “Today we must fight to preserve the very idea of self-government in the world…” 

Essential to that ideal of self-government is easy access to honest, reliable and independent information. Forty years after Nelson Poynter’s death, that is as true and important as ever.

  • Profile picture for user Neil Brown

    Neil Brown

    Neil Brown is the president of The Poynter Institute. He joined Poynter in September 2017, after serving as the editor and vice president of the Tampa Bay Times.

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