The Once & Future Kings

St. Pete Times chiefs have unchecked power over their company; they say they respect the risks

Summer 1976. A recent college grad named Paul Tash was writing rings around the rest of us. We four were interns at the St. Petersburg Times, a paper known, then as now, for attracting young talent and training it for the big time. In other words, we weren't without promise ourselves. But Paul — ramrod straight, self-assured, with close-cropped hair that ignored the fashion of that shaggy decade — stood out.

One evening in the company cafeteria, an avuncular veteran asked Paul what he wanted to be when he grew up. "An editor," Paul replied.

"Do you mean a Chic Bain editor" — referring to the guy who ran the copy desk — "or a Gene Patterson editor?" (Patterson, a former tank commander and Pulitzer winner, was our editor, president and inspirational leader.)

Paul shot back a penetrating look that colleagues would come to know well. "Which do you think?" he said.

Twenty-eight years later, Tash has the brass ring. Last month, still wearing that same haircut, he assumed what may be the most unusual leadership post in American newspapers — sole proxy-holder in control of the St. Petersburg Times, one of the last (and many say best) major locally owned, independent newspapers in the country. By the terms of late Times' owner Nelson Poynter's will, Tash's only boss is himself.

"You have the best job in America's newspapers," Tash's retired predecessor, Andy Barnes, recalls being told once by the chief executives of two publicly held media conglomerates. "You don't report to anybody."

It's true. The company has a unique ownership structure — all the stock is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute, a respected school for journalists, and Tash serves as both CEO and trustee for the institute. He is the proprietor-in-absolute. No board of directors can fire him.

This leadership model has more in common with swaggering 19th-century newspapering than with the contemporary ideal of corporate governance, with its checks and balances of accountability and control. But it suited Nelson Poynter, who was both idealistic and hard-headed. "Nelson believed that if you allow decisions to be ultimately decided by a committee," Barnes said, "then (a) it'll take a long time and (b) you'll end up compromising between right and wrong, which is sort of half right. That's my language and not his, but that's clearly the thrust of what he had to say."

As has been frequently told, the biggest threat to this arrangement came in the early '90s, when a group led by corporate raider Robert Bass bought a minority interest in Times Publishing Co. from heirs of Nelson Poynter's sister. After two years of legal and public relations battles, Times management prevailed when the company paid the Bass group $56-million for their shares. The settlement provided a healthy profit, no doubt, for the Basses, but it also secured forever the newspaper's independence — as well as its lofty habit of reinvesting its earnings into quality newspapering instead of just maximizing the dividend.

That was certainly the point emphasized by the Times and its friends. Less overtly expressed, but freely acknowledged by Barnes, was that the deal also solidified his personal grip on the company, along with that of his successors. According to several accounts, the Bass crew had encouraged Barnes to capitulate by promising him an even more handsome salary under their ownership. Barnes, who was paid $544,484 last year (no small potatoes but modest by today's CEO standards), turned them down.

In effect, Barnes chose power over money — a characterization he does not dispute. "I'm not about money," he said. "It's nice, but I'm committed to an idea, to the people I'm associated with, to the community. I don't need more money."

The power, of course, was to be used to maintain the ideals Poynter established, that owning a newspaper is a "sacred trust" with its readers.

Last month, in separate interviews, I asked Tash and Barnes to discuss the benefits and risks of placing so much control in a single person. The question didn't seem to faze them. "If you know your risks, you're less likely to fall victim to them," Tash observed.The strategic benefits, at the corporate level, are significant. Management doesn't have to worry about stock analysts in New York or petulant shareholders with expensive yachts in the Bahamas. By not focusing overmuch on quarterly earnings, the company can roll with the ups and downs of the economy, and it doesn't have to disclose to the public (or to competitors) how it's doing it.

At the same time, Tash said, "Our two principle risks are the flip side of our greatest assets: independence and security."

Independence could sour into insularity. Because it isn't part of a chain, the Times' fortune depends on a single geographic market. (It helps that its readership area has mostly boomed for a century.) The company also doesn't have the multiple points of reference to the world that a larger company might have. Tash said the Times broadens its contacts by owning a limited number of other publications: Congressional Quarterly is a major player in the world of federal government; Florida Trend magazine interacts with a state-wide business leadership, and Governing magazine reaches state and local political leaders across the U.S. The company also makes a point to cross-pollinate its homegrown management with hires from elsewhere, he said.

Similarly, security could breed complacency. Barnes recalls a time when the company was so "sloppy" and sure of itself that it blundered into several ill-advised and expensive failures — a chain of statewide business magazines, for example. "If we're not careful," said Tash, "we can find ourselves thinking we're above the dynamics facing the rest of the world. One of the positive things the Bass affair did was to shake the company's sense that we were immune to the laws of physics."

The biggest risk may be personal.

"In this company," Tash acknowledged, "I think it would very difficult to protect against a CEO who was careless or desultory in exercising his responsibilities. That's why it's so important to choose well." In accordance with Poynter's will, each CEO appoints his own successor; Poynter left control to Patterson, who gave it to Barnes, who gave it to Tash, who, assuming he serves until retirement age, will be the last Times chairman to remember Poynter personally.

"I'm not persuaded," Tash continued, "that public companies are models of oversight and that those checks and balances have been so effective." He mentioned the Tyco, Enron and Adelphia scandals. "The assertion of accountability is much stronger than the evidence for it in those companies."

Tash prefers to rely on a quality that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller attributed to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the fourth-generation leader of the family that controls the publicly owned New York Times. "Somewhere deep in Arthur's soul," said Tash, paraphrasing from memory, "he believes he will burn in hell if he screws this up. I think that's at least as effective a check on a CEO's authority and responsibility as a board of directors that may or may not have the interest, acuity and time ...."

In practice, no CEO's power is absolute. Barnes describes vigorous discussions among his board of directors during various strategic decisions. Ultimately, every judgment was his, but that didn't end the process. "One of the things I found is that giving an order never works," Barnes said. "You have to learn to work through these decisions as you go along."

Barnes, who held the top job for 15 years, did allow that it took a few staff changes to find the senior executives he was comfortable working through.

Tash's accession was by no means a surprise. He became the heir apparent in 1992, when he was named executive editor of the paper. Barnes had asked several candidates to write an essay about what they considered the newspaper's chief challenges and how they would meet them. But he also considered other factors: "What had they taken on, and how did it come out? When you looked, you could see that Paul had already taken on a bunch of my tough stuff."Barnes also considered such intangibles as the candidates' ability to maintain relationships. "You want to have a feeling, is this person sound? You don't want somebody who's going to go weird on you and call you from St. Anthony's."

Paul is certainly not the sort of person to "go weird." Disciplined, thoughtful, articulate and decisive, he admits that his "sharp tongue" can be intimidating to some, so he tries to watch what he says. Beneath his carefully crafted exterior and Midwestern emotional reserve, however, there lies a sense of responsibility and idealism that is too little valued in American business.

Four years ago, Tash became editor and president, which put him in charge of the business side of the company as well. As a result, there was nary a blip when Barnes retired and Tash took over last month. At an informal luncheon with reporters, someone asked Tash if he planned to "shake things up." No, Tash replied. If he did, then the shaking would have already occurred. "My fingerprints are already all over what we've been doing."

The big question now: Whom will Tash name as the next potentate?

"I don't know who it will be 15 years from now," he said, "although obviously, because it is the most important single decision that anyone makes in this job, it is in the back of my mind."

While much could happen during those years to influence the choice, prudence requires that someone be named now in case Tash gets hit by the proverbial bus. Those arrangements were formalized the Friday before Barnes retired, but the name will not be disclosed.

Why not?

"I have my reasons," the unflinching Tash replied with a smile.

Planet editor Jim Harper can be reached at 813-739-4854 or at [email protected].

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