The caller owned a piece of the Times

As Rupert Murdoch made a colossal offer for the Wall Street Journal, I flashed back.

Published May 6, 2007

The phone call came in the early afternoon. My assistant stuck her head in the door and said, "There's a Mr. Bass on the phone for you." An inquiring glance produced a shrug, so I picked up the phone.

The man on the line said he was Robert Bass, "a businessman," and he wanted me to know he had bought the minority ownership of the St. Petersburg Times, shares that had been owned by founder Nelson Poynter's sister and passed on to her daughters.

"And what business are you in, Mr. Bass?" I inquired. He responded, as I recall, "investments."

That day in 1988 and the months that followed Bob Bass' call came tumbling back into my mind last week as I read of Rupert Murdoch's "friendly" offer of a colossal amount of money to take over the Wall Street Journal from the Bancroft family that has controlled the paper for decades. What must be going through the minds of the older and the younger Bancrofts?

I hung up the phone and collected my thoughts for a moment, then took the elevator from my office on the third floor to the office of CEO Gene Patterson on the seventh. Even before the call it was a time of some stress - just days before Patterson's long-planned retirement, turning the control of Times Publishing over to me, and a huge public ceremony formally opening our new building.

We quickly figured out that Mr. Bass must be one of "the Bass Brothers," four men who had used huge inherited oil wealth to involve themselves in several corporate takeover fights. Patterson had tried several times to buy the stock in question, as had Nelson Poynter before him, always unsuccessfully. Now it was in the hands of what we had to assume was an adversarial owner. The threat to Poynter's vision of an independent, locally owned newspaper was very real.

Patterson sat and thought for some minutes. I do not know what doubts he must have held about the wisdom of turning over command at such a time of vulnerability. To his great credit he never voiced them. I do know I felt those doubts about my readiness to take on corporate raiders, but I did my best not to let it show.

Whatever had been going through his mind, Patterson straightened up in his chair, apparently resolved, and we started forming a team and laying out a plan. What was clear from the first was that a money-motivated owner would not sustain the great newspaper we had all devoted our lives to creating.

My wife, Molly, by the way, remembers that day was Halloween. Our daughter, Elizabeth, then a seventh-grader, recalls coming back from trick-or-treating to find the living room full of men in suits talking business. She had hoped it would be her costume that produced comment.

The scenes of the next 20 months follow too closely one on the other for clear focus.

Because there was so much going on with Patterson's retirement and the new building, and because I hadn't been able to think it through, we had not yet put a story in the paper about Bass' stock purchase. The result was that they leaked it to the Tampa Tribune. It was a rotten morning when I saw they had published a story before we had.

Another scene: Bass and his chief lieutenant, a man named David Bonderman, paid a visit. I offered to rent them a car and driver, but no, that wouldn't be necessary. The result? I drove them around our facilities in my old Toyota, smelling slightly of rancid milk from some baby's bottle.

It was on that visit that we had our first direct conversation, sitting around the table we ordinarily use for meetings of the editorial board. It was only after they had left that our lawyer and my closest associate through all this, George Rahdert, pointed out that they had said if we would sell them the paper they would make me very rich. I was too focused on preserving the independence of the newspaper to hear it.

Another scene: I had gone to Cincinnati to be a judge in a national newspaper contest. I had no sooner sat down to a huge stack of clippings than I was called to the phone. The Bass side had sued us in federal court, demanding that we pay them bigger dividends instead of putting money back into the newspaper and paying it to our majority owner, the Poynter Institute.

I instructed that a story on the lawsuit be prepared, and scrambled on to an airplane to get home. There were thunderstorms. I was circling over Tampa. Rahdert and our managing editor, Mike Foley, were pacing back and forth in the airport as press time got closer and closer. We finally landed - it was bumpy - and I read and approved the story, and the presses started.

One other scene that comes to mind is a phone conversation with Katharine Graham, a friend for whom I had worked at the Washington Post. She passed along the advice of Warren Buffett, a hugely talented and wealthy businessman on her board. "You tell that young man, " which I actually wasn't even then, "that he has the winning hand, but only if he knows it." Sorting out that kind of cryptic remark was a challenge. I concluded he meant I had to stand up to the other side's bullying.

Buffett was extremely generous and supportive in the one face-to-face meeting we later had in Omaha. But to be candid, I didn't entirely trust Buffett or even Mrs. Graham to be on my side. Huge money makes people behave peculiarly.

Everyone closely involved in this fight felt, and showed, the strain. Marriages came apart, thank goodness not mine. Some drank too much. I gained weight. My hair turned suddenly white. It was impossible to relax. You never knew what would be coming next.

The support we felt in a thousand ways from the whole staff, from the newspaper industry, and particularly from the community, was palpable. Even people who often disagree with the paper defended it fiercely.

There is a crucial difference between the Wall Street Journal situation and our own. There, the number of family members has grown to dozens, some committed to the paper, others more interested in realizing great wealth.

Here at the Times, Nelson Poynter set it up so that one person would have control, not a group, and that person would be committed to the newspaper and the community, without the complications of family ties. The Bancroft family hasn't exactly said no to Murdoch, which means they are "in play." Murdoch will get it, or somebody else. The question is no longer whether it will be sold, but what the price will be. As a daily reader of the Wall Street Journal, I fear for the result. Murdoch's publications are more interested in celebrity and profitability than in honest news.

In facing the Bass challenge, we knew from the first we must never do anything that might make it seem we would sell the Times. We didn't hire investment bankers, though many said we should. We never allowed ourselves to speak publicly about the dollar value of the company. We were determined not to be in play.

For us, there simply was no alternative to preserving the independence of the newspaper.

If the day of Bass' phone call was a shock, it was a joy the day we achieved resolution. It was at lunch in a sunlit restaurant in Washington that Rahdert and I heard our ace negotiator, Talbot C. "Sandy" d'Alemberte, describe a complex deal reached that morning, which at bottom would leave us owning all the stock at a price we could just barely afford. We had won.