Skip to comments.Why Newsrooms Pray To St. Petersburg (Dinosaur Media DeathWatch™)
Posted on 12/04/2006 5:33:25 AM PST by abb
he St. Petersburg Times is perhaps the finest daily newspaper south of The Washington Post and east of The Dallas Morning News.
It is also an invaluable corporate citizen in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, both as the region's leading news source and as a sponsor of many worthy cultural and civic institutions.
But there's one thing that the Times, my former employer, probably isn't: a practical model to be emulated by a newspaper industry desperate for a new game plan.
It's a familiar refrain in many newsrooms: The St. Petersburg Times and its owner, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, provide a shining example of how a newspaper can be run without corporate bean counters ruling the day. The Times is a for-profit enterprise, but Poynter is not. That means the paper is better equipped to get through difficult financial times without having to resort to the slash-and-burn tactics all too commonly deployed by newspapers owned by publicly traded media companies. As a result, beleaguered industry veterans longingly turn their collective gaze to the Times and Poynter for inspiration.
The Financial Times profiled the relationship in October. Tribune's Los Angeles Times reported in November that former Editor John Carroll had courted billionaire developer-philanthropist Eli Broad to consider buying that newspaper in the hopes of possibly putting it in the hands of a foundation modeled after the Poynter Institute. And back in 2001, the Columbia Journalism Review sent a correspondent to St. Petersburg who wrote a flattering portrayal titled "A Happy Newsroom, For Pete's Sake."
To be sure, there are other examples of nonprofit or tightly controlled models of media ownership. They include the church-owned Christian Science Monitor; small dailies owned by charitable trusts or foundations, such as The Day of New London, Conn., and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal of Tupelo, Miss.; the family-controlled dual-class share structure of the New York Times Co., the Washington Post Co. and Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal; the Scott Trust's ownership of Britain's Guardian Media Group, publisher of The Guardian and The Observer newspapers; and so on.
But it is the Poynter Institute's benign handling of the St. Petersburg Times that U.S. journalists cite most when discussing utopian models for media ownership. Alas, it is far easier to dream of having a Poynter-like overseer than it is to make it a reality. And even if a paper manages the unlikely feat of securing a nonprofit owner, there are no guarantees it will pay off.
You say you've got an investor group just bursting with civic-mindedness and a commitment to quality journalism? Sorry, but you're still a long way from replicating the Times-Poynter dynamic. For starters, consider how the Poynter Institute ended up owning the Times. Longtime Times Editor and owner Nelson Poynter, who died in 1978, willed his controlling stake in Times Publishing--the parent company of the Times and its sister publication Congressional Quarterly--to the journalism institute he had founded and that later bore his name.
This bears repeating: Poynter gave the paper away. Is this the kind of deal that other would-be media barons have in mind? Heres a wild guess: no.
Of course, a wealthy investor could theoretically buy a newspaper and bequeath it to a local nonprofit entity upon his or her death. But how long would that take? And does waiting for your owner to croak really constitute a viable business plan? Besides, given the strong local ties and sense of civic obligation that such an act implies, this scenario would probably be limited to small newspapers that have been owned by the same local family for decades.
Keep in mind that even Nelson Poynter's foresight and generosity weren't enough to secure his wish that the St. Petersburg Times remain in local hands. In 1988, Texas billionaire Robert M. Bass stunned the paper by purchasing 40% of Times Publishings voting stock from Poynter's nieces. Then Bass launched an unsolicited takeover bid for the rest of the company and sued it in an effort to increase his share of its dividend payments. Times Publishing rejected Bass' offer and, after a protracted battle, bought back Bass' stake for $56 million.
Today, the Poynter Institute owns 100% of Times Publishing, ensuring the Times future independence. But had Andy Barnes, then the Times Publishing chairman and chief executive, lost his nerve or made a fatal misstep in the fight with Bass, you can bet that the Times wouldn't be independently owned and operated as it is today.
It's worth noting that Barnes, his predecessor Eugene Patterson and his successor Paul Tash have all been career journalists and former Times editors committed to maintaining the quality, independence and local ownership of the newspaper. The papers five Pulitzer Prizes since 1980 speak to the tradition of excellence theyve nurtured over the years.
In other words, even with a unique ownership structure, leadership still matters. The St. Petersburg Times wouldnt be a topic of discussion today if Times Publishing had been run by incompetent clowns or executives with a questionable commitment to civic-minded journalism.
Finally, there's this: The Poynter Institute can save the Times from only one headache facing other newspapers: that of a parent company focused on boosting returns for public shareholders. Although Poynter provides a vital financial cushion during lean times, it can't do anything about external forces beyond its control, such as the proliferation of new Web-based news platforms or the consolidation of department-store chains, which has hurt advertising revenues.
Newspapers everywhere are losing readers, and the Times is no different. The paper's circulation in its home base of Pinellas County has deteriorated in recent years, largely offset by readership gains in other parts of the Tampa Bay area. But average weekday circulation slipped 3.2% year-on-year during the six months ended Sept. 30, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
To hold on to subscribers and advertisers, the Times has taken aggressive and costly steps, such as launching a free daily tabloid and acquiring the naming rights to the former Ice Palace in Tampa, a major concert venue and home of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.
The Times has also been forced to cut costs in ways that will sound familiar to journalists elsewhere, such as by shrinking the size of the paper to save on newsprint costs; eliminating the quarterly cost-of-living increases once granted regularly to all staffers; and ditching the papers traditional pension plan for new hires and replacing it with a less costly 401(k).
And things are about to get a lot rougher. Executive Editor Neil Brown warned recently in the Times' in-house newsletter that the papers profits this year if there are any, will be dangerously low. As a result, the paper plans to eliminate 80 to 90 jobs companywide by the end of 2007, mostly through attrition. Some of those cuts will come from the newsroom, which is already more than 15 jobs over budget. Hiring from outside the company will become very rare.
Brown concluded by warning that this will be the new model for the future, not a quick fix that we expect will be reversed when our economics improve.
In short, having a patient, understanding, altruistic parent like the Poynter Institute isnt a panacea for all that ails a newspaper. True, the St. Petersburg Times is equipped with a sturdier lifeboat than most other papers. But that doesn't change the fact that it's still being tossed about in the same roiling sea as everyone else.
I can say it with a lot less words it's just another liberal rag.fish wrap.
I am solicited regulary to purchase the SP Times (am a SP resident). With glee I send it back in with my "comments". I hope they die a quick one !!!
I get a lot of stories from Romenesko's site. Newsies love to piss and moan and poormouth about how bad their lot in life is...
And do they keep their circ figures up by doing what they do to my 90+yo mother in law? Send/give her papers when she asked ONLY for Sunday delivery?
The leftists long for this business model because they do not want to have to actually compete in the market place of ideas. They hope for a charitable foundation to free them up from having to worry that no one is actually going to pay to read their garbage. However, even the Times is having to cut back on costs as they lose readership.
I honestly think that newspapers are still a viable media despite the internet. However, they have yet to realize that content matters. AirAmerica struggles while Rush makes money by the boatloads. CNN slips while FoxNews gains. If the newspapers really want a working business model they should look there.
Ha! As Miss Marple would say. The employees of a dinosaur fishwrap owned by a so called non profit are at risk of being sacrificed to the Aztec Bottom Liners.
"The Times has also been forced to cut costs in ways that will sound familiar to journalists elsewhere, such as by shrinking the size of the paper to save on newsprint costs; eliminating the quarterly cost-of-living increases once granted regularly to all staffers; and ditching the papers traditional pension plan for new hires and replacing it with a less costly 401(k).
"And things are about to get a lot rougher. Executive Editor Neil Brown warned recently in the Times' in-house newsletter that the papers profits this year if there are any, will be dangerously low. As a result, the paper plans to eliminate 80 to 90 jobs companywide by the end of 2007, mostly through attrition. Some of those cuts will come from the newsroom, which is already more than 15 jobs over budget. Hiring from outside the company will become very rare.
"Brown concluded by warning that this will be the new model for the future, not a quick fix that we expect will be reversed when our economics improve.
Once the so called non profit dinosaur fishwrap owners/execs get used to the taste of the blood of their fired employees. Future firings will be easier and will serve as punishment, whenever bad results are reported.
The surviving execs/high priests and priestesses will become blood thirsty and will gladly become Aztec priests in their dealings with their underlings. They will use human sacrifices/firings to appease the evil Gods, the owners. Top management knows that there is no place for them to run to for a big paycheck. So they will gladly sacrifice those under them to stay employed until they too are sacrificed.
Now every employee is just one personality conflict away from being sacrificed to the Fishwrap Gods, er, fired.
"As we all know TRB CEO FitzSimons continues to seek a single buyer for all [TRB] properties in a ploy to get other people stuck holding the bag full of Goodwill, Intangibles, and other worthless "assets." LOL."
This is a little twist on the old Russian saying, "You don't have to outrun the Bear to stay safe. You just have to outrun the guy closest to the bear."
Fitzsimons is trying to outrun the last buyer of the TRB's worthless assets.