S: Would you say that Nelson Poynter was also a motivator or teacher of sorts?
P: Absolutely. I had three tremendous determinants of my course in life. One was
my mother. One was Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution with who I worked
for twelve years in Atlanta. And the third was Nelson Poynter who taught me
over the last seven years of his life so very much.
S: Could you tell us how Nelson Poynter was an idealist?
P: Nelson simply believed injustice for the poor and the unfortunate. Nelson
himself, because of his tremendous ability, never knew poverty. But he felt for
the people who did. Very, very early in the south, perhaps the very first of the
big southern daily newspapers to come out for desegregation and obedience to
the Supreme Court's 1954 decision of desegregating the schools, was the St.
Petersburg Times under Nelson Poynter. The man's whole life, I think was
marked by a feeling for the underdog. Especially when he achieved great
wealth and power, he felt even more strongly his debt to those who didn't share
his good fortune. This does not mean noblesse oblige in the old chivalrous
southern meaning. It means a deep, heartfelt feeling for his fellow man. He felt
S: From 1933 to 1947 you served in the U. S. Army as a tank commander under
General George Patton. When you returned to the States you worked as a
reporter at the Temple, Texas Daily Telegram and the Macon, Georgia
Telegraph. What drew you into journalism?
P: I liked to write poetry even as a kid. It was pretty pitiful stuff. But I read a lot. I
was a bookworm as well as a fairly active boy. I tried to maximize what
strengths I had. And those lay in the area of the humanities and literature and
less in the areas of science and mathematics, where his strength lay.
S: Are there advantages to working on a small paper versus the large paper?
P: Back in the days when Bob Pittman first came here, or Don Baldwin, it was a
fairly small paper. The great thing about working on a little paper is that you get
to do a little bit of everything. I was a cub reporter on the Temple Daily
Telegram. I landed there because it was the first town I cam to when I left the
Army post. I went into that newspaper and I asked for a job as a reporter, and
they hired me in 1947. Consider some of the stories I covered. I covered the
city commission. The first weekend I was there I covered a high school football
game, a rodeo and an armadillo fair? You know, when you can do al of this it is
good training. Then I went on to the Macon Telegraph, still as a cub reporter.
We had three reporters on the staff, which meant that I got the Mayor's office, all
of City Hall, the City Council, and I had Macon Hospital emergency room. I had
the police and the fire departments. You think I wasn't on pavement every day
of the week? It was a great training period.
S: When the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown Decision was announced, I believe yu
were in London working for United Press.
P: Yes, I was the bureau chief for UP.
S: Nelson Poynter's editorial reaction at the time, if I can read from there, was "A
major blow for man's freedom has been struck. America can take pride in the
patience and common sense of its white and black citizens that this major blow is
being made through our courts rather than through brawls and violence. Our
highest court has recognized that legal validity to the concept of segregation
does violence to the spirit, to the dignity of those who are segregated." At this
time you called up Ralph McGill and tried to get his initial reaction to this
Supreme Court decision?
P: Mr. McGill had, even before that decision was made, written a famous column,
and the headline on it was "Someday It Will Be Monday." You know the
Supreme Court handed down its decisions on Monday, and he knew that Brown
decision was before them, and he was preparing the readers of the Atlanta
Constitution even then that the Supreme Court might rule that segregation in the
schools was illegal. Mr. McGill was a bona fide hero. He did as much I think as
he could. One time he went back in the 1960s and was looking at some of the
old editorials and columns he had written in the forties and fifties on the racial
issue, and he came into my office and he shook his head and he said "Gene, I've
got to tell you it's pretty pale tea." And he said, "I hope they never look them
up." Of course, everybody will look them up and say "Who was the great
southern editor? Where did he stand in 1954?" He stood about as far out from
the pack as he dared. But then, as the years went on, he pressed the outside of
the envelope and he moved further and faster, I think, than any other southern
editor, except Nelson Poyntyer. But Nelson had the ownership of the paper.
He controlled the newspaper and could not be fired. Mr. McGill was standing on
the precipice every day of his life in the 1950s and 1950s. By the early 1960s
he was speaking very plainly on behalf of southern blacks, on behalf of the
Supreme Court, and excoriating the segregationists and pointing out that they
were misleaders of their people.
S: At this time in the 1950s when you were editor of the Atlantic Constitution you did
work with Ralph McGill. He wrote of your relationship "Gene and I, despite the
gap of years between us, had the gift of being able to talk with one another in the
ful meaning of the word. We could talk philosophy, ethics, morality, books,
poetry, history, men and meanings. He and I would often talk about ourselves
and how we had put our feet on paths that had brought us together in mutual
respect." And you said of him, "I was fascinated with him, with his great range of
his mind, the depth of his understanding, the utter clarity in his heart. There was
a human warmth about him that drew me to him as it drew all men. I wanted to
learn, from listening to him telling stories and readying poetry, what he had over
the years learned from the living-the song in the language, the music and the
mystery of life, the cadence of the passing days and seasons, reverence for
lasting things." Now my question is, was your relationship with Ralph McGill, in
many ways a teacher also, anything like your relationship with Nelson Poynter?
P: Totally different. They were utterly different men. Ralph McGill was a literary
man. Nelson Poynter was not. Ralph McGill was a master writer. Mr. Poynter
always had some difficulty clarifying his syntax. McGill was a poet, he was a
Welshman subject to dark moods, and Nelson Poynter was as steady as a rock.
He did not have ups and downs. Ralph McGill sometimes under pressure
became very bellicose and belligerent. He would punch you in the nose.
Nelson Poynter never lost his composure. Sometimes you felt you wanted to
protect Ralph McGill because he was such an honest, open, big hearted man
that you felt he would be taken advantage of. And to some extent I was one of
his bodyguards, because I was a little more worldly than he was, to protect him
from some of the pressures that beat in on him.
Nelson Poynter needed nobody. He mastered every situation that he went in.
The last thing you could think of about Nelson would be that he was a helpless
man. He was the courtliest of men, the politist, and in many ways the gentlest.
But just as touch as nails. And that toughness, that entrepreneurial
understanding of the business world, that experience of the commercial arena
which Nelson Poynter had as the manager of a great enterprise was something
totally outside the experience of Ralph McGill. But how fortunate I was to have
been able to see both of these men in action because they had such great
strengths of their own. And they had many similarities. Nelson Poynter loved
to be first. He was very proud of having introduced could type instead of hot
lead printing into American journalism, of having committed the St. Petersburg
Times to offset presses in 1970 when most big publishers said you could not run
those presses at speeds high enough to handle our great circulation. He alwyas
like to pioneer, to be first at things. And to that extent, Ralph McGill too hd that
quality of audacity.
They both had independence of mind. I have seen both of them sit in a room
where a consensus formed, and usually the consensus formed around the kind
of conclusion that was safe. And if they thought it was wrong, alone in the room
they would say "I disagree." But they both would fight, they both had great
courage, and I think more similarities than dissimilarities.
Above all they had a feeling for their fellow man, a commitment to the less
fortunate, the courage to act on that commitment and on that conviction. They
both had an abiding faith in freedom. That sounds corny, but in the lives of
these two men who are heroes of mine that word had great meaning. They
believed in freedom versus totalitarianism, versus authoritarianism. They
believed in individual freedom and the right of the individual human being to have
dignity and to make his or her own life. IT was a consuming belief of both these
And so, though I say they were totally different, and in many ways they were, in
many ways they were the same because in my view they were great men.
S: As the 1960s began, and you were editor of the Constitution, you often wrote
about the subject of blacks and civil rights. About this time Nelson Poynter
received a letter which said "Warning. Dear Sir: Keep all nigger news out of
your paper or you will meet with an early death. We have proof that you are half
nigger. Leave us whites alone in peace. Agitate on race and you will die and
soon." This was signed "An organization to keep America white."
Do editors, Nelson Poynter or yourself, receive threats like this? And what is it
like when you get something like this in the mail?
P: Well, they are routine. Bill Hartsfield, when he was mayor of Atlanta back in the
1950s, once told me, "Don't worry about all that hate mail, or those telephone
calls that come from people cussing you out and threatening you." He said,
"Any coward who's going to write you an anonymous letter or call you
anonymously on the telephone is too much of a coward to do anything." He
said, "The only fellow you've got to worry about is the guy you never hear from!"
S: One specific case in point might be your Pulitzer Prize-winning writings attacking
the Georgia Legislature's failure to seat Julian Bond. Did you get much heat
P: That was just one of ten editorials. The Pulitzer rules are that somebody
submits ten editorials that exemplify your work for a whole year and one of those
editorials happened to be the Julian Bond editorial. It's not factual to say that's
what won the Pulitzer Prize. It was the body of the work for the year. But most
of that work did center on civil rights questions such as the Bond question. And
yes, 1966 when I was doing that writing was about as rough a year as I ever had.
Because the south was extremely restless. The decision was not yet made as
to whether the South was going to close its schools or admit blacks. That's so
recent. It seems incredible. And yet in that period the pressure I suppose of
that year was about the toughest that I ever encountered. And yet it was the
point where you could begin to feel that mountain move. You could begin to say
"We're going to win this thing. The south is going to do what's right." And you
know, once it started moving it moved all the way and the South is going to do
what's right." And you know, once it started moving it moved all the way and the
South with absolutely astonishing speed accepted desegregation and did it in
better grace than many parts of the world.
S: Another issue during this period was Vietnam. Both you and Poynter supported
the war at first. Why did it take so long for you to come out against the war?
P: I was at the Atlanta Constitution at that time of course. But sure, I was one of
the later ones to change. I suppose it was sixty-seven or sixty-eight before I
finally lost hope. The construction I placed on that war, because I knew Lyndon
Johnson, the President, fairly well, and I trusted his instincts, and I know his view
of that war, was totally different from that of the critics of it. I was wrong,
because we undertook something we couldn't achieve; and therefore realism, if
nothing else, should have led me to foresee the tragedy that was coming. I
didn't. But I was taken with what Lyndon Johnson's motivation was in that war.
He felt in that period that we had a duty to the poor of the world. He felt that
communism was making great advances in the world because it had something
to offer the poor and that capitalism seemed to offer nothing, and if we continued
down that road then freedom as we know it was going to perish. Khrushchev
had come out with his wars of national liberation strategy, and this was what was
happening in Vietnam.
Then, too, Ralph McGill and I, in supporting this war, were of a generation that
had seen Munich in World War II, had seen Korea, which had many parallels to
Vietnam. And so, we made the mistake in Vietnam of assuming that was not a
civil war...and that the South with American support as we had offered in Korea
could defend itself. Johnson's feeling was that...we try to do something to help
the have-nots of the world. And he looked at South Vietnam and here were a lot
of Catholics who had fled the North. The people themselves didn't want to rush
into the arms of Ho Chi Minh. The South Koreans wished to be independent
and wished to defend themselves. The South Vietnamese, if they did, never
developed the leadership that could achieve that end. And so we wnet deeper
and deeper into a conflict that had no end and ultimately became a terrible defeat
for this county. I wish that I had the length of vision at that time to know it, but
coming off the histories of my lifetime, World War II and Korea, I couldn't foresee
it, and neither could Lyndon Johnson. So, perhaps I stayed too long hoping we
could with dedication to the goal pull out at least some deadlock as we did in
Korea and walk away from it, and we didn't. So we were totally defeated, and I
looked pretty bad in retrospect on that.
S: You knew Lyndon Johnson through the Civil Rights Commission that you were
working on. Did he ever tell you what he thought of southern editors, for
instance, or Nelson Poynter or Ralph McGill?
P: No, he didn't talk much about them. He liked in private to talk about the New
York Times and the Washington Post. Lyndon Johnson had a great feeling of
being persecuted by anyone who went to Harvard. He never quite got over the
fact that he only went to Southwest Texas State Teachers' College. A s John
Connally once said, "Johnson's great failing was that he was ashamed of being a
Texan." Well, Johnson, with all his bluster I don't think was really ashamed of
being a Texan, but he had an inferiority complex a yard wide. And so anybody
with a Harvard education and who put on airs and worked for the New York
Times or Washington Post, he just automatically assumed "That's the enemy."
It consumed much more of his time than it was worth. He appreciated southern
editors who supported what he was attempting to do in civil rights. And there
weren't many of us who would just come right out and say "Look, let's do it
because it's right."
S: In 1968 you addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors and told of
your trip with Jack Knight as part of the President's mission to South Vietnam to
view the elections. What was your sense of what was going on then?
P: I had been to Vietnam first in 1964. We only had 23,000 Americans there at that
time. They were advisers. Kennedy had started putting them there. Johnson
had put some more. I went and spent a week in the Delta with a helicopter
company, Americans, who were simply there supposedly advising the South
Vietnamese, but they were fighting. Then I went up to Danang and Hue and
went into combat with a battalion of South Vietnamese rangers up in the Ashau
Valley because there had been an ambus of some South Vietnamese arored
personnel carrier the night before. We went in by helicopter and killed and
captured the people who had done that. In that period when the war was so
small it seemed to me that there was no question but that the South with
American help could win it. By 1967, I went back to Hue, this was just two or
three months ahead of Tet, when Hue was destroyed. I went back as a part of
this group, with Jack Knight, a big dove on the war and I had been a hawk. So
we were the two editors who had decided if one would go the other would and be
a part of this group that President Johnson had asked us to join just to watch the
polling places to see if we thought there was going to be an honest vote.
Well, in Hue that time I saw things that led me to have some very serious doubts.
I had dinner with Robert Shaplen in Saigon who was the New Yorker
correspondent and the most knowledgeable man in Indochina. He'd never been
caught up in the political ideolgoies which were causing such shrill debate in this
country. I remember looking down this table at Shaplen and I said, "Bob, what
do you think now, here in 1967, the outcome of this thing is going to be?" He
paused a moment, and he said "I'm beginning to think we can't hack it." To hear
Shaplen say that then shook me. So when I came back I started reassessing.
When we got back, Johnson asked us all to come to the Cabinet Room at the
White House and he went down the line expecting glowing reports. He came to
Jack Knight and Jack said "Well, anything I've got to tell you, I'll tell you in
private, Mr. President." Then he turned to me, and I didn't hold my tongue. I
said that on the whole it was remarkable that there could be a vote at all out
there. I'll never forget Johnson's eyes. He was looking at me-and he had eyes
like a water moccasin anyway, you know-and those black eyes were literally
snapping with surprise and then anger that I wasn't performing the way that he
expected me to perform. He immediately shrugged his shoulders and went on
to someone else. But from then on, from that look in September of 1967, I
began saying, "It's entirely possible we're wrong."
S: The Washington Post, which you joined in 1968 as managing editor, wrote of
Nelson Poynter at the time of his death. A good number of us at this paper
knew Nelson Poynter as a friend as well as a professional colleague. And as a
leader in our business we respected him for his unique, many-layered
contribution to both journalism and politics." What was the nature of the
Washington Post-St. Petersburg Times relationship? It seems to be something
beyond what most newspapers have.
P: Well, Nelson Poynter and Katharine Graham were good friends. Long before I
knew Nelson they were friends, and also Phil Graham, her husband who later
committee suicide. Phil Graham and Katharine came to St. Petersburg early on
when Phil was told by Kay's father, Eugene Meyer, that he was to run the paper.
One of the first things that the two of them did was to make a trip to St.
Petersburg at Nelson's invitation and he walked them through the St. Petersburg
operation, everything from the press room right up to where the reporters were
and showed them how we did things. He was very proud of the
independent-minded way in which he had constructed a newspaper company.
And he loved to show other people. And he always sort of felt that Phil Graham
and Kay Graham were worthy people that needed his instructions. He offered it
and they eagerly accepted. Donald Graham, Kay's son, has been down here.
We have a close relationship. And, of course, I worked for three years at the
Post. Then, too, Nelson was quite a figure on the Washington scene. He
founded in 1945 Congressional Quarterly, which is one of the more influential
national publications now, and probably the most influential one covering the
legislative branch of the United States government. And so, that gave him a
Washington visibility that brought him to the attention of serious political
observers such as those at the Washington Post.
S: Do you know how Nelson Poynter felt about your printing of the Pentagon
P: He thought it was a good job. Then Pentagon papers-let's face it, there wasn't
a lot of news in them. There was a great hullabaloo. But once you go back and
read them, there wasn't a great headline in the whole bunch. All you had there
was simply documentary evidence supporting what we had been printing for the
last couple of years-that some of the figures from Vietnam were wrong, that
some of the motives for our activities out there were not being frankly told to the
people. We had been reporting all of this, reporting informed sources,
interpretive analyses, whatever. And all we did with the Pentagon papers was
have the supporting evidence to show that this was all true. So it wasn't that big
a deal. It became that big a deal simply because of the Constitutional challenge
that the President put to the Post and Times.
S: What papers did Nelson Poynter admire?
P: Oh, the New York Times. He felt that it was a great newspaper. He saw the
erratic qualities in the Washington Post, but he also saw the great people that
were assembled there. But any newspaper that has people like David Broder or
Meg Greenfield, or headed by someone of the quality of Katharine Graham and
her son Don, these are magnificent people. I won't say the ones he didn't
admire. He did admire what Otis Chandler did with the Los Angeles Times. It
had been a very bad paper and became a very great newspaper under young
Otis in a city that didn't support Otis politically all too well in some of the changes
he was making. Nelson always admired the Chicago Tribune, not for Colonel
McCormick's right-wing anti-British politics, but he admired any singleminded
publisher who put quality first. And the Chicago Tribune spent the money and
hired people to put out a quality newspaper, even though its editorials made
He admired very few chains. He strongly believed that conglomerate journalism
was the ruination of newspapers because when you own more than one
newspaper serving one community, then which community do you love the best?
Which do you put first and serve the best? How do you keep your mind
undiverted if you are publishing papers in several towns? He never understood
that and never wanted to go that route. He felt it would not be playing fair with
the people who demanded and had a right to demand his full, undiluted attention.
But among the chains he admired Jack Knight, John S. Knight, of the
Knight-Ridder newspapers, because Knight had that quality of single-minded
devotion to integrity and quality and to editorial independence from business
pressures. As long as Jack was alive there was no way that the Knight-Ridder
business side could intrude itself into the news operations because Jack Knight
made that clear. Nelson believed that public ownership of newspapers was a
threat ultimately to their free expression. Because suddenly when you have
public shareholders, as he once said, "How do you know who's buying up your
shares if you're trading then on the New York Stock Exchange?" Knight felt he
could create an organization that would keep his values intact after he was gone.
Nelson felt that once he turned loose the closely held control of the privately
owned Knight newspapers and put them into the public arena that ultimately
those commercial impacts that beat in on any enterprise that is publicly traded
were going to beat in on the editorial standing of his own newspapers. They
were a little bit estranged as a result of that, plus which I understood that Knight
wanted to buy the St. Petersburg Times, and nothing could outrage Nelson more
than for anybody to offer to buy his paper. As if they wouldn't know he would
never sell his paper!
S: Did he get many offers?
P: Oh, yes, constantly. And I do. But you know the routine answer is "these
newspapers are not for sale to anybody at any price."
S: These papers that you mentioned, what did they think of Nelson Poynter?
P: Only the very best knew Nelson Poynter. He was not a self serving man. He
did not seek publicity and did not like it. He did not even want a funeral, and did
not have one, because he said that people do not like to go to funerals. He
didn't want more than a one-column story of his death on the front page of the St.
Petersburg Times, and that is by golly what we put, because he told me if we put
more he would come back and haunt me! And I think he might have! Nelson
was a genuinely modest man who felt that his actions would speak for
themselves, and that if they were worthy their worth would be found out. The
Jack Knights, the Katharine Grahams, the Punch Sulzbergers, the Otis
Chandlers, and many, many others recognized quality. They studied what he
did and revered his way of going. And so now that he is gone I think the
greatest monument to Nelson is not necessarily the St. Petersburg Times or
Congressional Quarterly or Florida Trend which we acquired after he died, or
Modern Graphic Arts, Inc., or the other enterprises. The great monument, I
believe as the generations go on, is going to be The Poynter Institute for Media
Studies, the educational institution that he founded. Nelson had a very unclear
idea of what he wanted to do, but he knew that more and better training was
needed in American journalism for the younger journalists. And so he left it
pretty much to us to evolve at The Poynter Institute what training that's going to
be. And it's already doing enormously important work in writing, in design and
graphics, in ethics, in really exploring the outer edges of ethical questions that we
otherwise might want to dodge. As time goes on the Ethics Center at the
Poynter Institute is going to be very important. These are areas of unique
training that don't duplicate any other educational undertaking.
Let me tell you one thing that I am very impressed with. We went out and
looked for the very best writing instructors at American universities. We said to
their deans, "Identify your top people and we will bring them to St. Petersburg to
The Poynter Institute and put them in contact with the other professors who are
doing the best job of teaching writing in American journalism schools. And then
they can learn from each other and we will put together here a series of seminars
that will teach journalism teachers the best work that is being done in journalism
schools so they can then go back and multiply." The multiplier effect of this is
enormous. If we were doing nothing else at The Poynter Institute but
broadening the educational reach and experience of the professors in American
journalism schools it would be worth it. But we are doing so much more than
S: As we are still on the topic of other newspapers, across the bay there's the
Tampa Tribune. Was it important for him to have a rival over there that he could
be fighting against?
P: Oh yes. It worried Nelson if you had any diminishing of competition. He
recognized that competition was the lubricant of American enterprise and without
it people get fat and complacent and lazy. He enjoyed the competition with the
Tampa Tribune. And Tampa, I think, is a better paper because of us. So it is
great to have two good newspapers going head to head in the market.
S: By 1971 you were on the faculty at Duke University as professor of the practice
of political science. Was it here that you were approached to work at the St.
P: Yes, I was at Duke. At the time that I had determined to leave the Washington
Post becuase that place was not my home, I had lunch with Nelson Poynter in
Washington at the Metropolitan Club. I told him that I was leaving the Post and
he said "Well, I'm just not really doing a very good job there and I'm just not
happy, and so I'm going to move on." And I said, and this is quite true, that I'd
been in the news business long enough now that the only publisher that I still
wanted to work for was Nelson Poynter. I'd looked all over the country, and that
would be it, and if he needed me I was available. If he didn't need me I was
going to go into teaching and write my books. So I went on to Duke. And within
two months of taking up my teaching duties at Duke I get a telephone call from
St. Petersburg and Nelson said "Come on down, I want you to run the company."
And I said, "Now you tell me! I've got a commitment to Terry Sanford at Duke
University to teach." And I worried about this for about three or four weeks
before I finally told him yes. But I had to finish my commitment to teach a full
academic year at Duke, two semesters. So it was not until May of 1972 that I
came full time to work in St. Petersburg.
S: You once said that "What you find in Washington is only government. Out here
in St. Petersburg you find people." What did you mean by that?
P: The effects of policies made in Washington impact on people in St. Petersburg.
So there are two ways of looking at government. One is to run to Washington
and cover the process of making the laws, which Congressional Quarterly does
cover, and of the political process, the elections, the White House, the President,
and the Supreme Court. But the far more fascinating part of it to me is to be out
in American and to live out where those policies come rumbling down from the
Potomac and really impact on the lives of people who are living on social security
or are in veterans' hospitals, or who are unemployed or who are rich and don't
want to pay taxes. All of these Washington decisions affect lives out here,
whereas in Washington they're just theories.
S: Once at the St. Petersburg Times you had to deal with the "Standards of
Ownership." What exactly are the "Standards?"
P: The "Standards of Ownership" are a set of declarations that Nelson Poynter
wrote down and proclaimed when he acquired the controlling stock from his
father in the St. Petersburg Times. Here he was, with this busted little old
newspaper where literally sometimes he would have to walk over to Doc Webb
and get the payment for tomorrow's ads in order to meet today's payroll at the St.
Petersburg Times. He was having to take thousands of dollars a week out of the
cash drawer at St. Petersburg to meet the payroll at Congressional Quarterly in
Washington. He was living on a shoestring. His profits were infinitesimal, if
any, and yet, I guess this was 1947, he proclaimed this long set of standards.
He said "Once we start making a profit we're going to share the profits with the
people who work here." He said that he did not believe in chain journalism,
therefore he would neither start a chain nor be acquired by a chain. We would
be an independent newspaper with mind undiverted by newspapers elsewhere.
S: "Ownership or participation in ownership of a publication or broadcasting property
is a sacred trust and a great privilege."
P: That sounds, if you want to be sophisticated and blase about it, that sounds
pretty corny. The interesting thing about Nelson Poynter though, and you have
to understand this, is that he meant it. He did regard being publisher of a
newspaper as a sacred trust, and his life demonstrated that.
S: "A publication or broadcasting station must be aggressive in its service to the
community and not wait to be prodded into rendering that service."
P: He believed that a newspaper was a major part of a city structure in a town like
St. Petersburg, and that you have certain civic duties to the United Way, to the
museum, to the symphony, to the educational institutions. And if you are
making a profit, you should give back some part of that, plow it back into the
community where you made your money. He also learned something from his
father that he once told me. Paul Poynter. He said, he as in the office once
day when a delegation of St. Petersburg businessmen called on his daddy and
said they were collecting money for some good cause and hope that the Times
would contribute. He said his father immediately got out a check book and
wrote a check and handed it to these people. And as they got up to leave they
said, "We want to thank you very much." And Paul Poynter, according to
Nelson, replied, "Don't thank me. I thank you. You're taking your time and your
energy to go out and do good works in this community, and all I'm doing is
handing you a check. You're the one and I thank you very deeply."
S: "Adequate and modern equipment is vital for successful publishing, but it is
secondary to staff."
P: He was a bear for equipment. He wanted the best presses. He wanted the
best photo-composition machines. He wanted to be first. And he believed
instead of paying out too much money in dividends and starving his machinery,
he wanted all the best before he paid out the dividends. But he never lost sight
of the fact that the people that you are handing those tools to use are the most
important factor. You can buy the best presses in the world, but if you do not
have the best pressman in the world running them then you have wasted your
money. And he kept the human element always foremost. "Number one" he
said "is our reader. Number two is our advertister, and number three is our
staffer. The management and ownership of this company owes a great debt to
those people who do the work of getting out these papers every day." And he
S: "A publication is so individualistic in nature that complete control should be
concentrated in an individual."
P: As far as one-man control goes, in his lifetime he had complete control of the
paper because he had sixty percent of the voting stock, and therefore he could
turn it. So he believed deeply that one solid publisher should have the total
responsibility fo rhte successes and the blame for the failures of a newspaper.
It's a living organism, and you cannot have a committee blundering around trying
to make co-sensual judgements as to how to run it. You need somebody who
will have the authority to take the blame if he's wrong, but to be decisive if he's
right. But after observing him when he was chairman of the board, I saw that he
never, ever lost his understanding that he needed other people. He needed his
board of directors. They were expert in many fields in which he was not. The
fact that the control is vested in one pair of hands makes you extremely careful
not to misuse it. Because to get arrogant and start throwing your weight around
with an organism as sensitive and as fragile as a newspaper capable of doing so
much damage... The newspaper has great power to hurt people. And so you
really have to come to the control of a newspaper like that with a great regard for
other people, including the people you work with because you need them very
S: We read on the editorial page that the poicy of the paper is to "tell the truth."
What is that?
P: Isn't that wonderful! John Quinn of Gannett was writing an article on why
newspapers should have a written code of ethics. And so I wrote an article
saying why newspapers should not have a written code of ethics. Now how do
you describe infinity? Each day we run into ethical questions that scatter like
quicksilver. There is no way to write a lit of them. Oh, we offer integrity and
fairness and accuracy against abuse of power, and all of this stuff. But to start
putting down specific incidences where a code of ethics will give an iron bound
rule to follow, it is impossible. Because each day brings an entirely new
sunburst of ethical questions. And the staff knows this. We do not take free
trips. We do not take freebies from people. We do not have conflicts of interest
in investments or involvements or anything that would conflict with our jobs. It is
just generally known what our ethical standards are. But to write down a list of
them? What you can write down is a marvelous motto such as that-"The policy
of our paper is very simple, merely to tell the truth." And this insures you against
some contingency lawyer who gets somebody to sue you for libel and gets up
trying to sway the jury with some heated peroration.
S: Did Nelson Poynter believe this is the best paper in Florida?
P: Yes, he did. He would not put that out there for a long time. But it was after
they had won the Pulitzer Prize, I guess in 1962, that he decided, well, the paper
had come far enough now, it was the best, and so he made that claim. Now, of
course, the Miami Herald does not agree. And the Orlando Sentinel now is
saying it is the best newspaper in Florida.
S: What was a good story to Nelson Poynter?
P: Nelson's mind ran very strongly to substantive stories, government stories,
international stories. He felt that the readership of the St. Petersburg Times,
which is an extraordinary one... If you stop and think of the number of retired
people in our part of Florida who have been retired diplomats, generals,
professors in every discipline, teachers, all kinds of people of advanced learning
out there who know a little about everything in the world, they are reading the St.
Petersburg Times every day. And he had a great respect for those people.
S: So it would be a story of politics, maybe, or something like that would grab his
P: Yes, politics. Well, freedom, as I mentioned earlier. ...that is exactly what his
guiding mission was, to preach freedom, to believe in freedom as the basic
institution in human life. Nelson believed that politics was an extremely
important part of this. We as a newspaper have a duty to let those people know
how that President and that Senator and that Congressman are doing.
Otherwise they won't know how to cast their votes. So he was a bear for
coverage of politics and government. He believed in the institutions of this
country as devoutly as the founders who wrote the Constitution did. He really
was a student of how a free society governs itself. And he believed that a
newspaper was essential to that. Without free information, a society cannot
govern itself and will be misled by demagogues and misused by totalitarians and
freedom will die. Therefore to him journalism and the free press were the very
central linchpin of freedom as an institution. He was not a sentimental man at
all, too touch for that. But he would speak of matters of the heart unashamedly
and he would speak frequently. I remember the last television tape that he
made. He said, "You've got to believe that freedom will prevail because
wherever you have let the cork of repression part way out of the bottle, whether it
was Franco Spain or whether it is going to be some communist society, wherever
you let that cork halfway out of the bottle it's going to pop all the way out,
because people will be free. He deeply believed that. But he was so deeply
moved by these matters that you have to recognize that there was an
enormously strong conviction at work in the man.
S: Did it bother him that they [Local Unit of the Newspaper Guild] were even trying
to start a union within the paper?
P: Yes, it always bothered him. It is the most debilitating thing that can happen.
With Nelson, I think it probably hurt worse. You have to remember that Nelson
Poynter is not anti-labor. His editorial position supported the Wagner Labor Act
back when every business in the country was trying to strangle it in its cradle.
He supported repeal of the Taft-Hartley law back in the 1940s which was what
labor supported. He strongly believed in organized labor where it was needed.
But then he made a personal pledge to himself through his "Standards of
Ownership" that he was going to run a company that would do what it ought to do
without being forced to do it by its employees. And so, he felt that it was a
repudiation of management if this company ever, operating under the
"Standards" that he laid down, so departed from the needs of its staff that it had
to be unionized and a third party come in and require him to do what he should
S: How did he divide his time?
P: When I came here as editor and president, what he called chief operating officer,
while he remained chairman and chief executive officer. He determined in his
own mind that no matter how hard he had to try he was going to step back and
let me run the company. He knew that he had to do that, because he was
getting up in years. He was not going to live forever. He was very realistic
about that. He knew that if he continued to do everything that I would continue
to do nothing. Now he was always there. He was always abreast of what was
going on. I made sure that he knew every day every key thing that was
happening around the company. I would talk to him and I would seek his advice.
But the decisions were not his, they were mine at that period.
S: Nelson Poynter in the Times would publish from time to time the paper's editorial
philosophy. If I can I would like to ask you just a few of the points. "An editorial
is not important until a group of people, a civic organization or government,
breathes like into it."
P: That is true. A newspaper has no power except the power to persuade. You
can write editorials until you are blue in the face, but if nobody is persuaded by
them, then you do not have any group of citizens or any part of government
taking action to implement what you are calling for. Therefore, you might as well
not have written it.
S: "The St. Petersburg Times staff regards a newspaper as a service rather than a
P: Of course it is. As a commodity all it is [just] a bunch of paper, you see. What
is written on that paper is the service that you perform. The courage with which
you editorially state your views, the integrity with which you report the news, the
courage to fight entrenched power whether it be public or private if it is damaging
the well-being of the public. You must do all these things. This is the service
that a newspaper performs. A commodity, my goodness. A commodity, that is
just the actual tangible material that goes into the newspaper, the ink and the
paper, and that is worthless if it says nothing.
S: "Our goal is to be the best." How important is that?
P: That is extremely important. That is why we have assembled here on this west
coast of Florida what I think is pound for pound the best newspaper staff in
America. They came here because Nelson Poynter was here, because he set
up certain standards and said "here in this place," and it could have been any
place, but he chose St. Petersburg, "we are going to produce the best." And so
that is the simple and rather immodest goal that we are pursuing, and we have
never achieved and my never, probably never will, but it is the goal that
motivates what we do. If we do not become the very best, it is our own fault,
because we have here, thanks to that man, the capacity, the freedom, the
financial strength, the organization and the assembly of fine professionals who
have come because they want to work in such an enterprise. If we do not create
the very best newspaper there is, then it is our fault and our failure.
S: One of the major editorial issues that you confronted when you first came to the
newspaper was Richard Nixon. On October 22, 1973, the paper asked for his
resignation or impeachment, being one of the first papers in the country to do so.
Was that difficult for Nelson Poynter to come out and ask for the resignation of
the President of the United States?
P: No. Not in the case of Nixon. Because Nelson felt from the days of Helen
Gahagan Douglas out in California that Nexon was a man of flawed character.
The Checkers speech in 1952. The man's entire record during the McCarthy
era. He engaged in what Nelson felt was demoagoguery. Nelson felt, as I must
admit I did, that this man lacked a certain quality that a President should have.
It was once of my perplexities, and I think one of Nelson's, that the business
community of America represented by the Republican Party in those elections
voted so strongly and gave so much money to the election of Nixon, and yet I
always suspected that not one of them would have hired him to work for his
company. I just don't think he had the qualities that you have the right to expect
in a President. I remember in 1972 when Nixon was running against McGovern
and we recognized, our polls told us, that in Republican Pinellas County, St.
Petersburg, Nixon would win seven to one over McGovern. He turned and
grinned at me and said, "You're not going to endorse Nixon, are you?" So we
came out for McGovern, went down to a whale of a defeat, but we never came
out for Nixon.
S: What about the pardoning of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford. Did he had any
trouble with that?
P: Yeah, I think... I'm trying to remember. I think that he had more trouble with it
than I did. I sneakingly admired Ford for taking the heat and giving that pardon,
because it started breaking the thrall of Watergate on the society and started
putting it behind us. If we'd continued sticking pins into the Nixon doll for the
next year, you know it could have created a great malaise on the society. But
Ford had the courage to stand up and say "Oh let's forget the whole thing, get it
behind us, and go on about the purposes of America." So he gave the man a
pardon. I don't think that Nelson Poynter was quite as magnanimous in that
case as I was. I think he felt that it was questionable as to whether to pardon
S: The last President during his life was Jimmy Carter. Did he have much hope for
P: He admired Carter greatly. He enjoyed watching Carter in a news conference.
He was marveled at the man's grasp of detail, expertise, the fact that he had
done his homework and was so well informed about everything. He felt that he
was a well motivated man. He felt that he was a remarkably hard working, well
informed intelligent President. I know that he would not have cared for Ronald
Reagan. But then Nelson never cared for form above substance, and Carter
had the substance, but he did not look good on television, and he did not in the
last resort strike the American people as a leader. Well, Reagan, who has no
grasp much of detail, but a vast grasp of how to communicate to the American
people as a leader, is a totally different kind of President. And I don't think
Nelson would have approved of him as much as he did Carter.
S: But he also gave money to other places. The Poynter Fund Scholarship
Program, the Poynter Center on American Institutions at Indiana University, the
Poynter Fellowships at Yale. Why did he give up so much of his money?
P: Well, go back to those "Standards of Ownership." What you must do is give
your support to these causes and do it willingly without having to be pressed into
doing it. Again, Nelson Poynter believed in education. Next to journalism, it
was his great enthusiasm. But Nelson had a great faith in education and a great
feeling for his alma maters. He took his undergraduate degree at Indiana
University and felt a great debt to that school and a great affection for it. Among
his many services to it was that he gave them a million dollars. And the same
for Yale. He took his advanced degree in economics there, his Masters, and he
always had a feeling of debt to Yale and contributed another million dollars to
Yale so that some other young fellows out of southern Indiana like Nelson
Poynter could catch a larger vision of what's possible in a free enterprise society.
He believed in paying his dues and, if he had been fortunate, of turning back to
the people who had made it possible and sharing his resources.
S: Were there any other hobbies or interests outside of newspapers that he was
P: Everything interested him. But it ran basically to what newspapers do, that is,
public affairs. He loved to speculate endlessly about Presidential politics. He
loved to talk about he Kennedy clan. Bob Pittman once told me that he had the
shrewdest judgement of political races of any person he'd ever encountered. He
told me years ago, for instance, when I first came to St. Petersburg, he said,
"Teddy Kennedy will never be President." That was when everybody assumed
that Teddy Kennedy was getting into position to run after Humphrey. He said
"He's not Jack. He's not Bobby. Teddy Kennedy will never be President."
And it wasn't altogether Chappaquidic either that made him say that. He said
"Teddy Kennedy is a politician, and he's going to be a king-maker. He's going to
stay in the Senate, but he's going to be a great Democratic party king-maker and
will be the man who is instrumental in naming who the nominees are going to be,
but will never be the candidate himself."
S: Do you think he saw himself as an important figure in the history of journalism?
P: He did not. He truly was so modest that he never saw himself as becoming
famous as a result of the work he did at the St. Petersburg Times and CQ. He
saw the institutions themselves as being the important thing. The day he died,
though, he said a very strange thing to me. We had been to the groundbreaking
at the University of South Florida Bay Campus in St. Petersburg, and he'd been
one of the people with a shovel. Then we went to the Yacht Club for lunch with
all these fancy people making speeches lauding Nelson Poynter, because he'd
given a half million dollars to help acquire some of the land that those university
buildings were located on. He enjoyed himself, and everybody enjoyed him.
But everybody bragged on him that day. We left the Yacht Club to drive back to
the office. Coming back, he was ruminating, and said, "I have never heard so
many nice things about me." Then he sort of smothered a little laugh, and he
said, "They must think I'm going to die!" And that is the very day he died. We
got back to the parking lot, and I noticed he was having difficulty getting out of
the car. His leg was troubling him. Nelson hated physical disability, and hated
anybody to notice. So I waved to Jack Lake who parked his car nearby, and the
two of us literally had to support Nelson as we took him back to his office. And
then he said, "Isn't anybody going to do any work around here?," and made us
go back to our offices. But later, he tried to stand up and fell and his secretary
called us. We took him to the hospital. The last time I saw him he was in the
emergency room joking with Charles Donegan, his good friend, a doctor, making
jokes with him, insisting that I get on back to the office and do some work. He
died that night.
S: What would you say that you had gained from Nelson Poynter, both from a
professional and a personal basis?
P: I learned from Nelson, I guess, to be independent, to believe in your own mind, to
get away from self doubt. If you have gathered all the facts and measured them
against the weight of experience and reached what you think is a well motivated
decision, move on it, act on it. Have the courage of your convictions. Don't
ever be shy or frightened or filled with trepidation, but go out and seize the future.
Make things happen. It is very easy in many news rooms to let cynicism take
over. And nobody believes in any values because they've seen that nobody has
any for very long. In Nelson Poynter's case, I learned that you can't ever permit
cynicism to overcome your basic idealism. You've got to hold to a set of values.
You've got to believe. If you don't, nobody around you will. So, I learned from
him, don't be ashamed of keeping your ideals, because very touch minded men
like Nelson Poynter keep theirs and act on them.
S: Mr. Patterson, is there anything you wold like to add here at the end of the
P: I somehow believe that the enduring, ongoing monuments that Nelson Poynter
left here...the St. Petersburg Times, the Congressional Quarterly, The Poynter
Institute for Media Studies, will demonstrate as the years go on what the life of
that founder meant. He was in every sense the founder of this enormous
enterprise that is so highly motivated and so successful. Successful materially,
because he believed-without saying it, because it is a little too Biblical for
him-that bread cast upon the waters does return many fold. He believed that
quality was its own reward, and that if you do things, as he put it, "better, faster
and cheaper" in American free enterprise, then you'll get your reward. And
certainly through the St. Petersburg Times and its growth, devoted to quality and
the very highest ideals, it has led to the assembly here of extraordinary people on
its staff, to an extraordinary readership to who it's totally dedicated, independent
of any other newspaper connection.