Last March, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies quietly bought a sizeable chunk of property from All Children's Hospital. The purchase fit into Poynter's long-time strategy of acquiring most of the land in a three-block area that includes the journalism think tank's opulent home at 801 Third St. S.
The St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by Poynter, never reported or discussed the acquisitions — nor was it required to. However, the land lies in a neighborhood involved in a bitter community debate: the future of Albert Whitted Airport. City voters will decide on Nov. 4 whether to keep the city-owned airport or to close it and turn it into a waterfront park.
In its editorials and arguably even in its news coverage, the Times has pushed for elimination of the airport, first suggesting that the property would be better used as an urban village and now supporting the waterfront park.
Which raises some questions.
How does a newspaper reconcile its legitimate private interest with its broader responsibility to fully inform the public about a hotly contested political issue? Is the Times, with its parent company's property affected by the Albert Whitted outcome, obliged to cover both sides of the debate? Further, should the Times have disclosed Poynter's holdings and acquisitions when it stands to gain from a new waterfront park?
Local real estate experts agree that replacing Albert Whitted with a park will enhance property values in the nearby blocks. Other loud anti-airport voices own valuable tracts near Albert Whitted. Architect Tim Clemmons, a board member of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, owns a development in progress called Charles Court with his partner Dar Webb. George Rahdert, a downtown real estate investor and the Times' most high-profile attorney, is a director, along with Clemmons and Webb, in the Charles Court Homeowners' Association. Rahdert has donated money to Citizens for a New Waterfront Park.
But these people are not the Times, the city's dominant newspaper, with the clout to greatly influence the referendum's outcome.
"The newspaper has a special burden, in an issue in which they stand to benefit, to make sure readers understand that interest," said Danny Schecter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, a media watchdog website. "I think they also have a further obligation to seek another point of view and give it some prominence, perhaps on the Op Ed page. If they fail to do that, then in a sense they're using the power of the press to promote their own power. And clearly, people (at the Poynter) who set themselves up as arbiters of journalistic ethics have an added burden when it comes to their own activities."
Ted Glasser, director of the graduate journalism program at Stanford University and a member of the ethics board of the Society of Professional Journalists, prefaced his opinion by saying that he had not read any of the coverage. Responding "in the abstract," he said via e-mail, "I'd prefer to see the paper not editorialize on an issue in which it has an interest. But if it is going to comment, it should go out of its way to solicit and publish competing commentary."
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ ethics committee, responded to our e-mail query with this: "Without having seen the coverage it's difficult for me to comment on how well or how ethically [the Times] has covered this issue. Generally, though, I would say that the Times has an ethical obligation to report on its financial stake on this issue every time it writes about the referendum. This needn't be a full-fledged disclosure every time, but it should at least be a mention that the airport is (close) to the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times."
Media critics see a trend of large newspapers advancing their own interests without adequate disclosure. "It's a pattern," Schecter said: "Media companies operating in ways that are not transparent, thus not really being accountable for the ways they achieve their economic goals and gains."
The Poynter Institute owns nearly all of the land bordered by Third and Fourth streets and Eighth and 11th avenues South — roughly three acres for its office/educational facility and four additional acres. (All Children's retains the right to use the parcel it sold to Poynter for another two-and-a-half years.) The land sits right under the east-west flight path of Albert Whitted Airport.
Andrew Barnes, CEO of both Poynter and the Times, says that some of the additional property will likely go toward expanding the institute, and some of it will "one way or the other probably end up being used by [the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg]."
As for the Times not disclosing Poynter's property holdings, he said, "In all candor, I hadn't thought about it. It doesn't strike me as germane to the point. We're not getting rich on it."