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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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March 19, 2008 11:43 AM

Newspaper ownership models

Posted by Ryan Blethen

The era of independently owned newspapers has passed. That does not mean the model can't make a comeback. An essay in this month's Columbia Journalism Review, which can be found here, looks at one of the few remaining independent metro newspapers and its ownership structure.

The essay by Douglas McCollam about the St. Petersburg Times raises a number of questions, the most interesting being, can the St. Pete model work in other metro markets? The St. Pete Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a private foundation that also houses a school for journalists. I, like many others in this profession, have been to a number seminars at the Poynter Institute.

The St. Pete Times was not always owned by a foundation. Nelson Poynter chose to put his newspaper into the hands of the foundation. McCollam uses a telling Poynter quote that explains why he felt relinquishing family control was for the best:

"I've never met my great-grandchildren and I might not like them."

This line gave me a good laugh as I am part of the family that owns The Seattle Times. Poynter could have also said that he had yet to met some future manager that would be running the foundation. I am glad my great-grandfather believed in his genes.

This brings me to my point. The Poynter model seems to have worked in St. Pete, and at a number of smaller newspapers. Journalists should not dream too much of their newspaper becoming the next Poynter. There are not that many metro newspapers left owned by families. And it is probably unlikely for those remaining families to essentially give away their newspapers. Even more unlikely would be a corporate chain deciding to get out the business in this fashion.

Seattle Times publisher, and my father, Frank Blethen is quoted near the end of the piece. He suggests that independent ownership could be achieved through legislation and incentives. This is an idea worth pursuing, and could lead to a variety of models that are structured to meet the needs of communities across the nation.

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