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Newspaper no longer a 'viable' source for support, media institute says

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:27 PM
TAMPA -

The renowned Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg is turning to new funding options as officials acknowledge their traditional source, the Tampa Bay Times, can no longer finance its parent organization.

The nonprofit Poynter Institute is recruiting new philanthropy experts, launching a massive fund-raising drive and exploring land sales as financial support from the St. Petersburg-based newspaper is "no longer viable."

"These have been difficult times," said Poynter President Karen Dunlap. The institute's posh campus with the bay view makes "a number of people think there's a huge pot of gold in a closet somewhere in Poynter. That's not true. I've looked."

That acknowledgment, along with an April 24 online advertisement for the Poynter philanthropy job, opens a rare window into the financial status of the normally private Times operation.

The Times sells more copies than any newspaper in Florida and often advocates for transparency in major institutions, yet the paper declines to provide details on operations, including revenue, profits, layoffs and annual contributions to Poynter.

A closely held, for-profit company, the Times is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, which the Internal Revenue Service classifies as a school.

The paper's patriarch, the late Nelson Poynter, set up that arrangement in the 1970s to protect the Times from potential takeovers and establish a school for professional journalists.

At its campus and online, Poynter hosts hundreds of classes each year for beginning, mid-level and senior media professionals on subjects, including basic story-writing and advanced social media technology.

Even in normal times, tuition payments for those classes cover only a fraction of Poynter's expenses, which stood at $8.5 million in 2010, down from $9.6 two years before. Out of Poynter's $6 million current annual budget, only $2 million has come from foundations and local fund-raising drives. A periodic "dividend" from the Times normally helps close the gap.

Now, however, fewer news organizations can afford to send staff to Poynter for classes — eroding the tuition base — and the Tampa Bay Times cannot afford payments to Poynter to support all operations.

The Times and the newspaper industry as a whole are undergoing wrenching changes as more readers and advertisers go online, and papers in cities as large as New Orleans end daily distribution.

In response, the Times is cutting back, shedding reporters and selling assets.

In February, the Times signed a deal to sell a nearby parking lot in downtown St. Petersburg to an apartment developer. Though the price wasn't disclosed, the land was assessed at $2.8 million. The Times also sold a Clearwater bureau building for $2.2 million.

Though Times officials declined to comment on finances for this story, Poynter's filings with the IRS reflect the financial challenges the newspaper faces.

Revenue at the overall Times Holding Company has been falling, according to Poynter's official tax filings. Times revenue in 2009 stood at $274.7 million, which included the sale of its Washington-based Congressional Quarterly publication. Times officials declined to say for how much.

Then in 2010, revenue fell to $159 million, a drop of 42 percent. At the same time, assets, including physical property, stood at $122.9 million in 2008, then $113.4 million in 2009 and $83 million in 2010.

Still, Poynter and the Times stand out in the area by paying some employees more than 10 times the average salary in Pinellas County.

According to the most currently available IRS documents, Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash took home a salary and bonus totaling $518,261 in 2010. Dunlap was paid $261,291, while Poynter treasurer and Times Chief Financial OfficerJana Jones received $300,610.

Poynter faculty such as television expert Alan Tompkins received $174,006 and writing specialist Roy Peter Clark received $168,463.

The Times and Poynter operate in separate buildings in downtown St. Petersburg. But in a sign of their cooperative relationship, Tash is simultaneously chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Co. and on the board of trustees of Poynter.

The Times has dispatched reporters to cover events at Poynter as news items. Last week, the Times media critic reported on a TEDx seminar at Poynter about the future of journalism. The Times has published articles quoting Poynter faculty in stories, including those about the financial challenges facing its competitor, The Tampa Tribune.

For its part,the Tribune is up for sale as its owner — Media General of Richmond, Va. — shifts its emphasis to television and digital information operations.

In December, the Tribune began layoffs totaling 165 people — a reduction of 16 percent in the total workforce. The newspaper reported these details and shared them in a news release to other news organizations.

The Times recently reported it had ended a payroll cutback of 5 percent, but company officials also asked the IRS in March for permission to defer payments into employee pension funds, which could total $11 million.

"Coming up with that money would require measures harmful to the company and its employees," Tash wrote in a letter to members of the pension.

This leaves Poynter in a new situation: asking for handouts.

In March, Poynter formed a foundation to solicit donors. And in late April, the institute posted a job opening: President, The Poynter Foundation/Vice President, Institutional Advancement.

"The world is increasingly full of talented, even courageous individuals who want to report the story, who want to be a useful part of history in the making," the job posting reads. Unfortunately, it continues, "Journalism is now going through the perfect storm," with changing technology, a major recession and a "legacy business model."

Poynter can play a role in helping: "But the way that it has been funded for all these years, through the unique ownership model of the Tampa Bay Times … is no longer viable by itself."

Newspapers simply can't offer the kind of "generous dividends" required for Poynter to remain vital as a national journalism training institute, the job posting said, and "strategic thinking" over the past few years suggests the newspaper model won't in the future.

The new vice president is charged with doubling outside grants within two years, launching an endowment drive and leading a new foundation staff.

Donors should not, however, expect their money will go to support the newspaper.

Nonprofits such as Poynter are "absolutely not allowed" to pass donations down to a for-profit subsidiary, said Cristin Keane, a partner in the Tampa office of Carlton Fields that specializes in non-profit law.

Poynter already conducts some fundraising and recently received donations of a few hundred thousand dollars from the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation and others. Dunlap expects the new vice president to call on groups like that again.

Poynter could seek donations from government-affiliated groups, such as national endowments for the arts or humanities, but has "steered clear" of those groups in the past, Dunlap said, partly out of a concern about a potential conflict of interest because journalism plays a role of government watchdog.

Dunlap is also moving to raise cash quickly.

Poynter owns several vacant lots to the west and south of its campus, and rents out a nearby building. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser lists a dozen properties under Poynter's ownership. Not counting Poynter's own campus and parking, they're together appraised at $2.5 million.

Dunlap met with real estate agents last week to finalize plans to market the properties, and she remains hopeful, given that major hospitals and universities are expanding nearby.

"Times have been uncomfortable," Dunlap said. "But we are making the transition."


rmullins@tampatrib. com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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