June 14, 2018

I think of Nelson Poynter almost every day, and why shouldn’t I? Although I stood in his presence maybe a half dozen times before his death 40 years ago this week, I owe my career and my happy life in St. Petersburg to his vision and generosity.

Mr. Poynter had two big goals in life. The first was to make St. Petersburg, Florida, one of the greatest places to live on the face of the earth. The second was to make the St. Petersburg Times a great newspaper, independent from ownership by corporate chains, and protected from the interests of his heirs.

Nelson Poynter described ownership of a newspaper as a “sacred trust,” not a sacred trust fund.

He articulated in 1947 a set of principles of ownership, along with a hierarchy of loyalties. Low on the list were stockholders. Higher were employees. Still higher were advertisers. At the top were his readers. He had this gimmick he would use anytime a lieutenant suggested some obstacle was in their way of improving the newspaper: “Here’s a dime,” he’d say, slapping it on the table. “I’m one of your readers. Now tell me why we can’t get this done.”

His passions were St. Pete and the Times, but he also devoted his energy to quality education. He worked hard on the establishment of a St. Petersburg branch of the University of South Florida. He and other leaders were breaking ground for the new campus, near the library that now bears his name, when, on his return to his office, he collapsed and would die of a stroke. He was 74.

I arrived in town in June of 1977, just one year before his passing. In February of 1977, I flew down from Montgomery, Alabama, where I was teaching college, for a job interview. Gene Patterson, a famous American journalist, was editor of the Times and also president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Gene and his editor pals thought newspapers needed a booster shot to improve the quality of writing and storytelling. They created a distinguished writing award. Gene wanted to hire me, a young English professor with a growing interest in journalism, to sit in his newsroom for a year to coach his writers.

But first came the interview. It occurred at 556 Central Avenue in a stately converted bank building, standing stoically beside a place called the Emerald Bar. It was the home of a new joint called MMI, the Modern Media Institute, a non-profit school for journalism that would come to own the stock of the Times Publishing Company. Inside it looked like a storefront church with just a receptionist, a secretary, and Don Baldwin, the president.

Gene led me into Don’s office with a small group of other editors from the newspaper. At the age of 29, I was full of naïve energy, and the group seemed to respond to my ideas with their laughter and approval. I figured that I landed the job. For one year I would become one of the world’s first newspaper writing coaches.

Out on the hot and humid sidewalk, I turned to Bob Haiman, a top editor at the Times, and said, “Who was the little guy sitting in the corner? The one with the bow tie?” The question took Bob by surprise. He gulped. “The guy with the bow tie? That was Nelson Poynter!”

Let’s just say that the Year of Coaching Dangerously went well. I would see Mr. Poynter at the occasional staff meeting, and he once brought a guest to a brown bag workshop I was hosting. The guest was famed Vietnam-era reporter David Halberstam.

One day we were one-on-one in an elevator, or should I say, two-on-one. I was carrying my daughter Emily in my arms, and Nelson cooed at her and stroked her cheek, wearing a smile surprisingly sentimental for a man The New York Times would describe as being as “tough as a railroad spike.”

In May of 1978, with my year coming to an end, I gave a presentation to about 700 editors gathered at the ASNE convention in Washington, D.C. I gave it my all, and it was fun to watch the editors scramble to the front of the hall — like brides at Filene’s basement sale — to snatch a copy of my report on how to improve writing in their newsrooms.

The next morning, sitting in the back of the convention hall, I felt two skinny arms wrap around my shoulders in an embrace. The appropriate cliché is: “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” The arms belonged to Nelson Poynter. He was so proud of me, he said. Many editors had approached him to praise my report. Would I be a guest of the Poynter family at the ASNE banquet that night?

When we returned to St. Pete, he doubled down on his enthusiasm with a written note that I still cherish.

Two months later he was dead.

Now what?

Gene Patterson was now the man. Nelson had trusted him — a great journalist — to run a company then worth a half billion dollars. Nelson’s heirs would be well accounted for, Gene announced at a general staff meeting, but the majority of the stock would go to MMI. A non-profit school would own — at arm’s-length — a profit-making news enterprise.

It is a truism, I think, to call a person complicated. Aren’t we all? Nelson was an intensely practical Hoosier who, in his vision of things, was better at being the landscape architect than the everyday gardener. He often left the details to others.

So it should not surprise us that when he left this earth so suddenly, he left no map of what MMI would do. There are a few scraps here or there harvested by archivist David Shedden. The school would be a “junior API,” referring to the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia. Or it would train the children of newspaper owners in the skills of entrepreneurship. Or it might serve liberal arts majors — from places like Yale — where there was no official journalism program.

Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark teaching a group of students in the early days of The Poynter Institute (file photo/Poynter)

By now I had informed my college in Alabama that I would not be returning, and my plan was to evolve backward, from writing coach to full-time writer. Gene Patterson offered a more important idea: that I should go to MMI, not yet named the Poynter Institute, to become its first full-time faculty member. My job would be to breathe life into Nelson Poynter’s vision.

The work meant developing a national writing center that would attract scribes of all ages. I would also help take the Institute’s baby steps in fields such as Leadership, Visual Design, and Ethics and turn them into long strides. Writing, Design, Leadership, Ethics — hey, we’ve got something going here.

For six years we had to do it with a small budget. And we did it in a building that had a bad air-conditioner, termites in the walls, pigeons in the ceiling, and a bank vault in the back where we stored T-shirts. We had visitors — from high school students putting out their school papers — to high-flying reporters and writers from across the land — but also from refugees from the bar next door who had lost their way.

Even though the suits at the Times promised us that we would be “rich” one day, we were happy outperforming our resources — a tradition that continues to this day.  

Today that storefront at 556 Central is empty and up for lease, one of the only blank spots along a stretch of Central Avenue that is bustling with coffee shops, boutiques, microbreweries, art shops and museums — and, yes, the Emerald Bar.

the old Poynter Institute
On the right, the original Poynter Institute building at 556 Central Avenue. The Emerald Bar still stands next to it. (Google Earth)

The St. Petersburg that Nelson Poynter left in 1978 was not much of a city. The elegant Vinoy Hotel from the Roaring Twenties was now a ruin. Doc Webb’s world-famous drug store — with a live mermaids show! — had become a relic. Sidewalks rolled up by 5 p.m. The Clarks decided that the only things St. Pete had to boast about were the newspaper, six months of good weather, Spring Training baseball and the sea.

If Mr. Poynter returned for a visit, he would be astonished and delighted with his great city — if he could find a parking place. He would be gratified that, in spite of its unanticipated financial challenges brought on by the digital age, his newspaper remains independent, locally owned, and a place where journalism in the public interest comes first. 

Most of all, I think his broad smile just north of his bow tie would be directed to 801 Third Street South — a beautiful building across from the park and library that bear his name — where his bold vision came to fruition, and where four decades of hard work turned his little school into an institution of global influence – all in the name of journalism in the public interest.      

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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