Nelson Poynter, 74, a major figure in American journalism who was Chairman of the board of Congressional Quarterly and of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and Independent, died Thursday night in St. Petersburg.

Mr. Poynter, known nationally as an independent innovative editor and publisher, became ill in his office in St. Petersburg about 2 p.m. and was taken to a hospital, where he died about eight hours later. Death was attributed to a cerebal hemmorhage.

A man of great personal warmth and charm, Mr. Poynter was an energetic, demanding publisher and a tireless crusader who fit the mold of the fighting editor.

Committed to both editorial excellence and the American free enterprise system, he believe firmly that a good newspaper could make a profit, and that higher quality and greater commercial success went hand in hand.

It was also his philosophy that every community deserved good government and that it was the responsibility of a newspaper to expose bad government wherever and whenever possible.

Under his leadership, the Times, which had a circulation of 17,581 when he became editor in 1939, recently reached a Sunday figure of 250,000. The influence of the newspaper grew as well.

One of the highlighs of his career came in 1964 when the Times won the Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service for an expose of the Florida Turnpike Authority.

Described as a tough boss who was sparing with compliments but still fun to work for, he took the occassion of the Pulitzer award to demonstrate his belief that every member of his newspaper's staff contributed to its success and had a replica of the gold medal distributed to every employe.

A foe of the Ku Klux Klan in his days as editor of the campus newspaper at Indiana University, Mr. Poynter used the pages of the Times to express his opposition to racial discrimination long before the 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down school segregation.

In addition to winning renown as one of the first newspapers in the South to express strong opposition to segregation, the Times over the years was known for exposing questionable conduct by Florida state and county officials, and for advocationg progressive legislation and needed public projects.

Fascinated by politics, he and his second wife, Henrietta, maintained an apartment for many years in Washington, where Congressional Quarterly, often known as CQ, was launched in the mid-1940s.

A widely respected source of news and information on Congress and government, the publication for many years lost money and was subsidized by the Times. It continued to receive Mr. Poynter's close attention, however, and began eventually to return what are described as handsome profits.

Mr. Poynter was born in Sullivan, Ind., Dec. 15, 1903, the son of Alice Wilkey Poynter and Paul Poynter, who was publisher of the Sullivan Times.

"There was never any question of what my career would be," Mr. Poynter said. "Journalism was in my blood from childhood."

The elder Poynter bought the St. Peterburg Times in 1912, and before he was a teen-ager, Mr. Poynter went to work as both carrier and cub reporter.

In 1938, after holding posts as a news or business executive on five other papers, he became an executive of the Times, whose stock he had begun buying from his father. He became president of the paper in 1953 on his father's death, and chairman in 1969.

His paper became known as one of the first to introduce the cold type printing process.He also introduced an employe profit sharing plan, which a former Times editor credited with minimizing labor troubles.

He believed that all employes should have what he called "go to hell" money, so that if they did not believe in the paper and wanted to quit they could tell the boss to go to hell.

Mr. Poynter was known as a liberal owner who was committed to his conservative area.

"Florida has lost a great man," Gov. Reubin Askew said last night.

Survivors include Mr. Poynter's mother, his third wife and two daugt-