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American Journalism Review
Passing the Crown  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Passing the Crown   

In May its time for the quirky changing of the guard ritual at the St. Petersburg Times

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

In London, Prince Charles has known since birth that he will one day inherit the throne. In Monaco, Prince Albert is awaiting the day he'll be king.

And so it is in St. Petersburg--Florida, that is.

On May 15, St. Petersburg Times Editor and President Paul Tash replaces Andrew Barnes as chairman and CEO of the newspaper and the Poynter Institute. Barnes, who has held the job since November 1988, says he's had Tash in mind as his successor since 1996, when he invited a dozen candidates for the executive editor job to answer the question: "What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities facing the company and what would you do if you were in charge?"

"Some of the essays were clearly from people who didn't see themselves running the company," Barnes says. "Paul's had a remarkable clarity and directness."

So while the Poynter system is not exactly royal, there's still a feeling of being specially selected, one person choosing another to lead the masses. At most newspapers, decisions about new editors are made behind closed doors by committees. The new leader can be someone well known to the newsroom or a stranger tossed into its midst.

Tash points to a quote by Nelson Poynter about why he established his company's quirky leadership model: "I've never met my great-grandchildren, and I might not like them." Poynter believed a newspaper should be led by one person, not a committee. And he wasn't sure he trusted anyone in his family to do it.

Before he died in 1978, Poynter created what is now called the Poynter Institute, handed his shares in the company to the school and established the "one person, one choice" succession system. He chose Eugene Patterson as his replacement. Patterson announced Barnes would succeed him in 1984, handing over the job in 1988.

Barnes believes in the system. "If you look at corporate America, this is a choice often made by people who are under the gun, who can't set real tests and figure out how people handle themselves," he says. "And, in many cases, they don't know what the job is."

Barnes started his journalism career at the Providence Journal, later moving to the Washington Post, where he spent eight years. He joined the St. Pete Times in 1973 as assistant managing editor and metropolitan editor. He became managing editor in 1976.

Tash joined the St. Pete Times in 1978 as a reporter. He's been city editor, metropolitan editor and Washington bureau chief. From 1990 to 1991, he edited and published Florida Trend, a business magazine owned by the Times Publishing Co. He was named executive editor of the Times in 1992, deputy chairman in 1997 and editor and president in 2000.

Of course, there's always the off-chance that the "chosen one" doesn't measure up. Poynter's lawyer apparently thought of that when setting up the system.

According to Barnes: "He said, 'But Nelson, what if one of these guys decides to sell the company and get real rich?' And Poynter allegedly said, 'Well, Hank, you gotta trust someone.' This is a question of finding someone you trust and trusting them."

Tash says he's ready for the job and already preparing for the time when he'll be doing the choosing.

"As of May 16, I have to have somebody in case, to use a metaphor, I get hit by a bus," Tash says. "It was sort of a party game around here, whose name is in the box--the safe deposit box. Maybe it will be again."

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