Sunday, January 21, 2018
Opinion

Gene Patterson's example still leads

Over the last 35 years, there have been only three of us in this job. Today, we bid good-bye to the first in that sequence, Gene Patterson.

Since his death a week ago at age 89, the tributes to Gene have poured in. With courage and skill, he helped shape the course of history, as a tank commander for Patton and as an editor crusading for civil rights in the heart of the South. At Gene's funeral this afternoon, mourners will gather to celebrate his life and honor his achievements.

Two of us will bring exquisite appreciation for something else, the way Gene gave life to the vision of Nelson Poynter and defined the extraordinary role that would come, in turn, to each of us.

Mr. Poynter was the majority owner of this newspaper. Those were his desks. His typewriters. His presses. Farsighted, he looked past his own life and didn't like what was happening to most newspapers after their owners died.

To pay the inheritance taxes, the newspapers often were sold to chains with distant managers and shareholders accustomed to fat profits. Even if a family managed to hold on to the newspaper after the owner died, control and interest could splinter from one generation to the next.

So Nelson Poynter took a bold leap. He created a school for journalists — now named for him — and left the newspaper to it. Profits from the Times would help support the school, which would raise the practice of journalism around the country.

Because it was nonprofit, the school would not pay taxes on its "inheritance," so the Times would remain independent and rooted in the community it covers. In the history of Tampa Bay, I cannot think of a bigger act of philanthropy.

At the top of this structure, Mr. Poynter replaced himself with the successor he had personally chosen — Gene Patterson — and left him the authority that Poynter himself had once exercised, including the power to choose his own successor. Ten years later, Gene Patterson picked Andy Barnes. Sixteen years after that, Andy Barnes picked me.

Unlike Andy and me, Gene came to this job without precedent or example. In 1978, Nelson Poynter died suddenly of a massive stroke. After writing Mr. Poynter's obituary, Gene found himself running the Times as if he were the owner, the singular steward for what Mr. Poynter used to call "a sacred trust."

The Times didn't miss a beat. For the next decade, Gene pushed the Times toward higher journalistic standards — it won two Pulitzer Prizes for hard-nosed investigative reporting — and expansion from St. Petersburg into the rest of the Tampa Bay region. In the 25 years since, the Times has added five Pulitzers and now stands as the largest newspaper in the Southeast.

While he was ambitious for the Times, Gene established precedents of modesty for himself and his successors. He never cashed in on the chance to set his own salary, and when Gene turned 65, he handed the reins to Andy.

It was a fragile moment for transition. In the midst of Gene's retirement, a corporate raider revealed himself and tried to parlay a minority share in the Times into ownership of the entire company. Imagine the pull of that fight for a bulldog like Patterson. Yet even in that hour of peril, he yielded to his successor with the same confidence that Mr. Poynter had shown in him.

From retirement, Gene rallied friends and supporters, but it was Andy who led the Times through that trial. Carrying that burden of risk on his shoulders, Andy reclaimed the shares that Mr. Poynter did not own already. Barnes saved the company.

A faith in the future and those who will shape it lies at the heart of our enterprise, and it started with Mr. Poynter's bet on Gene Patterson.

When he heard about that plan, Mr. Poynter's lawyer pushed back hard. At lunch one day with both Poynter and Patterson, the lawyer challenged his client: "Nelson, you won't be cool in the grave before Patterson will take a million dollars from one of the chains and sell out your newspaper."

Neither chastened nor dissuaded, Mr. Poynter responded with a grin. "You know," he told his lawyer, "I've learned in life that if you're going to get anything done, at some point you've got to trust somebody. And I trust Gene."

Mr. Poynter showed shrewd judgment by putting his trust in Patterson. May all those who follow vindicate that faith in future generations of Times men and women. We have Gene's example to help guide us.

Paul Tash is chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times.

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