Karen Dunlap

Karen B. Dunlap is president of The Poynter Institute. She is also the co-author, with Foster Davis, of "The Effective Editor."

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Push for Parity: 5 lessons for the next generation of women in leadership

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This essay is the first in our Push For Parity essay series, featuring stories about women in leadership in journalism. For more on our series and details about how you can contribute, see Kelly McBride’s essay introducing the project.

Maya Penn owned the stage when she presented her entrepreneurial businesses last year during her TED Talk. She created animated cartoons with computer viruses and superhero plant pollinator as lead characters and she manufactured eco-friendly clothes and accessories. In addition to showing technological and development skills, CEO Penn also displayed real spirit as she strolled on stage sporting a liberated afro.

When Maya made that talk last December, she was 13 years old.

Yes, we can achieve in amazing ways. Women impress as leaders in a range of interests and disciplines, including journalism, in ways I never would have imagined when I was 13. After progress over the years, I also wouldn’t have imagined how problems of bias would linger and that at this point we would face losing ground.

My age of enlightenment in the 1960s and 70s brought monumental shifts in civil rights, especially for African Americans and women. Few factors affected my move to and tenure in leadership more than matters of race and gender.

The twin factors were at work when I finished high school and went to college with a scholarship from a group of powerful black women in Nashville’s Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The twins were there when I got job offers I didn’t take and was turned down for jobs I should have gotten, when I worked at newspapers, taught in a historically black college, then in a large, predominantly white state university and when I met the challenges of teaching all-knowing journalists and media leaders at the Poynter Institute and rose to president.

Race and gender intertwine in five lessons I learned about leadership and flavor my expectations for the next generation of female leaders.

Karen Dunlap, photo courtesy of Karen Dunlap.

Karen Dunlap, photo courtesy of Karen Dunlap.

1. We have champions.

Women and people of color can particularly find leadership bleak and lonely, yet we have to remember there are champions along the way, sometimes in unexpected places. I remember entering a departmental terror’s office with the goal of taking care of business and leaving quickly. I happened to comment on a jazz poster on his wall and the man immediately became my new best friend. He shielded me from problems and encouraged me from then on.

Andrew Barnes was one of my champions. An alum of The Washington Post, Harvard-educated and possessing a vocabulary that regularly sent others to a dictionary, Barnes was the CEO of (St. Petersburg) Times Publishing and chairman of the Poynter Board in 2002. He led in selecting a new president. He sought guidance from a series of interviews with journalism and news business leaders, including potential candidates. Butch Ward, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, conducted interviews. I was Poynter dean, second only to the President. After an extended conversation Butch asked, “Well, do you want to be president?” I did but I guess I waited to be anointed or to let things just play out. Thanks for asking, Butch. I spoke up. Ward completed his report. Barnes, with the approval of the board, appointed me president. It was a big step to place a black woman in charge of a prestigious institute, but he was willing to take a chance on me.

2. There are more with us.

As I took the position of president, I wondered if an older generation of white male leaders would relate to me. I found that as Poynter changed, other organizations were changing. I found more women and people of color in leadership, new thinking and folks who resisted biased.

That’s important because they can be cultivated as advocates.

3. Leading is still very hard work.

Let’s not forget, leadership is difficult. Even with outstanding colleagues like those I had at Poynter, leading is hard. Guiding people, upholding values, making wise decisions, responding when things go wrong, seeking solutions, all that is hard. In her book on leadership, Jill Geisler wrote that leaders disappoint people daily. Even when the leader’s intentions, skills and instincts are the best, someone will be let down. The big challenge for many over the last decade has been super rapid transformation fueled by disruptive technology. Creating and sustaining start-ups is hard. Managing transformation in long-established organizations is taxing. Making needed cutbacks and job shifts can be dispiriting. It’s nice to claim the job title; it’s better to enjoy the rewards of making a difference, still leadership is hard.

Add to that the challenges that people of color and women face as leaders. One of the “on top of everything else” burdens for me is simply walking into a reception or meeting to a group that is overwhelmingly white and male. Many of us try not to make a beeline to the only other two women or people of color in the room. I quickly learned to put on a big smile, stick out my hand and act like a politician as I approached someone whose body language says, “I don’t know you and don’t know what to say to you.” Women and people of color as fellow leaders are still a new experience for some. Economic trends might suggest that many of us will remain “the other” to those whose wealth allows them to isolate themselves. The question is will we as leaders seek to remove those walls for ourselves and others?

4. Our life lessons matter.

So we weren’t in that Ivy League fraternity and we didn’t have that rugby experience. I came to realize the importance of drawing on my life experiences instead of moaning about what I didn’t have. Years ago while leading a very lively and intellectually gifted faculty, I realized I was using lessons learned from raising two teenage boys as a single mother. I reached a point of telling my sons: I don’t care how tall you grow (or how long you talk), I’m still here, still in charge. I learned that once you resolve that internally, you don’t have to say much. I also learned to work through fear when times were tough, to be upbeat and optimistic. Our life lessons serve us well.

5. Resist inequality.

I grew up watching the large and small sacrifices made for Civil Rights. Then the Black Power movement advocated change by any means necessary. Years later, I had a quiet talk with noted newspaper editor John Seigenthaler outside Poynter’s amphitheater after a session on diversity. I asked, what will make a difference in a biased society. Seigenthaler said sometimes you have to sue, take cases of bias to court.

The key for women, people of color and others who experience or see inequality is to resist by small or large sacrifices and by any appropriate means necessary. Sometimes that means a quiet face to face talk to change conduct. That was often my approach. It helps to have mission and integrity on your side. Another step is modeling what’s needed by selecting and urging the selection of a range of voices in hiring and appointments. Maintaining a mix can be arduous and can require delaying selections, but it is worth it. Sometimes resisting means the loss of favor or a position; sometimes legal action is needed. I admire those over the years who stood up to make a difference. I often challenge myself: Am I resisting inequality. We need to constantly resist.

The future

Maya Penn is not a journalist, but I referred to her because she helps give me confidence about the future. That confidence is matched by concerns. I see the bright future in, not only Maya, but in others including students in Tennessee State University class, most of whom are women. They are bright, energetic, willing to innovate. I believe the move to entrepreneurship and intrepreneurship will help shift the ground on salaries and rewards. A broader field should help vary paths to success and circumvent many gatekeepers.

My concern is in the things that haven’t changed such as overwhelmingly white, male boards and a new territory of exclusion in new tech operations. The tech world has added women at the top but few women, blacks or Latinos throughout. Add to the problem the horrendous state of many public school systems and things could get worse with an unprepared generation. Each one of us has to make a difference in our area of influence.

The 13 year old entrepreneur on the TED stage builds on the best of the last half century. When I was 13 I had no idea how far I would go, and my best years are still ahead. I choose to focus on and believe in the best ahead for us all.

Karen B. Dunlap is President Emerita, The Poynter Institute. Dunlap teaches in the communications department at Tennessee State University. Read more

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John Seigenthaler was a leader of free speech, civil rights and journalism

John Seigenthaler spent an inordinate amount of time talking about one of his early reporting stories when he sat down for an interview with Poynter last year. The interview May 3 at his office in Nashville was in line with Poynter’s video series on news leaders and I was prepared to talk about his career.

He rose from reporter to publisher of The Tennessean newspaper where he worked with and nurtured excellent journalists as the newspaper drew national awards and recognition. He was beaten while working for Robert Kennedy during the Civil Rights Movement, and experienced transitions as he editorially led a community through the turbulent 60s to the 90s, served as a senior executive with the Gannett company and raised public understanding of the First Amendment.

So much to cover, but he kept talking about that one blasted story from 1954 when a man threatened to jump from Nashville’s Shelby Street bridge. “He wore a flannel shirt, a heavy neck tie and sweated profusely” on a hot day, Seigenthaler said. As a young reporter assigned to the story he talked with the man about 40 minutes then grabbed him when he looked toward the water and held on as police moved in.

I chastised myself for not moving the interview along, but Seigenthaler’s storytelling, the clear, mellow voice and vividness of details kept me quiet. In listening I heard four points that could help news leaders today.

John Seigenthaler could see individuals, changes, the big picture and he moved to help. He reached out to a depressed man on a bridge and through his journalism to and for others in need including those who faced injustice. A few years after the bridge encounter he met John and Robert Kennedy while assigned as Washington correspondent then a 1959 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. When Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General he invited Seigenthaler to serve in the Justice Department just as the Civil Rights battle heated in the south. His job involved keeping communication channels with those involved.

In the PBS documentary, “Freedom Riders”, Seigenthaler told of warning Diane Nash, a Fisk University student protest leader, of the dangers in leading Freedom Riders to ride an interstate bus through Alabama after others had been beaten in an effort to desegregate public transportation. He recalled his voice rose to a shout as she stood firm.

“Do you understand that you’re going to get somebody killed,” he said. There was a pause, then she said. “Sir, you should know we all signed our last wills and testaments last night.”

“Here I was …representing the President…talking to a student,” he said, “but she, in a firm and strong way lectured me.”

His sense of concern about others melded with his commitment to journalism and characterized his newspaper.

The second quality was that Seigenthaler was a student of journalism.
In talking about that hot day on a bridge he drifted into the art of interviewing, how it takes time to develop confidence with a source even as the clock ticks. Books filled his life and conversations and he urged journalists to find time to be well-read in general, well-prepared for an interview, even on short notice. “I never approached an assignment without…boning up…to cross that information bridge,” he said.

A third quality was that he cared about his city. Seigenthaler was born in Nashville and even though he developed a national reputation, even when he headed the editorial page at USA Today, he and his wife, Dolores, were never far away from Nashville, just as he said he was never far away from journalism. He knew leaders, past leaders and present, explained changes over the years, recalled memorable events. He knew people of various segments of society, hosted activities to assist worthwhile causes and was a steady voice on politics and civic life. He was an editor, invested in a city, who basically spent his career and life in that city.

Fourth, he stood for the First Amendment. In the final chapters of a very busy life, John Seigenthaler focused on the public’s declining confidence in news media.

“As I left the newsroom I saw polls that said people saw us as uncaring arrogant, unreliable,” he said. His answer was to raise the public’s understanding of the First Amendment. In 1991 he founded the First Amendment Center in association with the Newseum in an elegant building named in his honor on the Vanderbilt University campus.

“We think we can’t lose the freedom of the press,” Seigenthaler said, “but Alexander Hamilton said in the Federalist papers, ‘whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting (liberty of the press), must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.’ We can lose this free press.”

In speeches and conferences he promoted an understanding of and appreciation for a free news media.

In April the Nashville Metro Council voted to rename the Shelby Street Bridge in honor of John Seigenthaler.

On July 4th thousands walked across the bridge, a major entry to the city’s huge Independence Day observance.

It was a time to celebrate national freedoms and think about what matters in the nation and it was tied to a man who stood for news media freedom, who worked on things that mattered and helped a community bridge its differences.

John Seigenthaler dies at 86 Read more

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. The committee is looking for answers from Barra about safety defects and mishandled recall of 2.6 million small cars with a faulty ignition switch that's been linked to 13 deaths and dozen of crashes. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Leading Into the Wind: a talk on leadership in challenging times

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a speech presented by Karen Dunlap, former president of The Poynter Institute, at The Centre for Women in Tampa, Fla., on March 27.

This is a 1975 photo of Katharine Graham, left, first woman elected to The Associated Press board of directors, during a board meeting in New York City. (AP Photo)

Mary Barra warmed a seat this week that represented the downside of executive chairs. As General Motors CEO, she was primary spokesperson and target in a Congressional hearing on General Motors’ delay in recalling cars with a flawed ignition system. The ignitions can shut off the engine on drivers in motion and disable air bags.

Barra, who was named chief executive in January after being at GM since age 18, has apologized for the defect that is linked to at least 12 deaths. She said GM will cooperate with government investigations.

Big questions remain about the extent of human loss and corporate misconduct, but in the midst, Barra practices a familiar form of leadership.

She spent her career rising through the ranks at GM and reached the top, as CEO, just in time for what might become one of the biggest smackdowns of a major U.S. company for deceiving customers.

This is what I call “Leading Into the Wind,” a management form familiar to many senior executives, especially those in the news business. Many journalists launched careers driven by the desire to make a difference. They rose in an established, profitable business and reached leadership as almost everything changed.

Let’s define “Leading into the Wind” as taking on the normal challenges of leadership: promote the mission, set the vision, align staff to follow a strategy and achieve goals, help move the right people to the right place, keep the lights and water on and make sure people get paid on time, remind of policies, practices and ethical standards, serve as ambassador and chief cheerleader, provide honest communications AND stand for excellent products and services.

It is doing all that while guiding through gales, often unexpected ones, that rock routines and demand new directions.

Mary Barra fits the category although it isn’t clear what she knew about GM ignition problems.

She also fits another category, one for women selected for leadership just ahead of a crisis. It’s called the Glass Cliff. Some women leaders find themselves promoted through the Glass Ceiling to the Glass Cliff. Slate, described the cliff under the headline, “Condolences, You’re Hired!”

So what do you do when you find yourself Leading Into the Wind? Here are some points I learned as president of Poynter for a decade and what I’ve learned from others. I invite you to join in a conversation by adding any lessons you’ve learned.

Face Forward into the Wind

You are tempted to look back to what seemed like better times, but that’s no way to lead when the winds of change rage. Leadership calls for a commitment to an unknown future drawing on the best of the past, smart colleagues and current findings for wisdom to go forward. I found the need to challenge myself on measured steps forward verses foot-dragging. Leadership means advancing even in harsh and uncertain times.

Move with the Wind

My generation of recent or near retirees isn’t the only one experienced in leading through difficult times. News executives today try to stay ahead of shifts to digital to mobile to wearable devices. Tech company leaders face rapid changes and ever-changing competitors.

Individuals also move with the wind. Jill Geisler, head of Poynter’s Leadership programs and author of “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” said change involves learning and letting go. You see those changes in many lives.

Sheila Johnson’s early education pointed to classical music but she became co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and learned business skills that she used to become an owner of several professional sports teams, founder and owner of Salamander Resorts and a producer of the movie, “The Butler.”

Soledad O’Brien moved from anchoring to starting the production company, Starfish Media Group, to provide content for various media platforms. Jane Pauley captures the spirit of learning and letting go in her new book, “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.”

Stay Faithful to Your Mission

Ida B. Wells is a model of faithfulness to the mission. She was born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862, into the post-slavery era of hope, then repression.

She attended college, became a teacher and raised her younger sibling after her parents died. In her 20s, she was ordered out of the forward section of a segregated train and she refused. She sued the company and won, at least in lower courts.

Wells became editor of Memphis Free Speech and when three of her friends were lynched she urged blacks to leave Memphis. The city daily responded by calling on citizens to retaliate against her. She fled to New York then Chicago and became one of the era’s leading orators against lynching. The title of her memoir captures her mission. It is “Crusader for Justice.”

Clarity of mission inspires us, grounds us as leaders, provides a shared basis to call on others to move forward into the wind.

Step Forward/Take a Stand

One of my favorite pictures is a 1975 image of Katharine Graham heading a table of The Associated Press Board. She was the first woman elected to the board. In the photo, she looks unfazed and comfortable in a room of powerful men.

Graham could have been best known for her dinner parties. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought a failing newspaper called the Washington Post, built it and passed it to Graham’s husband, Phil. Kay Graham knew the purpose and mission of the Post and stepped up when Phil died suddenly even when she wasn’t expected to lead. She took tough stands and guided the Post to some of journalism’s finest moments, including breaking the Watergate story.

I had to step up to say I wanted to be president of Poynter after serving a decade in the number two position of dean. Leading meant taking stands, large and small, sometimes publicly, often in quiet conversations. Leaders have to do their best thinking and take a stand.

Draw on the Winds at Your Back

Facing tough times makes it easy to forget the winds at our back. Andrew Barnes was one of the winds at my back. He was chief executive of Times Publishing Co. and of the (then) St. Petersburg Times. As chairman of the Poynter Board, he led in my selection as president and was always a voice of wisdom. Faith, family, friends and fitness also provide my lifts.

Barra’s task won’t get easier when she completes the hearing. Heavy winds await. I’ve given my steps for Leading into the Wind. How about sharing your advice? Read more


A Poynter remembrance and tribute to Mandela

On a 2010 trip to Johannesburg, I relaxed on South African Airlines and watched the movie “Invictus” starring Morgan Freeman. It was a great way to watch the portrayal of Nelson Mandela’s move to bond his nation by supporting South Africa’s white rugby team. I came away concerned, though, that Freeman would form my lasting image of Mandela.

That won’t happen.

The tributes since Mandela’s death Thursday seal the real image of a man who stands alone as a force beyond South Africa, beyond our times.

His rise as president and as an international figure of grace, political acumen and healing enabled Poynter’s involvement with South African journalists. Allister Sparks, former editor of South Africa’s legendary newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail, met Poynter’s former president, Robert J. Haiman, in 1991 and asked for support in starting a journalism institute. Patterned after Poynter, the institute would train non-white journalists to take important roles in the South African news media now that it was being desegregated. Haiman told him that if Sparks found the funding, Poynter would provide visiting faculty and other academic support.

Sparks found the funds for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism housed at Wits University, Jo’berg. Haiman spoke at the opening in 1992, two years before Mandela became South African president, and Poynter faculty have taught in the nation every year since then.

Participants in the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism program in South Africa gather for a group picture in 2009. (Poynter)

Haiman met Mandela on several occasions, first at an International Press Institute convention in Kyoto, Japan, and later on two or three occasions in South Africa, including during an American Society of Newspaper Editors board of directors visitation to that country.

But his most memorable connection was the opening ceremony of the IAJ where he had been asked to speak. Mandela was supposed to attend the ceremony but he had pressing government business that day and also was feeling ill.

“I was terribly disappointed to learn he wouldn’t be coming,” Haiman remembered, although Mandela had sent a delegation of associates to represent the African National Congress and South Africa. “I finished my speech and thanked the audience for the applause and was about to leave for supper, when one of the associates approached me. ‘Mr. Haiman,’ he said, ‘the President is very sorry he could not attend and asked me to give you this with his thanks.’

“I opened the small wrapped gift. Inside was a handwritten note that read: ‘For Robert J. Haiman, with my compliments and best wishes, Nelson Mandela.’ Also inside was a pair of cuff links made of South African gold, which I wear to this day with formal dress.

“I had met him often enough to experience his legendary empathy and cordiality, but this was overwhelming proof: he was one of the busiest, most burdened presidents in the world and he also was having a bad day. He didn’t really owe me a thing, and yet he took the time to make sure I knew how grateful he was for the contribution Poynter and its faculty and staff had made to the new school. That’s just the kind of remarkable human being he was.”

Nelson Mandela speaks with former Poynter President Bob Haiman during a casual backyard picnic at the Johannesburg home of editor Allister Sparks during the 1990s. (Poynter)

In the 1990s, Haiman and Mandela would meet when the American Society of Newspaper Editors board of directors visited South Africa. Haiman and the directors attended a backyard picnic hosted by Sparks and Haiman had asked that Mandela be invited to meet the editors.

“We never got a firm response from Mandela’s office, but he suddenly showed up, accompanied only by one aide and a driver, and dressed in jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt,” Haiman recalled. “He stayed for an hour or two, until he had talked to every American editor there, sitting on that outdoor patio couch.”

From our many path crossings in the age of Mandela, here is what we have learned from South Africa:

The fight is hard for journalists, too
Joe Thololoe bore facial scars that spoke of his involvement in freedom’s struggle when he came to Poynter as one of the institute’s first South African fellows. A reporter and later managing editor of The Sowetan, the township newspaper, he had been jailed repeatedly in the 1970s and banned from the country. Thololoe became a Neiman Fellow in 1982, later head of news for the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC), national ombudsman until early this year and a continued voice on press freedom.

Change opened doors for journalists
Many of the fellows we met in the 1990s became news leaders in their organization. Feature writers became editors; photojournalists took on bigger assignments. Over the years, many became entrepreneurs or worked for nonprofits. They took on roles that might never have been expected before the freedom led by Mandela.

Foster Davis, left, who helped lead Poynter’s efforts with the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, listens as T. Willie Bango, a participant in the African Fellows program at Poynter in October 1998. On Davis’ death in 2001, the program was renamed the Foster Davis Fellowships for African Journalists. (Poynter)

Technology skipped stages
When I went to South Africa in the 1990s, discussion in the U.S. included the advantages and disadvantages of email. Might we lose personal contacts with the technology? As I ended a week-long session in Cape Town, journalists began exchanging phone numbers and addresses. The youngest participant was a young man from Soweto, an area considered the world’s largest ghetto. As we signed mail addresses he asked in frustration, “Can’t we just use email.”  Change came quickly and from unexpected directions.

Sometimes the big story is the everyday story
We expected the dramatic stories as South Africa changed, but at one point the
question was how to tell the story of deaths from people falling asleep while driving on a long, boring highway across the country. Good journalism involves the major story and telling of daily hazards.

A new nation
My 2010 visit to Grahamstown and Johannesburg coincided with the last days of the FIFA World Cup. The Oliver Tambo Airport, named for a Mandela associate, and the gleaming FNB (Soccer City) Stadium near Soweto, highlighted the amazing changes in South Africa.

Through it all, Mandela
During that visit, an IAJ driver gave some of us a city tour, including a stop outside Mandela’s house. I asked if the nation was prepared for their ailing leader’s death. He moaned softly. “Where will we be without Madiba?”

A new movie, “Long Walk to Freedom,” stars Idris Elba as Mandela. Elba probably does a fine job, but no one should confuse his acting with the impact of Nelson Mandela. He is larger than life and imprinted on a people who must go on without Madiba. Read more

Media Word Cloud

How well-informed are citizens, and how are they getting their news?

Two major news stories, the conflict in Syria and actions on the Affordable Care Act, raise two tough questions for news media and citizens:

  • How do journalists engage the public on public policy?
  • Do we, as news consumers, know enough to have meaningful voice in these matters?

The way the public gets news continues to change with digital — and especially mobile
forms — gaining audiences. Some shifts raise questions about the amount and quality of news consumed. All that leads to the crucial question of what people know about major public issues.

Last week’s Pew study on the Affordable Care Act didn’t inspire confidence in the public’s knowledge of news. Pew’s survey found that “44% of Americans are unsure whether ACA remains the law. About three-in-ten (31%) say they don’t know, while 8% think it has been repealed by Congress and 5% believe it was overturned by the Supreme Court.”

Should we cheer because more than half those surveyed (57%) knew that the law is being implemented? Should we allow slack for those who didn’t know, since the Act is complicated and changes have been made and proposed? Is the study evidence of separate and unequal societies, one informed and one uninformed?

To get a better sense of how the public is consuming news, and how journalists can best reach them, it’s helpful to look at some data. Recent studies tracking news consumption could leave the impression we’ve moved from well-rounded civic information meals to fast-food news snacking.

In March, The State of the News Media showed shrinkage in traditional newsroom staffs and audiences. An informed public seemed at risk. But it also reported growth in social media, new digital news providers and sources who directly address the public. Television remains the major source of news.

Several news sites, including Poynter.org, have reported on an increase in mobile users and greater time spent on tablets. This points to greater news consumption. The Newspaper Association of America turned to Nielsen and Scarborough research to show the majority of U.S. adults (69%), including those ages 18-24 (59%), read newspapers during the week in print or on mobile devices.

Mobiles Republic surveyed more than 8,000 of its app users and found a growing trend in news snacking as users return to mobile devices throughout the day.

The Reuters Institute recently looked at news consumption in several countries, including the United Kingdom and the U.S. and found a growing debate about partiality in the news. While the majority preferred news that claimed to have no viewpoint, almost a quarter of respondents longed for news that aligned with their point of view.

What does all this say about the public’s ability to take on tough topics like the Affordable Care Act and intervention in Syria? That, shall we say, bears watching. We know this country began with a news media for the few. Even as mass media developed, a portion of the population remains uninformed. And yet the goal is a sufficiently versed public for a strong civic life.

The People today might recall the words of Thomas Jefferson in 1820: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”

What do news media need to do? Here are a few steps:

1. Find out what people want/need to know and what information they can provide. Help them tell their stories.

2. Give the facts; explain issues; do it repeatedly and dispute misinformation.

3. Use a multiplatform approach with messages geared to medium and audience.

4. Examine the news climate and constantly seek to improve it. Be aware of things that discourage news consumption, including excessive “Breaking News” alerts, a barrage of bad news and poorly produced reports. Focus on accurate, clear and creative reports. Tell the public what’s broken, and surprise them with what works.

5. Be the trusted source for news.

Researcher David Shedden assisted in this report. Read more

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Boston Marathon Explosions

4 takeaways from journalists’ coverage of the Boston explosions

Last week began with a spotlight on excellent journalism. Newsrooms quieted for the 3 p.m. ET Pulitzer Prize announcement, but minutes before word came, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. At 2:59 p.m. the Boston Globe tweeted of two “powerful explosions” near the finish line.

Before the champagne could be circulated in Pulitzer-winning newsrooms, staffers plunged into coverage of a big story. As the week progressed, recognition of award-winning journalism faded, news media lapses mounted and a barrage of criticism followed.

With suspects accounted for in Boston and most of the missing located in West, Texas, now is the time to consider the media’s performance, build on what worked, and take steps to improve future coverage.

Here are four lessons.

1. Report information you’ve verified

Accuracy is rule number one in credible journalism. Legacy organizations incorrectly reported a suspect’s arrest. Some speculated about his race and ended up being incorrect. These reports reflected a failure of basic journalism accuracy. General references to race or ethnicity that single out groups of people — and that don’t tell us much about the suspect — stir anger and fear.

Candy Altman, vice president of news at Hearst Television Inc., offered three suggestions for improving the reporting of facts. Altman spent part of the week at Boston’s WCVB-TV, the Hearst station and ABC affiliate where she was news director for seven years before moving into a corporate role.

Show restraint: Accuracy comes from “a great exercise in self-restraint,” she told Poynter in a phone interview. “These days a mistake is heard around the world. There is no situation when being first is acceptable if the cost is accuracy.”

Ask good questions: Aggressive reporters benefit from having someone ask questions that help clarify and verify information, Altman said. Newsroom leaders serve that role. Bloggers and independent producers also need mechanisms to provide a dispassionate check before releasing reports.

Have a process in place: The key to restraint and verification, Altman said, is to have a process in place and norms established before news breaks.

2. Keep a broad perspective

The many twists of the Boston story absorbed resources and drained emotions, but other stories merited coverage, too.

Take, for instance, the explosions in West, Texas. How do media organizations fairly weigh what to cover and how to cover it in situations that are significantly different? Should the emphasis skew toward death toll, number injured, extent of property damage? What about the impact on broader audiences and public interest? Examining an explosion at a fertilizer plant is different from tracking suspected terrorists through a big city, but the community affected by the plant fire shouldn’t be forgotten now or in the weeks ahead.

Last week began with growing interest in why national media outlets hadn’t covered the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Pennsylvania abortion doctor accused of delivering babies and murdering them. Columnists have asked: Is the lack of coverage because liberal media don’t want to show the horrors of abortion? Are media organizations not interested in deaths and injuries to babies and mothers, most of them black and poor?

Why do some stories blow up in news coverage while others are ignored?

It helps to stay centered and keep a broad perspective on what serves local, national and global communities. Calculate the cost of showering some stories with coverage while giving little attention to or ignoring others.

3. Take responsibility for the impact

I watched television and followed on my laptop from my Tampa home Friday as an officer closed in on a boat holding suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. At one point, my 8-year-old granddaughter stopped playing nearby, sat beside me and asked what was happening. I said police were looking for a man they thought had set a bomb. She rose, mumbled something about “scary” and started checking the locks on doors.

A lot of adults are checking locks too, even when there’s no clear threat. We’re nervous and insecure, and the constant media drumbeat of threats and the steady flash of police lights don’t help.

Altman said a key for on-air reporting is to speak clearly and calmly. Credibility built over time pays off in public confidence in the midst of crisis.

Other techniques that enhanced reports while lowering stress last week included letting local people tell stories about their communities. Maps and visual aids helped locate the story. All brought clarity, filling the voids of the scary unknown.

4. Celebrate excellent journalism

While it’s easy to criticize the media for the mistakes they made last week, we can’t forget the good work they did. Here are useful practices that led to strong journalism:

High standards in a difficult week: Thank you to those who stared into cameras and disagreed with unverified reports of others; made minute-by-minute calls to hold or release information; used transparency to explain what was not known; responded to errors quickly; used innovative approaches; and challenged themselves to do what was best for the public.

Local coverage: The Dallas Morning News has provided ongoing reports on developments in West. Boston radio host Callie Crossley and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette blogger Rob Owen were among those who commended local television stations on credible news coverage. Journalists who know their communities and build relationships with reliable sources produced first-rate reports.

Courage to act under fire: Boston coverage started on Tuesday for WCVB-TV News Director Andrew Vrees, when he and his family finished hiking in a remote area of Hawaii and turned on cell phones. He returned quickly and watched his staff stay in place Friday after officials ended a regional lockdown. Soon, reporter Kelley Tuthill shouted into her mike, “There’s gunfire, there’s gunfire,” and she and other reporters covered an arrest that followed a stressful search.

Society cheers its first responders: law enforcement, fire and medical workers who deserve appreciation. Society has a different attitude toward journalists who provide critical information, sometimes while facing danger. Here’s to those who dodged violence to stay close and tell clear, compelling news stories last week.

On Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. ET, Poynter.org will air Google+ Hangouts with industry leaders who will talk about journalists’ coverage of Boston. You can visit this link Thursday morning to find out more.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Candy Altman’s title and the number of years she was a news director. Read more

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4 lessons for media leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. and Gene Patterson

Martin Luther King Day 2013 occurs a day after memorial services for Eugene Patterson, an editorial voice of conscience at the Atlanta Constitution during King’s crusade for justice. Patterson died Saturday, January 12. Services were in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he had been CEO of the St. Petersburg Times company (now Tampa Bay Times) and chairman of the board of The Poynter Institute.

I thought the conversation would be about journalism and The Poynter Institute when my husband and I met with Gene Patterson at the Institute last March. Although he had been diagnosed with cancer and friends knew the end might be near, Gene looked as a robust as ever. Our chat in the Patterson Collection of Poynter’s Library lingered on civil rights, a man named Cook, another named King and on two men’s memories of war. Four lessons from the conversation offer advice for news media leaders today.

Get to know the whole community

As a journalist at the Atlanta Constitution, Patterson followed his mentor, Executive Editor Ralph McGill, in taking a stand against racial injustice. Gene said he and his family were ostracized by many whites but quietly embraced by the Jewish community of Atlanta. He and his wife, Sue, took tentative steps across racial lines in attending meetings and informal gatherings in the black community, something that just wasn’t done in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

“Gradually we would go to black social occasions and they would come to ours,” Patterson said. “We discovered a new class of friends that we had never known before. I was amazed. How in the world had we lived all these years without knowing each other.”

Today we still don’t know each other. Whether in nearby local or distant global communities, we co-exist without knowing each others’ history and customs, points of pride or pain, passions and true problems. We know labels, often labels created by news media. Our divisions aren’t just centered on race and ethnicity, but economic class, religion and other beliefs. The role of news media is to keep a community in conversation with itself. To do that, leaders need to know all of the community.

Engage in difficult conversations

Patterson said a Morehouse College graduate and Atlanta University professor served as a catalyst for conversations on race. Dr. Samuel Dubois Cook introduced him to members of the African American community and facilitated conversations between willing blacks and whites. Years later, after leaving the Atlanta Constitution and then the Washington Post, Patterson accepted a teaching position at Duke University. There to introduce him to a new community was Cook, the first black professor at Duke and later a member of the Board. Cook served 22 years as president of Dillard University in New Orleans before retiring and returning to Atlanta.

In a phone interview, Cook said, “the sensitive issues” raised in his Atlanta University program, The Socratic Dialogue, “drew (participants) to have open discussions on whites and blacks. Remember segregation was not only the law of the land, but also a pattern of behavior.”

Through the Dialogue, Cook met McGill, then Patterson. After the sessions guests would gather at Cook’s house where he and his wife, Sylvia, hosted a post-meeting discussion.  During one such session Cook watched two men who hadn’t known each other in deep talks. They were Ralph McGill and a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. Cook said the two drifted to Cook’s adjoining study and talked for over an hour.

Our nation is again marked by the inability to talk about difficult topics.

We drift to camps of the like-minded and master the art of avoiding meaningful talks with those who don’t agree with us. News media leaders should lead frank conversations — face-to-face, with one or two people, and in larger forums, taking the time to listen and talk.

Take a stand

It didn’t take long for our conversation in Poynter’s library to engage the two soldiers, Patterson and Hank Dunlap, a Marine veteran of Vietnam. With Patterson’s World War II helmet nearby, they discussed strategies, weapons and the chaos of war. Patterson talked about General George Patton, under whom he served. He said Patton told his troops in tanks to “keep your head up. Don’t ever button up the tank, keep your head up.” To lead you have to stand against attacks and hold your head up.

Patterson stood up for justice. Martin Luther King gave his life for a cause.

Gene Patterson (far left) and Martin Luther King Jr. (far right) shared the stage for “Law Day U.S.A.”

On May 1, 1965, Patterson and King appeared on a panel at the University of Pennsylvania. During the conference, King said:

“I am especially pleased to share the platform with the outstanding editor of my home town newspaper. We’re building, as you know, a new south, a greater south, and in a real sense Atlanta is one of the bright and most promising spots of that new south; and I think when historians assess the developments which caused Atlanta to be the bright spot of the south they will have to say that the Atlanta Constitution under the able leadership of Ralph McGill and his successor as editor, Mr. Eugene Patterson, prepared Atlanta and Georgia and, to a large extent, the south for this great social change.

These men have etched across the pages of their newspaper in a most courageous manner words of wisdom, words of truth, and words of reason. I am sure that the whole south and certainly the whole nation is indebted to them for this creative contribution…”

Don’t just make a living. Make a mark.

An evangelist, an educator and an editor. Each one would have been a success by simply carrying out his professional role, but each did so much more. They touched lives and changed society. Each is honored in many ways. In Poynter’s courtyard, there is a stone carved with Patterson’s quote: Don’t just make a living. Make a mark.

It is part of the legacy for news leaders today.

David Shedden contributed to this report. Shedden is head of the Eugene Patterson Library at Poynter. Read more

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When breaking news confuses: Citizens may be as undecided as the Pulitzer board

Some years ago, deadline reporting was declared a dying craft. Reporters would gain muscle in long-form journalism and engrossing narratives, but lose the ability to quickly report a story, some feared.

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes — especially the decision to award no one the honor for Breaking News reporting — could be the product of that decades old forecast.  Except the weakness today is not in quickly reporting breaking news, but in presenting facts to tell a cohesive story.

We are surrounded by “breaking news.” News screens use the phrase to alert and infuse urgency and significance in reports throughout the day. Tweets spread headlines and follow-up bulletins that outline a breaking news story. We are a society of bits and bytes. Could it be that so many bits of news do not a coherent story make?

The Pulitzer category calls for “a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news, with special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage using any available tool.”  The year 2010 did not lack big events. It began with an earthquake in Haiti, then moved through natural disasters from snow and flooding to human acts of mayhem, including a Gulf oil catastrophe.

Journalists have more options than ever before in reporting tools, including video, the written word, slideshows, timelines, charts, audio and more. The question is: Do citizens consume a full and accurate report or just taste an array of interesting pieces?

Plenty of reports and conferences examine journalism in a digital age. Most of them look at the business, ethics, legal matters and new tools for reporting.  This is a good time to consider what the array of digital tools mean to storytelling, especially during breaking news.

There’s so much that we don’t know, including how do people grasp a highly emotional, fluid breaking story like those represented by the Pulitzer finalists: a city’s flood, a country’s earthquake or the death of civil servants while doing their job? For that matter, how does a story presented to awards judges differ from the way citizens engage with it as it’s happening?

We don’t know, but we can learn from the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Breaking News, the Seattle Times.  Their prize-winning package maintained a central narrative with clear updates. They used Twitter, Google Wave and Dipity to support their storytelling. Multimedia, including video, took viewers to the scene. Screen-grabs, photos and a timeline tracked a 12-hour period with captions along the way. Each time-stamped update includes the central facts of the story.

A new world of digital storytelling builds on many of the basics that reporters continue to master: get the facts right, add the details, and share them quickly. The added step citizens require, especially on breaking news, is that we tell the full story, in context.

In the end, the Pulitzer Board may have been a surrogate for citizens, challenging journalists to meet their ever-changing needs. Read more


FCC Testimony: Media Cross-Ownership Bears Watching, but is Not Most Critical Issue

The remarks below were prepared for testimony offered April 20, 2010 at the FCC workshop, “Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Impact on Competition and Diversity in the Media Marketplace” and have been adapted for this format.

In 2007, you invited the people of this region to give their views on media ownership and more than 100 responded. I am pleased to have been among panelists then and I thank you for the opportunity to participate today.

In greeting you, I also welcome you on behalf of The Poynter Institute. Our mission and structure are important to this discussion on media ownership, so let me tell you a little about Poynter.

The Institute was created 35 years ago by Nelson Poynter as an unusual school for working journalists. Poynter’s mission is to teach those who practice the craft of journalism and those who lead news organizations. Poynter also promotes the essential role of journalism in a democracy.

One reason it is unusual is because the school owns a newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, or, as I like to call it, the Pulitzer Prize-winning St. Petersburg Times. The school’s mission is to inspire journalistic excellence; the newspaper’s mission is to produce quality journalism and maintain a sound business.

After years of study, Mr. Poynter settled on this structure because he wanted to make sure that the paper he owned remained independent and locally owned long after his death. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was concerned about the power of chain owners and other corporate entities, much as the FCC discussion on ownership originated out of concern about powerful business voices.

Please note the rest of the story: Poynter owns a news organization that competes in Tampa Bay against one of the early converged news operations: Media General’s Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV and TBO.com. FCC actions on cross-ownership could be of special interest in this region.

As you know, the media environment has changed dramatically since you were here three years ago. I will mention findings from reports released in recent weeks and comments from three meetings of media leaders last week. Newspaper publishers met in Orlando, editors met in Washington and radio and television news directors, as well as managers and owners, convened in Las Vegas. Mr. Chairman, I know you addressed the owners in Las Vegas.

Speaking at the American Society of News Editors summit, David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times, said he carries more publishing power in his backpack than the first newsroom he walked into. Michael Smith, executive director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, made the point more starkly to a group at the Newspaper Association of America meeting. He said an eight-year old –- let’s say an affluent eight-year-old — has more publishing power in her bedroom today than publishers in 1999.

Both statements speak to control of societal megaphones today. The FCC’s concern about media ownership is largely about who has the megaphones, or the means to speak to whole communities. For centuries, the owners of mass media were a powerful, exclusive club. They are still powerful, but they now share megaphones with the masses. Almost anyone can post almost anything to friends, a community or the world. Drawing an audience, of course, is another matter, as is the matter of producing news and information that is of value to society. The megaphone simply speaks to the means of commanding attention, of gaining influence. The tools are available and being used extensively.

As you know, dramatic changes are not limited to the means of sending messages. We also see big changes in the willingness to receive them. Traditional mass media news audiences continue a decline. Between 2008 and 2009 television network news, local television news, magazines and newspapers saw reduced audiences, according to the 2010 State of the News Media report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Print newspaper circulation losses accelerated to over 10 percent. Local television news dipped by about 6 percent. Audio audiences were fairly stable, and only cable television and the Internet gained audience.

Advertising revenue also declined. Cable advertising had the strongest showing by remaining flat. All other media experienced ad revenue declines including a 24 percent drop in local television and a 26 percent fall in the combined ad revenue of newspapers’ print and online businesses.

All this occurred in the context of national and worldwide recession. Business was down almost everywhere and that simply compounded the problems of the news business.

Still we saw a particular shrinkage in the nation’s news capacity. Huge staff reductions took place in network news operations, local news, magazines and newspapers. The decline was greater for journalists of color.

Last week, ASNE reported an overall loss of 11 percent of the workforce in member newsrooms, but a 12.6 percent decrease in non-white staffers. The RTNDA/Hofstra study of 2008-2009 showed an increase in white employees in radio and television, but losses of black and Hispanic staff members. Asian and Native Americans numbers increased very slightly or were flat. The number of women in broadcast increased.

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds calculated that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in reporting and editing capacity since 2000 or about 30 percent over that period. This comes from the sector that produces the vast majority of original reporting in local, national and international news. Even the many news start-ups replace only a small fraction of editorial capacity, and they, too, must find long-term sustainability.

The PEJ report concludes, “Unless some system of financing the production of content is developed, it is difficult to see how reportorial journalism will not continue to shrink, regardless of the potential tools offered by technology.”

All this is to say, the matter of cross-ownership of media bears watching, but it is not the critical issue in national communications. Yes, huge corporations from traditional media, huge new media companies or non-media groups have the potential to grasp key outlets in many markets, but the incentive has been reduced and opportunities for other channels have been increased. I urge the FCC to continue to examine how relaxed cross-ownership might be accomplished without significant erosion to independent, locally produced coverage of community issues.

Moreover I urge the FCC to continue a re-examination of this Commissions’ role in the face of news media transformation, since you are the primary organization charged with monitoring the nation’s communication. The problems that I have outlined are a threat to an informed democracy. We are seeing the deterioration of informed civic discourse as we drown in information, opinions, debates, half-truths and lies.

I ask three things of this Communications Commission.

  • The first is to uphold journalism as the business of news transforms. To this end, I commend your look at the Future of Media and join the call for “correcting the nation’s civic ‘deficits.’ ” I urge you to engage new means of assisting communities with a steady flow of daily, local, national and international news. A model similar to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting might be needed as an interim measure during transformation. Such a model would fund specific reporting areas through funds from … yes, government, foundations and citizen contributions.
  • Second, I ask you to regain your leadership role in promoting media diversity. The death last week of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, former FCC commissioner, was a reminder of a time when this organization prodded media to increase diversity in media ownership and leadership, staffing and coverage. Look at major conferences today on the future of media or at the staffs of new media players and it often appears that we are moving to a media future that is less diverse than the present media.

    The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities noted that large segments of society don’t have access to broadband, mostly rural and urban poor communities. These are issues of economic diversity and often racial and ethnic diversity. I ask you to act so that all communities have access to news media and are included in the production and content of news.

  • Third, I urge the Commission to return to championing civil exchanges in the interest of greater civic discourse. Examples include standing against hate speech and helping to raise the general level of exchanges. This matter and the others that I’ve mentioned call for creative solutions to bring results while respecting independent speech.

Let me conclude by returning to the news media conferences of last week. A long-standing tradition in the editors meeting is to recognize great journalism. This year’s award winners include:

Last week was about celebrating excellent journalism. This week is about preserving it. I thank the Commissioners of the FCC for this hearing. Read more


Barrow’s Life Offers Quiet Lesson in Leadership

E-mails began to fly after January 23 as word spread of the death of Dr. Lionel C. Barrow Jr. Friends sought to honor a man who packed a lot into 82 years of life.

Barrow was a major force in integrating college and university communication faculties, a former dean of the Howard University School of Communications, a news reporter, advertising executive, Korean War veteran, jazz and poetry advocate, and a social activist inspired by his Morehouse College classmate, Martin Luther King.

His style was low-key in spite of impressive achievements. In sum, his life offers lessons in quiet leadership. Here are three.

Focus on a Worthwhile Goal

Academics spend a career building a body of related research. Barrow built a body of civil rights work over the course of his career, with academics as his main focus. His goal was the inclusion of more women and non-white educators in journalism and communication faculties.

During a memorial service at Howard University, Communications School Dean, Jannette L. Dates, described a moment that signaled Barrow’s commitment. She describes it:

It was in the summer of 1968 that Lee Barrow found his voice and began to make others aware of his commitment to diversity, his courage and his candor. When Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated Barrow felt compelled to make a difference by not allowing business to continue as usual at the Association for Education in Journalism (AEJ as it was called then).

Lee had the courage to stand up, in a room full of nearly 150 white male educators, who were his colleagues, and tell them that they had a moral, social and educational responsibility to do whatever was necessary ‘to end (the) totally white, virtually all male constituency in the association and in the media to which it sends its graduates.’ As you can imagine, there was stunned silence, at first. Then, the members began to think of ways to do as Dr. Barrow had suggested.

Bring Others Along

During a decade as dean at Howard and in the years that followed, Barrow spent much of his time bringing others along to achieve his vision. He re-organized the program at Howard, adding an academic structure to the professional journalism emphasis. That raised the school’s stature within the university and set it on a path to accreditation, which was achieved under his successor, Orlando Taylor. Barrow pushed for diversity at Howard, adding white faculty, including Barbara Hines, current AEJMC president. Hines noted that over the years AEJMC has named two scholarships in Barrow’s honor.

Barrow made Howard a center for students and teachers at smaller historically black colleges through an annual Communications Conference funded by major news organizations. He had spent a decade in advertising, rising to vice president and associate director of research at Foote, Cone and Belding agency. He understood the importance of contacts. The conference raised aspirations and provided networking with top professionals.

Barrow founded the Minorities and Communication Division of AEJMC to sustain the call for integration and to help new educators untangle requirements for successful university careers. He had earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin and he knew the ropes. As such, he championed the need for diverse faculty and led in preparing those who could fill the need.

Barrow also brought along major white colleges and universities to hire and retain women and non-white faculty. Although he spoke in a rich bass, he wasn’t one to shout.

“Lee Barrow was an important voice in helping schools recognize the value of diversity,” said Suzanne Shaw, executive director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. “He spoke in a kind, thoughtful and caring way. People listened and took very seriously what he said.”

Be Persistent

During his tenure as dean at Howard, Barrow founded a newsletter named, “Still Here.” Howard Professor Melbourne S. Cummings was associate dean at the time. She said the name came from a Langston Hughes poem.

That Hughes poem, “Life is Fine,” says in part:

So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.

The phrase, “Still Here,” aptly describes Barrow’s steadfastness. During the Tampa memorial service one of his daughters described this quality as his “stubborn resoluteness.” He simply refused to be discouraged or give up.

In his last months, he fought for the Barack Obama campaign. His wife, Dr. Frederica Barrow, said he refused pain medication so he could clearly view the Obama inauguration. He died three days later. Read more


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