Poynter’s will left three-quarters of his shares in the Times Publishing Company to the school, with most of the balance going to his wife and children (these shares, too, were eventually given or sold to the institute). More radically, Poynter granted his designated successor the sole authority to vote those shares, as well as the exclusive power to name his own successor when the time came. This lucky individual receives no direct financial benefit from the proxy, but essentially wields total control over both the newspaper and the institute, including the ability to set his own salary. And today, that unassailable position is occupied by Tash. He serves as editor of the Times, chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Company, and chairman of the board of trustees of the Poynter Institute, giving him the kind of operational clout that Donald Graham or Arthur Sulzberger might envy.
Tash presides over an intricate capital structure. The Poynter Institute owns the shares of the Times Publishing Company, which in turn owns the St. Petersburg Times, Congressional Quarterly, and several smaller publishing ventures. Roughly two-thirds of the profits generated by the publications go to the Poynter Institute in the form of dividends from the publishing company. As Tash is quick to note, this means that the paper must make money for the institute to receive its annual funding. So, the market pressure is still there—mitigated, of course, by the fact that the executive who controls the paper (Tash) also decides how much money should go to the owner (the institute), which he also controls. It’s a closed loop, and a virtuous one in the minds of most journalism boosters.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t occasionally tension between the institute and the Times. In 1976, its first full year of operation, the Poynter Institute had four employees, ran eleven seminars for 267 students, and leased 4,500 feet of cheap, downtown office space. By 2007, it had over sixty employees and offered 120 programs and “webinars” for nearly 64,000 students, both on site and online, not to mention costs associated with maintaining its nearly six-acre campus. This is a fairly large tab for the paper to pick up. In 2006, for example, the combined revenue of the company’s publications yielded about $6.2 million in dividends for the Poynter Institute, about two-thirds of its total funding.
Tash says the goal is to keep the profit margin of the Times above 10 percent, roughly half of what most newspaper companies demand. (He also acknowledges falling short of that benchmark in the last two years.) But despite this more modest target—and despite the undeniable advantage of having a nonprofit as your ultimate boss—the Times faces the same problems as almost every other newspaper. Its advertising revenue is sensitive to the local real-estate market, which was soft even before the recent meltdown in subprime lending and seems unlikely to recover any time soon. The paper has cut about 10 percent of its newsroom staff in the last year, and shrunk its physical size as well, absorbing the attendant decrease in the newshole. In an attempt to capture younger readers, the Times has also launched a free daily tabloid, the tbt*/Tampa Bay Times, but Tash acknowledges it is still losing money at this point. He expects it to start showing a modest profit by the end of 2008 (ahead of internal projections). In January, the company also announced it would sell CQ Press, Congressional Quarterly’s successful book-publishing division.
Still, given the pressures most newspapers contend with, reporters and editors at the Times know they have it good. “We’re aware of the structure and how it’s special,” says Neil Brown, the paper’s executive editor, who goes on to call the Times “a jewel of American journalism.”
A Model Problem