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By giving away the St. Petersburg Times, Nelson Poynter may have ensured its survival

The St. Petersburg Times had just won two Pulitzer Prizes in a single year for the first time, and delighted staff members gathered in the newsroom to celebrate.

Applause, cheers and laughter rang out as the newspaper's executives saluted the reporters, photographers and editors who did the prize-winning work.

Then editor and chairman Paul Tash offered a final toast.

"Here's to a little guy in a bow tie who came from Indiana,'' said Tash. "He gave us the chance, and today our colleagues have vindicated his confidence.''

The little guy is Nelson Poynter. Over the four decades he ran the Times, Poynter transformed his father's small, financially wobbly paper into a large, robust enterprise. He became one of American journalism's most conspicuous figures — a liberal in a conservative community, an innovator in a sometimes stand-pat industry, a loner in a field increasingly dominated by chains.

He was damned as a Communist, a fool and a meddler, praised as a patriot, a genius and a visionary. And when he died in 1978, he did the most remarkable thing of all: He gave away his life's work, willing most of his newspaper's stock to a private, nonprofit school for journalists — now called the Poynter Institute — so that the paper would remain locally owned and safe from the clutches of an outside chain.

Ownership of a newspaper, Poynter declared, is "a sacred trust and a great privilege''— something so important, so vital to democracy and good government, that serving readers well is more important than making the biggest profits.

Poynter was born in Sullivan, Ind., in 1903, nine years before his father, Paul, a Sullivan businessman who bought or started 10 newspapers over his lifetime, came to St. Petersburg and bought the Times.

The younger Poynter earned a bachelor's degree from Indiana University and a master's from Yale. In the decade that followed, he owned or worked for seven newspapers before coming to the Times in 1938 as general manager. He became editor the next year, and in 1947, three years before his father's death, he became the paper's majority stockholder.

The new editor was a wiry 5 feet 5 with a toothy grin and freckled face. With his soft-spoken, genial style and trademark bow tie, he hardly seemed like a newspaper executive. In later years, newsroom wags would joke that the unimposing little man looked more like a file clerk.

Behind the courtly, amiable exterior, however, was a driven man the New York Times once called "tough as a railroad spike.'' When his first wife divorced him in 1942, she said Poynter had become a slave to his duties. "He said … he hoped if he was on his death bed when he was 85 he would have to say, "Darn it, I can't die today. I have got to get up to New York to see a man."

As editor and then chairman of the board, Poynter was an extraordinary executive who was never satisfied with the paper. On a little pad he carried everywhere, he constantly jotted down reminders, suggestions, admonitions and praise to send to the staff.

When told an idea was impossible or impractical, he sometimes grew impatient. He would take a dime (then the price of the paper) out of his pocket, place it on the balky lieutenant's desk and declare, "I'm a reader; don't tell me you can't do it."

Poynter liked to say he had never been wrong, "just premature.'' In fact, he was ahead of his time. He made the Times a pioneer in the use of color and graphics, in typesetting and printing, in consumer and environmental reporting, in editorial crusades for racial equality and other unpopular causes, in management concepts like profit-sharing and personnel development.

He was also a pioneer in Washington, where in 1945 he and his second wife, Henrietta, founded Congressional Quarterly. It provided detailed information on congressional deliberations and lawmakers to newspapers and other clients.

Poynter believed that St. Petersburg and the Suncoast should be the best place in the world to live and work. To him, that meant an informed electorate, strong public schools, good government and two-party politics, integration and racial justice, a clean environment and controlled growth, efficient transportation and a thriving downtown.

Yet Poynter was also a man of apparent contradictions.

His editorial page called repeatedly for women's equality, yet he saw no conflict in his membership in private clubs that barred women. ("Most men have very dull wives,'' he once said.) He endorsed integration and civil rights, yet the paper's hiring and promotion policies lagged behind its editorial policy.

He championed labor unions and the right to organize, yet three times broke strikes by unions in his production department. He lamented the ravaging of Florida's fragile environment, yet contributed to the area's rapid growth by publishing lavish special sections that touted the area's positives while glossing over its problems. He declared that his staff deserved the best, but he could be maddening to work for and paid only modest salaries. Some of his best lieutenants left the paper.

He took great pains to ensure the long-term security of the Times, yet left unresolved a conflict with his sister that exploded after both died, putting the paper in considerable peril.

For years, Poynter and his sister, Eleanor Poynter Jamison, sparred over the value of her minority stake in the paper. In 1988, a decade after his death and three years after hers, Jamison's daughters sold the stock to a group led by Texas investor Robert M. Bass. It took Poynter's successors two stressful years and $56-million to buy the stock and end the threat to the paper's independence.

Poynter embraced no idea more firmly than his desire to keep his newspaper locally controlled, in the hands of a single person, once he died. But to do that, he took the extraordinary step of giving the paper away.

Although he left a widow and two daughters, Poynter stipulated in his will that most of his stock in the paper would go to a nonprofit educational institution that he established to help train working and student journalists. The institution would own majority interest in the Times and its stock would be voted by an executive whom Poynter designated as his successor. That ensured that his beloved newspaper would not have to be sold to pay estate taxes. It also would be safe from chain ownership.

The institution, which began in 1975 in an old bank building two blocks from the paper in downtown St. Petersburg, was first called Modern Media Institute. Several years after Poynter's death, it was renamed the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and moved into a new, elegant building near the city waterfront. Although the institute is tax-exempt, the newspaper is a private, for-profit company that pays federal, state and local taxes.

At least one of the advisers who helped Poynter write his will and establish the school worried that his successor might sell the company and get rich. 'Well, you've got to trust someone,'' Poynter is said to have replied.

That someone was Eugene Patterson, a highly decorated veteran of World War II who had been a Pulitzer winner at the Atlanta Constitution, managing editor at the Washington Post and a teacher at Duke University.

When he retired in 1988, Patterson honored Poynter's wish and passed the baton of leadership to Andrew Barnes, a Post editor he had brought to the Times in 1973. In 2004 Barnes was succeeded by Tash. A Hoosier like Poynter, Tash started at the paper as a summer intern in 1975.

Today's St. Petersburg Times is dramatically different than Poynter's last edition in 1978. Much of the staff's work is also delivered — and sometimes enhanced — over the Internet on its Web site, tampabay.com. There is a thriving, free daily tabloid, called tbt* Tampa Bay Times, that is aimed at readers in their 20s and 30s. The staff also collaborates with Bay News 9, a cable television news service, which has cameras in two of the paper's newsrooms.

For all that has changed, however, "these days Mr. Poynter looks increasingly prescient," said Tash. "The corporate media chains he feared are staggering under the weight of stockholder expectations and the loans they borrowed to grow.

"Even at the St. Pete Times, business is plenty challenging these days. But to a real extent, this newspaper has been shielded by Mr. Poynter's singular decision to give it away, and it is still guided by his faith in journalism and democracy.''

Some of the material for this report is taken from The Times and its Times, an 80-page supplement by Robert Hooker that appeared on the newspaper's 100th anniversary in 1984. Other sources: research by David Shedden, library director at the Poynter Institute, and A Sacred Trust: Nelson Poynter and the St. Petersburg Times by Robert N. Pierce.

By giving away the St. Petersburg Times, Nelson Poynter may have ensured its survival 07/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 2:43pm]

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