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Poynter Institute’s struggles mirror the Times

Unlike nearly every newspaper in the United States, the Tampa Bay Times stands out in one regard: The paper is owned by a small, nonprofit journalism school down the street called the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

In recent years, the Times has leaned on that nonprofit to improve its finances, but both are struggling financially.

Poynter ran deficits for the past several years, and in 2012 it put “excess” land up for sale. It started looking for a fundraising chief in 2012 because support from the Times was no longer “viable,” according to Poynter’s job listing.

Nationally, news organizations that used to send staffers to Poynter for training have cut back on their travel and training budgets. Poynter has responded by offering more online training courses, but the organization’s expenses still outweighed revenues by $1.7 million in 2012, according to tax filings.

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The relationship between the Times and Poynter creates overlapping lines of authority.

Though Poynter owns the Times, Paul Tash is both chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Co. and chairman of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Four of 10 trustees listed on Poynter’s website either work for Tash at the Times, work for Poynter or are retired from one of the two. Five board members are independent.

Such dual-control arrangements sometimes happen in the nonprofit sector, for instance a church that owns a for-profit hospital, said Cristin Conley Keane, an attorney with Carlton Fields Jorden Burt who advises nonprofits.

If the same people manage both organizations, Keane said, they must figuratively change responsibilities each time they switch jobs during the day. “We counsel people a lot if they wear two different hats,” she said.

The newspaper’s business partners occasionally participate in the school’s fundraising efforts.

The Tampa Bay Times has a sponsorship deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to place its newspaper logo around the team’s baseball field, and the team regularly donates $25,000 a year to Poynter, according to tax filings.

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Poynter and the Times are linked financially in other ways. Poynter’s federal tax filings list “loans or loan guarantees to or for” the Times, including $11 million in 2009, $3 million in 2011 and $15 million in 2012. Poynter Director of Business and Finance Jesse Perez said they are not direct loans from Poynter to the Times. “The Times got financing,” he said in a January interview with the Tribune, with Poynter assets effectively put up as collateral. “I don’t know for what, and Poynter is a guarantor on the loan,” he said. “There are multiple guarantees. One is some of Poynter’s property.”

Though that’s not something the Times or Poynter publicizes, one public document in 2012 gives a peek into that relationship. When the Times Publishing Co. took out a Community Bank & Co. loan in 2012, deep within the document was a list of guarantors for a $13 million loan and a $3 million loan, with Poynter listed right under the Times. The person signing on behalf of the Times: Paul Tash, with his title of president of the Times underneath. The person signing on behalf of Poynter: Paul Tash, with his title as chairman of Poynter underneath.

Such an arrangement, with a nonprofit guaranteeing a loan for a for-profit subsidiary, puts the Times and Poynter in a “gray area” of federal tax law, Carlton Field’s Keane said. That’s because tax law prohibits a nonprofit from giving money to a for-profit subsidiary, which would give that subsidiary an unfair advantage.

If ever pressed on the issue, she said Poynter might argue its relationship with the Times supports Poynter’s educational mission.

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While Times reporters have often investigated nonprofits and charities and the paper has published an ongoing series titled “America’s Worst Charities,” Poynter stumbled in getting its own nonprofit properly registered with the state.

Poynter failed to file paperwork with Florida to register as a nonprofit entity until 2009, decades after the Times patriarch Nelson Poynter established the school.

Eventually, Florida officials noticed, said Aaron Keller, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, which requires certification for any organization to solicit funds in Florida. “When the department became aware that the Poynter Institute was operating outside of state law in 2009,” he said, “we worked with them to come into compliance and registered them as a charitable organization.”

Despite financial struggles, some staffers for the Times and Poynter take home compensation several times the average household income in Pinellas County.

Poynter Trustee and Florida Trend President and Publisher Andrew Corty took in $333,538 in 2012, while Trustee Andrew Barnes took in $233,217. Tash received $505,843 in compensation from the Times in 2012, which included a $318,431 bonus.

In January, Poynter hired a new president, Tim Franklin, a former Bloomberg News editor. Reached by email, Franklin said he still had much to learn about the organization, but offered this thought:

“Poynter is a special and highly respected institution in journalism,” he wrote. “These have been challenging times in journalism, and Poynter is not immune from those challenges. But, I’m confident Poynter will be an innovative and positive force in leading the way toward journalism’s future. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that.”


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