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Poynter, in 1978 (Poynter Institute photo)

What Nelson Poynter can teach the Bancrofts

COMMENTARY | June 14, 2007

Shouldn’t the standards of news media ownership, as spelled out by Poynter in 1947, apply today? For starters, those standards include looking at a media property as a sacred trust and a great privilege.

By Gilbert Cranberg and Randall Bezanson

Let us now praise a man who is not as famous as he deserves to be – Nelson Poynter, who built the St. Petersburg (FL) Times into a journalistic and financial powerhouse and then, upon his death at 74 in 1978, bequeathed the paper, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to a school he had created rather than to his family because, he  said, "I've never met my great-grandchildren, and I might not like them."

That was Poynter's waggish way of saying he believed so fervently that a newspaper is a public trust he was unwilling to run any risk of having it fall into the hands of money grubbers.

Nelson Poynter is worth recalling today as the fate of another great newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, is being decided by a family in a position to determine its future. Poynter owned almost all of his newspaper's stock, so the option open to him of gifting it to a school or a foundation probably is not available to the Bancroft family, even if they were inclined to walk away from a fortune, because of the many other owners of Dow Jones stock.

But there is nothing to prevent the Bancrofts from acting on the principles that animated Nelson Poynter. He expressed them 60 years ago in a set of  "standards of ownership" written before he and his advisers decided on a non-profit educational foundation as the vehicle to safeguard the paper. In the standards, adopted Aug. 6, 1947, he declared:

This is a guide for my heirs, trustees, executors,advisors who have any responsibilities in disposing of any of my newspsper properties and equities. These standards  shall be used as a yardstick in choosing the purchaser of The St. Petersburg Times, or any other properties which I own. A fair and equitable price must be realized from my properties but my executors shall be under no obligation to sell my interests to the highest bidder, but they may accept any offer from any bidder for any amount deemed by them to be acceptable in view of the following:

1. Ownership or participation in ownership of a publication or broadcasting property is a sacred trust and a great privilege.
2. Any publication or broadcasting property has unusual obligations to the community in which it operates, and any new owner must be sensitive to this.
3. The owners of a publication or broadcasting station cannot compromise with the integrity of the news and information that is sold or given to the public.
4. A publication or broadcasting station must be aggressive in its service to the community, and not wait to be prodded into rendering that service. A publisher or broadcaster must share the zeal and enthusiasm for what is new each day. He does not belong as an owner unless he has such enthusiasm...

The yardsticks Nelson Poynter used to describe his preferred purchaser of the St. Pete Times could well be used by any owner contemplating sale of a media property when the foundation option isn't feasible. To be sure, once a sale is consummated, there is little if anything that can be done to force a buyer to comply with the selection criteria. But that only reinforces the importance of careful  scrutiny at the selection stage, something an owner or board of directors is perfectly free to do. If a non-complying bidder is offering a much higher price than others, that in itself may be a sign that something is amiss.

All the more reason then, as the Bancrofts try to figure out what to do with Rupert Murdoch's offer to buy Dow Jones, for them to  be advised by Nelson Poynter.

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