Trusts Today (2): Turning failing newspapers into publicly owned trusts?

Excerpted from David Bollier:

“That’s the template that we ought to be exploring more aggressively: converting vital private businesses into public trusts that legally and financially belong to the public. Just look at how the St. Petersburg Times has prospered under just such an arrangement. Upon his death in 1978, the paper’s owner, Nelson Poynter, established a trust as the majority shareholder so that the paper could continue to be independent and enterprising.

As the paper recounted:

Although he left a widow and two daughters, Poynter stipulated in his will that most of his stock in the paper would go to a nonprofit educational institution that he established to help train working and student journalists. The institution would own majority interest in the Timesand its stock would be voted by an executive whom Poynter designated as his successor. That ensured that his beloved newspaper would not have to be sold to pay estate taxes. It also would be safe from chain ownership.

Today the St. Petersburg Times remains a locally controlled, locally responsive newspaper that generates high-quality journalism – while the rest of the industry reels from leveraged debt and clueless absentee owners. Profit-hungry Wall Street investors keep clamoring that journalism compete with all other investments — which virtually ensures that serious journalism will be watered down into tabloid crap. Which is one reason why readers are fleeing and the bottom line is plummeting. A different revenue model could produce perfectly great journalism. A model that must pay competitive returns on investment to global capital cannot.

Rather than waiting for enlightened business families or individual moguls to step up and save us, it’s time for us to save ourselves. Commoners should propose and agitate for their own deals to take control of newspapers, sports teams, utilities and other services that are central to their communities. Why let investors whose only priority is personal profit loot vital local businesses and drive them into the ground?”

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