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.