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Who owns the Times, and why it matters

By PAUL TASH
Published August 7, 2005


Two of America's biggest chains agreed last week to swap newspapers like properties on a Monopoly board. In Florida's state capital, the Tallahassee Democrat moves from Knight-Ridder to Gannett. Nothing personal, the departing executives told the Democrat's staff; it's just business.

So, this may be a good time to review who owns the St. Petersburg Times, and what difference that makes.

Among American newspapers, the Times is a very rare bird - almost as rare as that woodpecker everybody thought was extinct until one turned up in the woods of Arkansas. The Times is independent, not part of a chain, and privately held, insulated from the stock market's demands for short-term profits.

There are only a handful of independent newspapers in Florida, and the Times is by far the largest. In fact, of all the biggest newspapers in Florida, only this one has owners in Florida.

Our owner is a school, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Based in St. Petersburg, it has grown to become a leading center for journalism training, with programs for professionals and students from across the country, and occasionally from other countries.

The Times pays taxes on its profits, just like any other private company, and then sends a big share of what's left as dividends to the Poynter Institute, which is a nonprofit. I am responsible for the Times, as the CEO, and for Poynter, as the owner's representative.

The school is named for Nelson Poynter, who owned the Times until he died in 1978. Looking into the future, he saw that chains would buy up lots of newspapers when their owners died, and he took extraordinary steps to keep that from happening here. He created the school, and gave the newspaper to it. Every town, Poynter thought, deserves a newspaper that loves it best.

More than a quarter-century later, Poynter's vision makes a difference every day in the way the Times goes about its work.

For starters, we take more pride in our newspaper than our profits. As with any thriving business, profits are important here, but as a means and not the end. We want to make enough money to publish a first-rate newspaper that serves our readers and community; we don't publish a newspaper so that we can make as much money as possible.

If profits were the top priority, we would spend less on news and charge more for the newspaper. Our circulation would likely be smaller, too.

Charity and community causes would suffer. The Times' philanthropic fund gives away about $1-million a year, much of it in scholarships for college students, and that figure does not include the newspaper's support for various community events and festivals.

When we make those decisions, nobody from some distant corporate headquarters is looking over our shoulders, asking whether expenses help create "shareholder value," or insisting that we cut spending to make a profit target that has been promised to Wall Street.

There could be times when it would help to be part of a bigger company. When Hurricane Ivan hammered Pensacola last year, the Gannett chain could stand behind its local newspaper, the News-Journal. But on balance, being independent brings a much longer list of advantages.

Most of all, the decisions Mr. Poynter made a quarter-century ago mean that we're not going anywhere. You won't wake up some morning, as the folks in Tallahassee did lastweek, to read that the Times has new owners from out of town. Our homes and our hearts are here in the Tampa Bay area. So is our future.

[Last modified August 6, 2005, 00:57:02]


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