Nelson Poynter · 1976
By W. Stephen Hart
In a 1975 memorandum, the publisher of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Time and Evening Record left instructions for the day of his death. “Most newspapers overplay most death of newspaper people. Let’s not do this in my case. A one-column head, no comment or a bunch of silly tributes. And it’s a one-day story.” Which is how the papers covered the death of Nelson Poynter on June 16, 1978.
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.
Nelson returned to Indiana for college at Indiana University. He served as editor of the Daily Student, where he fought the Ku Klux Klan on the editorial and news pages. He received his B.A. in 1925. He went on to earn a master’s degree in economics from Yale in 1927 before entering journalism.
He 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, he 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.
He 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 first 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.
Poynter was much honored for his civic involvement. He was given Indiana University’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1958, and he received honorary doctorates from Stetson University College of Law, Florida State University, Eckard College, the University of South Florida, and Indiana University. Poynter was an Associate Fellow of Stillman College, Yale University, and an honorary president of Sigma Delta Chi. He was elected to the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1976.
On June 15, 1978, he 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. He was survived by his mother and his second wife, Marion E. Krauss Poynter, who was an editorial writer for the Times before their marriage.
Nelson Poynter’s contributions to journalism were significant on many levels from the financial to editorial, from the theoretical to the practical. His newspaper career, first as a cub reporter on the St. Petersburg Times, began when he was 11 years old and lasted until he was 74. Those 63 years were productive and illustrious. He reached his first renown for his battles with the Ku Klux Klan from the pages of Indiana University Daily Student, where he was editor as an undergraduate.
During the years preceding and following World War II, Poynter was in the nation’s capital, where his contributions influenced people in all sectors of the Western Hemisphere. He came to Washington in 1939 to help improve press facilities in Latin America. In 1941, under General William Donovan, he was the organizer of the Foreign Information Service, which started the country’s overseas short-wave radio network, the Voice of America. With his first wife, Henrietta, he founded Congressional Quarterly, Inc., which publishes Congressional Quarterly and its sister publication, Editorial Research Reports.
In 1954, he established the Poynter Fund to honor his father. That foundation has given thousands of dollars in grants to journalism students in American colleges. In 1972, the Poynter Fund awarded $500,000 to Indiana University for a project aimed at bridging the credibility gap between citizens and institutions of American government. Poynter also served as co-chairman of the fund drive which resulted in the Ernie Pyle Hall journalism building renovation.
Poynter also founded Modern Media Institute, an educational institution to meet journalism education needs not being met by existing institutions. The newsrooms of both St. Petersburg newspapers were used by students as working laboratories in connection with the institute. But beyond his financial support toward journalism education, Poynter was a newspaper man of note, both in a business sense and in a news sense.
His newspapers were active under his leadership, covering news and taking editorial stands. Among the honors won by the papers were a National Headliners Club prize, a citation from the University of Missouri for Distinguished Journalism, and the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in connection with a series on corruption in the Florida Highway Authority. The papers took vigorous stands on causes, including civil rights long before the Supreme Court decisions in 1954. Along with that, his papers were financial successes. In 1953, when Poynter became editor, the Times’ circulation hovered under 18,000. When he died, the Times’ Sunday circulation stood at 250,000.
Poynter was an honorary president of Sigma Delta Chi and an inductee into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1976.
While his contributions and career were centered on the field of journalism, Nelson Poynter had an impact in other areas. Two of his chief concerns were Indiana University and the Florida West Coast.
Poynter was a life-long supporter of his alma mater. In his lifetime he was said to have donated over $1 million to Indiana University. A contribution of particular interest came in 1972, when he gave $500,000 for a project aimed at bridging the credibility gap between the citizenry and the institutions of American democracy on all levels. Poynter was co-chairman of the 1974 fund drive to remodel the IU School of Journalism, Ernie Pyle Hall. The Poynter Fund also made scholarship aid available to students at that institution and other schools on the IU campus.
Poynter’s favorite slogan, in speech and print, was that St. Petersburg and the Florida West Coast should be the “best place in the world to live,” and he committed himself to the pursuit of that goal. He played a key role in obtaining federal funding for the experiments leading to the concentration process for the citrus juices which revolutionized the citrus industry in Florida. He was credited by then-Gov. Warren Fuller with having been a principal influence in the state’s construction of the original span of the Sunshine Skyway in 1950-54.
In his “best place to live” philosophy, he emphasized educational opportunity. He was a prime mover for the establishment of Florida Presbyterian College, the expansion of Setson University College of Law at Gulfport, and the location of a St. Petersburg branch campus of the University of South Florida. Through the Poynter Fund, he also donated generously to cultural and social welfare programs in the area.