I asked Frank Blethen, whose family has controlled The Seattle Times for five generations, if we might see the Poynter experiment repeated on a larger scale. His answer was an unequivocal no. “It’s a pleasant campfire tale,” Blethen said. “But the key point why you won’t see it again…is that you have to give up most of the value in the organization, and it’s very rare for a family to do that.” Blethen thinks a more practical solution is legislation and incentives that encourage a variety of media-ownership models. “On a local and regional level, independent newspapers are still a nice business, with eight, ten, twelve percent returns. It’s the big public ownership model that’s falling apart.”

This was the very train wreck foreseen by Nelson Poynter, who died three decades ago. If his legacy to journalism is no more than having provided a viable example of nonprofit newspaper ownership, as well as a living reminder that at least some newspaper owners see their publications as more public trust than cash cow, then that’s surely enough. As Paul Tash put it, channeling the spirit of his benefactor: “Every community deserves a newspaper that loves it best.” 

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Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.