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From AJR,   June 1998  issue

Continuation of Endangered Species   


By James V. Risser
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, James V. Risser is retired director of Stanford's Knight Fellowships. He lives in San Francisco.      

When the St. Petersburg Times last year uncovered shocking misconduct and possible fraud by the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, it had a tricky story on its hands. Besides the usual concerns over fairness, proof and libel suits, there was the troubling fact that the Rev. Henry Lyons was African American and a local minister. St. Petersburg was trying to heal the wounds of a violent racial disturbance that shocked the city the previous year and brought into question the Times' awareness of conditions in the black community.

Pursuing the Lyons story might well reopen the wounds. But the paper did not flinch. A team of reporters produced story after story. They reported that Lyons had used National Baptist Convention funds to help buy a $700,000 waterfront estate with a woman, Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler.

The paper said Lyons had drastically inflated convention membership lists and sold them to corporate marketers "for personal profit and political gain." More than $1 million intended for convention coffers had gone into a secret Wisconsin bank account set up by Edwards and used by her and Lyons for personal purchases. Plus, Lyons had received $350,000 from the Nigerian government while he was lobbying Washington to ease up on military rulers there. The stories were prominently displayed with headlines like "Lyons' Big Lie."

Early this year, criminal racketeering and grand theft charges were filed against Lyons, alleging that he and codefendant Edwards had stolen nearly $5 million and spent much of it on lavish living. The newspaper's aggressive coverage became one of three Times stories from last year to make it to the finals of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize competition. Only the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, much bigger papers with much broader reach, had more finalists.

In the end, the Lyons stories didn't win, but another St. Pete finalist did. Thomas French's series on a three-year investigation into the murder of a vacationing Ohio farm wife and her two teenage daughters captured the feature writing prize. The other Times Pulitzer finalist was David Barstow, whose narrative piece about the proposed tobacco settlement was recognized in explanatory reporting.

And so it goes at the St. Petersburg Times, which many journalists consider the nation's finest local newspaper. The morning daily, with 366,000 weekday and 463,000 Sunday subscribers and apparently on its way to becoming the largest daily in Florida, displays admirably unflagging enterprise and tells riveting stories that rival the best in any paper or magazine.

It also has one of the most unusual ownership structures. Bought in 1912 by Indiana newspaperman Paul Poynter, the Times eventually was taken over by his son, Nelson, who ran it for four decades until his death in 1978. Nelson Poynter directed a newspaper that practiced good journalism (laced with a good deal of boosterism), pioneered in newspaper storytelling and in-depth reporting, and was socially progressive, opposing school segregation before any other major paper in the region. The Times led the way in cold type, color and other technological innovations. But what Poynter did to ensure the paper's long-term independence was his most remarkable achievement.

In 1947, Poynter laid down his 15 "Standards of Ownership," which his biographer, Robert N. Pierce, described nearly 50 years later as a kind of combined Declaration of Independence and Constitution for the newspaper. The first standard defined newspaper ownership as "a sacred trust and a great privilege." The 15th declared that a publication is "so individualistic in nature that complete control should be concentrated in an individual. Voting stock should never be permitted to scatter." Poynter also asserted that chain ownership doesn't ensure quality because the owners must worry about all the properties and thus show "diluted or divided" loyalty to any one paper. The 15 standards were compressed later into 10.

He mistrusted even the usual course of trying to retain independence through family ownership. Eugene Patterson, the respected Atlanta editor who succeeded Poynter, recalls that Poynter believed the paper should go "not to family, but to professionals who recognize what the duty of the paper is." Poynter believed that a newspaper has "a public service role that can't be fully met if it's in group ownership," says Patterson, whose own view is that "the great plus of being an independent newspaper is that it frees you up to innovate and initiate, to try new ideas."

So Nelson Poynter gave away his newspaper. He set up an educational institution and willed the Times to it when he died. Today the renowned Poynter Institute for Media Studies operates training programs for print and broadcast journalists and sponsors forums on media issues at its downtown building beside Tampa Bay. It also owns Congressional Quarterly (created because Poynter wanted to track what his elected officials were up to) and Florida Trend and Governing magazines. Andrew E. Barnes, Patterson's successor, is editor and chairman of the Times. He also chairs Poynter and votes all the stock. When Barnes, 59, leaves, he will be succeeded in both posts by Paul C. Tash, now 43 and the executive editor.

This setup is not likely to be duplicated elsewhere, most owners being disinclined to give away their newspapers. But what's just as striking about the Times is the overall quality of its leaders and staff, the verve with which they put out their newspaper, and their commitment to it as a great place to work. Barnes came to the paper 25 years ago from the Washington Post. Tash has spent his entire career there, beginning as a reporter in 1978.

Philip L. Gailey, the editorial page editor, was lured from the New York Times Washington bureau and presides professorially over more than a dozen editorial writers and columnists. In 1994, he freed up editorial writer Jeffrey Good for the better part of a year to research and write what amounted to an exposť of Florida's probate system for settling estates. His work won a Pulitzer the next year. "We can choose to be as good as we want to be or as mediocre as we want to be," Gailey says. "The decisions are made right here in this building. If we were counting beans, how could we justify giving Jeff Good eight months to work on a project?" Gailey's editorial page is liberal ("progressive" seems to be the preferred word) and regularly endorses the Democratic presidential candidate in a circulation area that's mostly Republican.

Ruling this empire from an office atop the Times' handsome downtown building, Andy Barnes projects an enthusiastic and intellectual sense of what the paper is all about. He recalls that Poynter believed "a community needs a newspaper that loves it best. And Nelson talked about creating a newspaper where the decisions would be made by people who live in the community, on behalf of the community. He felt very strongly the division of allegiance that comes with remote ownership.

"It had the effect of creating a distinctive institution. The St. Pete Times is pretty quirky, in that we edit the newspaper very largely based on who we are and the wonderful response we get from the community, and we don't really have to wonder what does somebody think in Rosslyn or Miami or wherever," Barnes says, referring to the corporate headquarters of Gannett and Knight Ridder.

"It was the received wisdom when I got here," he continues, "that you serve first the readers, then the advertisers, then the staff, and all those are priorities. That really is quite powerful. The other distinctive thing is that not only are we independent, but we're private." During what Barnes calls the "unconscionable run-up" in newsprint prices several years ago, he had only to meet his obligations to the Poynter Institute. "I could fiddle with the profit margin and not have to explain it to anybody, and did," he says. "That had the effect of maintaining newshole and of not having--because of the exigencies of a quarter or a year--to undo what we'd spent five years creating."

The ratio of news to advertising at the Times runs about 60/40, the reverse of the rule of thumb. "Mind you, we're very careful about our profitability," Barnes says, "and we keep it very healthy." Times executives studied the question several years ago and decided they wanted operating profit "to be on the order of 15 percent. If it was going to be under 10 we'd damn well want to know why, and if it was over 20 we'd be doing something wrong."

Barnes well appreciates that his counterparts at public companies can only dream of such latitude. On the other hand, few of them have ever lived through the storm Barnes endured when Texas financier Robert M. Bass waged a furious effort to take over the Times. In 1988, Bass acquired a minority stake held by Nelson Poynter's nieces, who had been upset by the company's offer for their shares. After several bruising years--Bass accused the Times of being inefficient while the company painted him as a corporate raider with no real interest in journalism--the Poynter Institute paid the financier $56 million, thereby regaining all its stock.

Barnes says Nelson Poynter's motive for creating the institute, which is financed largely by the Times' earnings, was "to do good and to preserve the paper from having to be sold to pay taxes, and he was perfectly candid about that." The institute's president is James M. Naughton, the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. A highly respected journalist equally well known for his love of pranks, Naughton delights in running Poynter's seminars and workshops. He sits at a desk in what's supposed to be the anteroom of the director's office because he has filled up the larger room with a full-size pool table.

Naughton, a man of demanding standards, finds little fault with the Times. It's "a writers' newspaper but well edited," he says. It's local without giving up national and international coverage, "covers the hell out of the legislature," is first-rate on enterprise and investigative work, and handles sports "exceptionally well." But he thinks the front section is often too small and says the paper needs to continue efforts to upgrade business coverage. The Times was "shocked and surprised" by the 1996 racial disturbances, Naughton says. "They'd tried to cover that community but hadn't really succeeded. But they reacted quickly when it happened, and they're doing better now. They're more receptive to learning opportunities than most newspapers."

Even so, readers take the paper to task for being too liberal or politically correct. Some in the black community still wonder if the Times understands their problems. And earlier this year Florida's Seminoles leveled some high-profile criticism of their own. The tribe claimed that Times staffers acted unethically in gathering information for an investigation of the Seminoles' casinos. The articles detailed the casinos' huge earnings and uncovered questionable finances and jackpot payments. Executive Editor Tash defends the series as "a statement of our own journalistic findings" and accuses the Seminoles of engaging in deceptive public relations to try to obscure the facts.

Tash, like Nelson Poynter an Indiana native, joined the Times 20 years ago after earning a law degree from Edinburgh University in Scotland. He has been city editor, metro editor, editor and publisher of Florida Trend magazine, and the Times' bureau chief in Washington. He believes the Times tries to guard against what he sees as two dangers of independent ownership: "isolation" from the ideas and expertise that can come from a group setting, and "complacency" that can be fed by a paper's economic security. "We're a better paper than we were 10 years ago," he says, "and we think there's a bright future for newspapers as long as they stay energetic and committed."

Tash treasures the paper's ability to make a decision quickly. In the 1996 campaign he wanted the paper to sponsor the vice-presidential debate. He told Barnes it would cost $500,000. At many papers, if the idea was even entertained there would have been "a huge bureaucratic review and attempts to justify" the expense, he says. "Here, we spent 10 or 15 minutes on the decision. I told Andy I thought we should do it, we discussed it briefly, and he said, 'Let's do it.' "

The news operation now includes 10 editions published in St. Petersburg and four other counties. The idea is to follow the area's growth and expand outside St. Petersburg, where population has declined slightly and where significant numbers of downtown businesses are shuttered. Half the paper's 400 editorial employees work outside the main St. Pete office. The suburban editions are given their own name and identity, such as the Clearwater Times (followed in the mast by "An edition of the St. Petersburg Times"). Another edition is on the home turf of the Times' long-standing rival, Media General's Tampa Tribune. But so far, Barnes acknowledges, it has achieved only a 7 percent penetration rate in Tampa. The Times also supports a Washington bureau of four reporters, a Tallahassee state capital bureau of three full time reporters and two part-timers, and a Miami-based Latin American correspondent.

Staffers say morale is generally good and has improved since management listened several years ago to complaints of female and minority staffers that they weren't getting equal pay and promotions. It's clear, as numerous reporters and editors say, that most take pride in working for a paper with a strong commitment to journalism.

The paper has a Web site, although Barnes isn't much interested in it. Nor is he enamored of the civic journalism movement. "The idea that all journalism should be focused on participatory democracy is not how I think," he says. Still, Barnes is adamant that the Times be "very involved with our community," through its news coverage, letters to the editor and talking to readers. "My ambition for this newspaper," he says, "is that it can find ways to continue to speak to future generations of readers through vigorous discussion of topics that are of interest and importance to them." In that view, Barnes holds true to the vision of Nelson Poynter, whose one-of-a-kind organization seems to be working exactly as he intended.

In November 1995, three bold entrepreneurs from Colorado slipped into affluent Palo Alto, California, leased a vacant plumbing showroom, set up a few Macintosh computers and a satellite dish, and told the curious a vague tale about going into "electronic publishing." That remained their cover story until one day their plumber-landlords said, "We've thought about it, and we've decided you guys are CIA."

At that point, Dave Price says, he and his two partners decided they'd better come clean. They admitted that in a few days they would be launching a daily newspaper. The plumbers were so enthusiastic that they bought champagne to toast the new arrival.

"We started publishing secretly on December 7, a day which will live in infamy," jokes Price, the editor. "We didn't want to raise expectations by announcing that Palo Alto was getting a new daily newspaper and then have people see this little eight-page tabloid and say, 'What's this?' "

The first issue of the Palo Alto Daily News was, in fact, eight pages, written and edited by the three partners, with just one advertisement--from the plumbing company in whose former showroom the paper set up shop. The press run was 3,000 copies, which were distributed free around town. By last April the Palo Alto Daily News was still in the plumbing showroom, with staff crammed into every nook. There are now 22 full-timers, including a news staff of six headed by Price, and about 30 part-timers. The paper was up to 18,000 copies Monday through Saturday, and was typically running 32 to 40 pages, with about 200 ads, most from medium-sized local retailers. It's still free.

On its admittedly modest and eclectic terms, the Daily News is playing out an interesting experiment. It has taken the model of the free weekly--a concept that has gained widespread acceptance among readers and advertisers alike--and applied it to a daily. You're not supposed to be able to start a newspaper unless you have Scaife-sized pockets, so prohibitive are the expenses. But computers have put production on the desktop. And if you don't need an army of carriers or your own multideck Goss Metroliners, well..

"Our belief is that a free newspaper, available where people shop and work, will do well," Price says. "The newspaper industry has been managed so badly that we have dying dinosaurs in a lot of cities. Independent and small newspapers are the future, and I don't think home subscriptions are the future of the newspaper industry."

Palo Alto, a picturesque Bay Area city of 57,000, is home to Stanford University and many of Silicon Valley's newly rich. It had been without a daily newspaper since the Peninsula Times Tribune was abandoned in 1993 by its owner, Tribune Co. of Chicago. In a classic case of newspaper mismanagement, Tribune had purchased two dailies, the Palo Alto Times and the Redwood City Tribune, and merged them. That was the first of two mistakes. Both Palo Alto (rich, mostly white, very high-toned) and Redwood City (middle-class, blue-collar, ethnically mixed) resented the clumsy amalgamation. The second mistake came when Tribune, to trim costs and appear more worldly, cut back on local coverage. The foolhardy aim was to compete head-on with the sleepy but dominant San Francisco Chronicle to the north and the surging San Jose Mercury News to the south.

Circulation plummeted, a Stanford graduate named Bill Johnson started the free-distribution and high-quality Palo Alto Weekly, and the downward spiral continued. By the time Tribune woke up to what it had wrought it was too late. The Peninsula Times Tribune had been so thoroughly run into the ground that no buyer could be found, and Tribune one day kicked the employees out, shut down the presses and locked the doors. Its building, on a prime block of downtown Palo Alto, has since been torn down and replaced by offices and townhomes.

The Mercury News has an excellent bureau on the Peninsula, and the Palo Alto Weekly, now published twice weekly, does admirable in-depth stories on local issues. Still, Price and partners Jim Pavelich and David Danforth--all of whom had run newspapers in Aspen and Vail--figured that Palo Altans missed their daily.

The new paper emphasizes local news, but it subscribes to the AP and carries a mix of local, state, national and world stories. When water was discovered on the moon, the Daily News localized the news by featuring the role of scientists at the NASA research center in nearby Mountain View. "People see a tabloid, and they think 'alternative newspaper,' " says Price. "But that's not what we're trying to do. We see ourselves as more of a mainstream newspaper, a community daily newspaper."

The paper covers local government, business, and Stanford and high school sports, and tries to stay on top of such hot local controversies as whether to ban noisy leaf-blowers. It carries a few comics, publishes a quirky horoscope ("Aquarius: Do creative things with paper clips today") and treats the news with cheeky irreverence. When the Daily News set up its own Web site this year, it announced the move on the front page with the headline "Newspaper enters 20th century--with just two years to spare."

The paper is printed at a job press in Hayward, across San Francisco Bay. Armando Mendoza, a Daily News employee, makes the half-hour drive to Hayward alone at midnight with the pages for the next day's paper, waits while the copies come off the press, then drives his loaded truck back and directs his small crew's distribution activities.

Readers find the paper in news racks in and around Palo Alto, and at stores and shops. The Daily News encourages retail advertisers to include a coupon for discounts on their products. That gives both the advertiser and the newspaper a way of measuring response, and Price says it's working. "Our circulation is not audited and I could probably give you any figure I wanted," he says. "But we know how many copies we're printing, and we know a lot more people than that read the paper. We find papers in our news racks that people have read while they're eating, and then they put them back in the rack with food stains on them."

Price says the Daily News became profitable in early 1997--"at least we're taking in more money than we're spending"--and hopes to be printing 25,000 copies daily by this summer. Price is enthusiastic about the paper's future, and believes the community will support him. He likes to quote a local politician, who told Price that when the city's previous daily failed, Palo Alto "lost a mirror on itself."

The joy of newspapering, at least for now, is carrying the day in Palo Alto. That same spirit pulls along hundreds of other kindred, independent souls.

Michael Gartner, who edited two major metropolitan dailies--the Des Moines Register and the Louisville Courier-Journal--and then headed NBC News, is back home in Iowa having the time of his life running the Ames Daily Tribune, circulation 10,000. Last year he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for his pungent observations on life in Ames and his critiques of its biggest employer, Iowa State University. He has made friends, and plenty of enemies. He shrugs off the latter, declaring, "You show me a beloved newspaper editor and I'll show you a shitty newspaper." What he likes most is knowing "the history and rhythms" of Ames. Running your own newspaper, he says, "you can make long term financial decisions, not short term ones where you always worry about quarterly profits."

Ted Natt is editor and publisher of the Longview Daily News in Washington state, a paper founded by his grandfather 75 years ago. "Independence makes a whale of a difference," he says. "Our roots run deep in this community." The 25,000-circulation paper has 150 employees, including 32 news staffers, and Natt says he spends more on content and staff than most papers this size. In 1981, the paper won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Every weekday Natt continues his grandfather's practice of writing a front page column, "Views of the News." "I can come down here to the paper every morning and say in print what I think. It's great fun." Natt, his brother and their families own 70 percent of the paper; the other 30 percent belongs to the employees. Natt has a son working at the paper, and another son and daughter hold degrees in journalism. "I hope we can carry forward," he says, "and remain independent."

Kansan Edward L. Seaton, who owns and operates the Manhattan Mercury, a paper originally run by his grandfather, agrees. At his 12,000-circulation daily with 18 news staffers (more than the industry standard), "we're not publicly traded and we don't have the pressures that come with that. We spend what is required to cover the news." A small-town cosmopolite who has been honored for his work on behalf of press freedom in Latin America, Seaton is the current president of ASNE.

There are other admired independents still afloat--papers like Vermont's Rutland Herald; Spokane's Spokesman-Review; the Day in New London, Connecticut; the Albuquerque Journal; the Journal-World of Lawrence, Kansas; and the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia. But unless industry economics change drastically, and that's unlikely, independent and family-owned newspapers seem destined to be a dying breed.

"There's a terrible inevitability to it," says Ben Bagdikian, who has monitored the shift toward concentrated newspaper ownership for 15 years in successive editions of "The Media Monopoly." "Families have offspring, and offspring have offspring, and things happen," he says. Heirs fight among themselves, or want greater financial returns than the family-owned paper brings them; eventually ownership gets diluted. "Of course, there were a lot of family-owned papers that were rotten," Bagdikian says. "But people like Tim Hays at Riverside and Nelson Poynter at St. Petersburg cared passionately about journalism. And their papers were founded at a time when the newspaper was a prestigious institution in town and the crown jewel among news media. A newspaper is not anymore the most glamorous and powerful property a media family can own."

As for Tim Hays, these days you won't find him in Riverside but in St. Louis, where his wife restores vintage homes. He's mostly philosophical about last year's sale of the Press-Enterprise. But he still holds to his belief that independence is more than a nice-sounding label. It's often the key to "quality and prestige taking priority over this year's earnings," he says, and to a newspaper with strong journalistic values and a bond with its community. With Riverside's low subscription rates and generous news staff, the paper's earnings as a percentage of income were never all that high.

But then that wasn't the point.

"I have fond memories of some of the family owners in California--the Knowlands; the McClatchys; the Chandlers; Tom Storke in Santa Barbara, who used his paper to fight McCarthyism. It was very gratifying to know those people and to assume that their children would carry on.

"The goal," he says, "was to turn out a paper that served a larger and larger audience and served them well. A newspaper ought to be owned by people in the community it serves."


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