Talks about the future of the US newspaper industry tend to revolve around two cities these days.
There is Los Angeles, where staff at the Los Angeles Times last month rebelled against a distant corporate owner. And there is Chicago, home to that same owner, the Tribune Company, where a special committee is considering breaking up the group’s newspaper and television properties to satisfy frustrated shareholders.
But a better place to divine the future of the industry may be Florida, where the St Petersburg Times has been attracting increasing attention for its innovative ownership structure. Unlike most US papers, the St Petersburg Times is not part of a big, publicly held corporation. It is controlled by a local non-profit foundation dedicated to the teaching and promotion of journalism.
That distinction amounts to a huge difference in the current newspaper environment in which decades of circulation and advertising growth have stalled.
While Tribune’s publicly owned papers have made repeated cuts to their newsrooms to assuage Wall Street’s demands for ever-increasing profits, the St Petersburg Times’ private ownership has kept it relatively insulated.
The paper has poured millions into long-term projects, such as the launch two years ago of a free weekly paper. It has spent $25m upgrading printing facilities and plant in the past three years.
Paul Tash, the editor, said: “These are challenging times for everybody. There are some challenges we face down here at the St Petersburg Times as well. But we have some great advantages.” Other publishers have taken notice. In Alabama and New Hampshire, newspapers are trying to recreate the St Petersburg Times’s model. It could also come to Los Angeles. Eli Broad, the wealthy philanthropist who has expressed interest in buying the Los Angeles Times, has reached out to the folks in St Petersburg to learn how they do business.
They might also look to the UK, where The Guardian is owned by The Scott Trust, founded in 1936 by the sons of C.P. Scott, its former proprietor. Its mission is “to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity”.
In St Petersburg, the Times owes its structure to Nelson Poynter, who took over as editor and president of the paper after his father, Paul, died in 1950. Twenty years later, as his career was winding down, Mr Poynter seemingly had two options: he could sell the paper to a big corporation, as other family-owned papers were increasingly doing. Or, he could leave it to his children and hope for the best.
But Mr Poynter, intent on keeping the paper independent and in local hands, did neither. In 1975, he created a foundation, the Modern Media Institute, now known as the Poynter Institute, to which he bequeathed his shares in the Times. Mr Tash said: “Poynter didn’t believe much in heredity. His quote was: ‘I haven’t met my great-grandchildren, and I may not like them’.”
Under the Poynter Institute’s ownership, the Times still has financial obligations. The paper must turn a sufficient profit to support itself and send a dividend to the institute.
But there are obvious differences between its mentality and that of competitors, who must report to Wall Street. Whereas Tribune and other companies are trying to push profit margins beyond 20 per cent, the Times views that level as an upper limit, and even a warning that it is not investing enough in its core business. Neither does it have to worry about distant owners, or other corporate priorities. Mr Tash said: “If you’re Gannett and Louisville has a bad quarter, someone has to make it up.”.
Reporters say the focus has fostered stability and helped the Times to rival the Miami Herald as Florida’s largest newspaper.
“I’ve worked at other papers where they’re worried about travel costs, worried about how many notebooks you use, or long distance bills,” said Wes Allison, a correspondent based in the Washington bureau.
“At this paper, they’re worried about going for the story.” Not everyone is convinced that the Poynter system would work elsewhere. “To use St Petersburg as a role model may belie the challenges that you face in Los Angeles,” said Murray Schwartz, a lawyer at Katten Muchin Rosenman, who specialises in the newspaper industry. “They’re very different animals.”
Mr Tash acknowledged that local ownership can lead to stagnation in management. The larger challenge to replicating the Poynter model, though, may be finding an owner who is willing to forego a big payout and essentially donate the paper to the community.
“What Mr Poynter did to create this was a remarkable act of philanthropy,” Mr Tash said. “Basically, he gave it away.
Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in London