Nelson Poynter “at home” in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom, circa 1974.
Lou Kubler (USF St. Pete’s Student Government president in 1971) presenting Poynter an award at the groundbreaking for Phase I campus expansion on June 15, 1978. Poynter died later that day.
107 S. Indiana Avenue Bloomington, IN 47405-7000 USA
Poynter received Bachelor of Arts from Indiana University, in 1924.
New Haven, Connecticut 06520, USA
In 1927, Poynter obtained Master of Arts in economics, at Yale University.
Poynter received Bachelor of Arts from Indiana University, in 1924. In 1927, he obtained Master of Arts in economics, at Yale University.
Nelson Poynter was around newspapers and journalism for most of his 74 years. His father was the publisher of the Sullivan (Ind.) Times when Nelson was born in 1903. The family moved south in 1912, when Paul Poynter purchased the St. Petersburg Times. Nelson worked on the paper as a child, moving from carrier to cub reporter. His first story, on pioneer commercial aviator Tony Jamus, was printed in 1914.
When Nelson returned to Indiana, he served as editor of the Daily Student, where he fought the Ku Klux Klan on the editorial and news pages.
Nelson worked for Scripps-Howard and other publishers around the country in a variety of editorial and business roles for the next 11 years. In that time, he worked for the Kokomo (Ind.) Dispatch, the Columbus (Ohio) Citizens, the Minneapolis (Minn.) Star, the Washington (D.C.) Daily News, and the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun before he started work for his father in 1938.
Beginning in 1935, Nelson began buying stock in the Times from his father. His first job at the paper in 1938 was general manager. In 1939 he became editor and by 1947 had become the Times’ majority stock holder. He became president of the Times Publishing Co. in 1953, on his father’s death, and chairman of the board in 1969, a post he held until his death. Nelson Poynter’s career, however, extended far beyond the St. Petersburg Times.
Nelson went to the nation’s capital in 1939 to help develop better press facilities in Latin America. In 1941, working under General William Donovan, Poynter organized the Foreign Information Service, which later started the short-wave radio network known as the Voice of America. He and his second wife, Henriette, founded and served as chief executive officers of Congressional Quarterly, Inc., the news and political research organization that specializes in congressional research. Later he added another Washington-based publication, Editorial Research Reports. His father’s death in 1953 brought him back to St. Petersburg.
Poynter established the Poynter Fund in 1954 to honor his father. The charitable trust finances projects enhancing educational opportunities for young people dedicated to journalism careers. He also founded Modern Media Institute, an educational institution that is chartered to meet journalism education needs not being met by existing institutions. Its students were given the Times and Evening Independent newsrooms as working laboratories.
Nelson Poynter’s charitable interests ranged far beyond journalism to good government on the local level, civil rights, and increased cultural opportunities for the citizens of the West Coast of Florida. The two papers championed all of those causes in a vigorous and plainspoken manner.
On June 15, 1978, Nelson helped break ground for a St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida and then received a plaque which praised his efforts in bringing the campus to the city. Poynter became ill in his office later that afternoon, was admitted to St. Anthony’s Hospital, and died at 10:16 p.m. of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Poynter believed that the editorial page was the con-science of the newspaper, and to a great extent the conscience of the community in which it is published. From the beginning, Poynter was determined to protect the Times from public and chain ownership, which he believed would generate destructive interference. Stockholders, he felt, would exert demands for short-term dividends and attempt to influence editorial policy. Poynter further believed he had something special to offer that the chains did not have: a passionate interest in the welfare of his community. He deplored the idea of investment analysts looking over his shoulder. The chains, in turn, accused Poynter of being too liberal and intellectual for a sleepy conservative town like St. Petersburg.
At the time of Poynter’s death, more than thirty percent of the residents and nearly forty percent of the voters were sixty-five or older, typically, middle-class Republicans from the North. The newspaper they found themselves confronted with was derided by Time magazine as the “St. Petersburg Pravda.” Nevertheless, Poynter zealously advocated causes such as civil rights, slum clearance, and better welfare pro-grams. He cherished a deeply held belief that the owner-editor’s responsibility was to lead the community in reform, even if that meant taking unpopular stands. Long before much of the South had accepted the inevitability of integration, Poynter stressed the economic, social, political, and moral bur-dens that segregation had placed on the South.
He welcomed controversy and debate, fighting to save his rival newspaper the Evening Independent of going under because he thought the community could only benefit from having more than one voice to turn to. When all else failed, Poynter acquired the Independent, becoming, in effect, a monopolist struggling to break his own monopoly.
Poynter’s editorial policy was characterized by a commitment to support the cause of right rather than popularity, but he could be a man of apparent contradictions. He endorsed the cause of women’s equality, and yet he saw no conflict in his membership in private clubs that barred women. "Most men have very dull wives", he once explained.
Despite his support of unions’ right to organize, he fought to bar them from the newsroom, taking issue with their self-interest and hierarchies. His professed desire to pay above-average wages did not always translate into reality, and he lost some of his best reporters in the 1970s when their salaries dipped below national averages.
Nelson Poynter remains, however, a colorful figure in newspaper history. He stands out as an uncompromising, independent, and innovative leader in an era when chains were gaining increasing dominance in publishing. He placed excellence ahead of wealth and popularity, and made his newspaper one of the finest the country has had to offer.
Poynter married Catherine Fergusson, but in 1942, they divorced, and, the same year, Nelson married Henrietta Malkeil, former editor at Vogue and Vanity Fair. Henrietta died in January, 1968. Nelson married Marion E. Knauss, St. Petersburg Times editorial writer, in 1968. He had two children from his first marriage: Nancy and Sally.