Pulitzer, finalists are source of pride for Poynter

April 15, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

My usual pride in the Poynter Institute derives from its benign influence on journalists across the globe. Such influence may flow from a seminar or conference, an online course, or work published on this website. We teach journalism in the public interest, and we celebrate it.

But today that pride derives from another, lesser-known role played by Poynter as the owner of the Tampa Bay Times. That newspaper, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, just won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing and produced two finalists — one for investigative reporting and another for feature writing.

Tim Nickens and Dan Ruth earned the big prize for their editorials denouncing local county commissioners who, embracing paranoid ideology over medical science, took fluoride out of the water supply. Thanks to editorials in the Times, those responsible were voted out of office and the fluoride restored.

Alexandra Zayas, who has taught at Poynter, was honored for investigative work calling attention to abusive practices in unlicensed religious homes for children.

Kelley Benham French, who studied at Poynter as a high-school student and now serves as an adjunct faculty member, caught the attention of Pulitzer jurors with a stunning personal narrative of the survival of her daughter Juniper, born prematurely at only 23 weeks, at a weight of one pound, one ounce.

All three projects share a concern with the health and well-being of children, which should be part of the raison d’être of any news organization.

Newspaper owners deserve to celebrate Pulitzer achievements, even when those honors are earned in spite of the cost-cutting efforts of the bean counters who run media companies.

We have bean counters at the Poynter Institute and the Tampa Bay Times, too, and I wish we could find more beans, or maybe plant some magic ones, grow a beanstalk and steal a giant’s gold. The decrease in profitability at the Times since 2008 has meant a serious loss of revenue for Poynter.

To change the metaphor, all boats sink on a low tide, and both Poynter and its paper have seen resources shrink in the swamp of Florida’s deep recession. Millions of dollars in yearly stock dividends have disappeared, forcing Poynter to look for new revenue resources and to be more inventive in executing its mission. And so we have.

In hard times, a normal owner would squeeze the newspaper for more profits, which means cutting costs to the bone marrow. Cut staff, cut newshole, cut sections, cut bureaus, cut the size of the paper – and now, for companies such as Newhouse, cut the number of days you publish a print version. Cut, cut, cut.

There comes a tipping point at such companies, of course, a time when the news resources have been cut so severely that the paper can no longer commit serious journalism in the public interest. The product becomes less compelling. It attracts fewer readers. Losses cycle down.

That has not happened at the Tampa Bay Times, and this year’s Pulitzer recognition proves that something is different here. In spite of economic problems that continue to plague all of us, we can say with confidence that Nelson Poynter’s visionary and ingenious plan is still working.

That plan, which went into effect upon his death in 1978, did not envision what kind of school the Poynter Institute would become. Nor could it have predicted the disruptive technologies of the 21st century. But it did have certain enduring benefits, and they flowed from Nelson Poynter’s decision to give his newspaper away to a school he established.

This is what the estate lawyers describe as Mr. Poynter’s testamentary intent:

* That the stock of his company would not scatter across generations among family members he did not know and might not even have liked.

* As a result, those family members could not cash out by selling their stock, as was the case with the owners of the Louisville Courier-Journal, to chains such as Gannett.

* As a result, his newspaper would remain locally owned and privately held, run by top journalists committed to the specific community served by their paper.

* As a result, those trusted leaders could offer their primary loyalties not to shareholders or advertisers, but to readers.

The entire Poynter project was predicated on trust. Trust in democracy and self-government. Trust in the continuing value of journalism to that enterprise. And trust in people. Nelson Poynter trusted Eugene Patterson to run the show, who trusted Andy Barnes, who trusted Paul Tash, who as CEO must adapt a once highly profitable business to the tumultuous changes that continue to shake the news media world.

But, for today, Tash – a member of the Pulitzer Board – can share the spotlight with the winners and finalists, with the entire staff that gathered in the newsroom at 3:00 pm to hear the official announcements and with all of us at the Poynter Institute who continue to outperform our resources. In doing so, we want to maintain our status not just as an influential school but as a newspaper owner that all who care about journalism can take pride in.

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