Since February, a screen in the Great Hall at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, sped through seconds, clicked through minutes, rolled through hours and scrolled through days. The countdown began on February 10 and marked the start of 100 days that Poynter’s new president, Tim Franklin, gave himself before offering a new vision for the institute.
On May 14, with less than a week to go, Franklin stopped the clock and presented faculty and staff with his report (you can download the document here; it’s also embedded at the bottom of this story). From the introduction:
We will change how we work, where we work and how we financially support our work. We will move with urgency and an entrepreneurial spirit to meet this challenge.
That includes more teaching internationally, a new website, an online laboratory, custom teaching, and new opportunities for revenue, including the possibility of sharing Poynter’s St. Petersburg headquarters with tenants.
“Before Tim arrived, I think we looked at things as either/or,” said Jesse Perez, Poynter’s director of business and finance, in an interview. “We either had to cut expenses or grow revenue.”
Franklin’s vision, however, points to potential ways to grow Poynter, both in revenue and in mission. The report lays out plans for Poynter’s future after several years of financial struggle.
“The fate of Poynter has always been tied to the health of the news industry and the old economic model that supported it,” Roy Peter Clark, Poynter’s vice president, said in an interview.
That old model is obviously crumbling, he said, “and the journalism that Poynter was created to support is under tremendous stress.”
But there’s a sense here now of new vision, he said, of growth, “of a new level of influence on new forms of journalism based on new economic models.”
From the report: We should move boldly and confidently, and with a profound sense of urgency. In times of historic change, the losers are those who don’t transform. Just ask BlackBerry.
Changing the Poynter Experience
Franklin first came to Poynter more than a decade ago as an editor at the Orlando Sentinel. It was a place, he found, to step away from the daily rush of producing news and learn new skills, share ideas and be inspired.
During the last three months, Franklin has spoken with editors, Poynter’s board of trustees, deans of journalism schools, faculty and staff, leaders of some journalism organizations and members of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. Many shared in their own stories of the “Poynter experience.”
“There’s still this perception of Poynter as a destination, as a place, as a building,” Franklin said. “It’s not true that that’s the only work that we do, but I think that’s still the widely held perception, so we need to change that.”
From the report: Our new mantra says we must teach people in different ways, extending the “Poynter Experience” to where they work and through multiple platforms. We’ll teach people online, on the phone and in person. We’ll meet them at their place, at Poynter conferences and across the globe. We’ll develop a portfolio of ways to experience Poynter.
“We can do these things anywhere,” Franklin said.
But that doesn’t mean Poynter’s leaving the building.
“It’s tied to our identity,” Franklin said. “It doesn’t mean that we have to be the sole occupants.”
From the report: Poynter should welcome tenants, especially ones with similar missions, to occupy the south wing and make use of our classrooms. Doing so would add both revenue and another element of vitality.
Being the bridge
Franklin heard another thing while talking with newspeople around the country.
“I heard a lot that Poynter’s out of touch, it’s not up to speed, and I think there’s some element of truth to that,” Franklin said. “I think there’s also been not enough emphasis on what we are teaching. Maybe we just haven’t been good enough messengers.”
Take, for instance, some courses at News University, including (all from last year) reporting with drones, reporting with wearables, creating a mobile-first newsroom, responsive design and many webinars on data analysis, including one for beginners from this March.
Vicki Krueger, director of interactive learning at Poynter, hopes to communicate with “all of our audiences about all of our teaching, regardless of the format and platform,” she said in an interview.
“I am excited about the opportunity for us to be the bridge,” she said. “I think we have been that informally, and now we can put framework and structure around that.”
Poynter’s public face is Poynter.org (of which I am an employee.) In his report, Franklin writes about the need to update that site and to infuse all of Poynter with a stronger sense of innovation. Poynter.org is nearly through with the process of moving to a new server, which should speed up the site, which slows dramatically during times of heavy traffic. Redesigning the website will be a priority when Seth Liss, the former online managing editor for NPR affiliate WAMU, becomes Poynter.org’s editor in late May.
“We want to be innovators and we need to be seen as innovative,” Franklin said. “And it’s hard to be seen as being innovators if the public face of your institution is not.”
The redesigned site should connect the dots at Poynter, he said, offering people breaking news about the industry, more personalities and videos and it should integrate NewsU teaching into the site. Franklin’s also planning to seek financial support for an innovator in residence and an endowed chair in digital journalism. The position left by Poynter’s Dean of Faculty, Stephen Buckley, will be redefined and filled internally, Franklin said, and Poynter also plans to add what he called “a digital innovator” to its faculty.
Poynter also recently added Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Barstow as adjunct faculty, and there are plans for more adjunct announcements, Franklin said.
From the report: Poynter will be an incubator for innovation, a place where experimentation and even failure are valued, encouraged and shared for the lessons they teach others.
Poynter will do this while maintaining its core values of advancing truth, trust, credibility and ethics in the craft. We’ll do this while continuing to be a staunch advocate for diversity at a time when news audiences are becoming more diverse.
“When things are rocky for a long period, there’s a desire to tear everything down,” said Kelly McBride, senior faculty, in an email. “But what I hear Tim saying is that we have a good foundation. We might need to remodel, even substantially. But we don’t need to bulldoze.”
Lights on bright
Franklin’s report revolves around growing and supporting journalists as they evolve. And to do that, the Poynter Institute has to become financially independent. A big part of that is identifying areas where Poynter can grow, Perez said.
“I think we’ve spent too much time trying to fix what we’ve traditionally done and not doing more about identifying and pursuing some bigger ideas,” he said.
In addition to sharing Poynter’s building and expanding international teaching, those ideas include a series of fundraising events, with a gala event planned for the fall, and selling land adjacent to Poynter and an office building in Seminole, Florida.
In January of this year, Poynter’s 2012 IRS Form 990 was released, showing a smaller loss than in 2011. Some critics have questioned the salaries of people at Poynter.
Compared with salaries in the private sector or some educational institutions, Franklin said he thought Poynter salaries weren’t out of line.
“We want people to consider us the gold standard, which means investing in high-quality talent,” he said.
Franklin’s report looks both one and five years out, but many changes in the report have already begun.
And it resonates, McBride said “with the experience of other journalism organizations that have turned the corner and are heading in a positive direction. Even the startups are doing things that are recognizable as journalism. We, too, will continue to support that world.”
“The key for Poynter is to be useful to more people in more places as the universe of those who care about journalism expands,” said Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times and chairman of Poynter’s Board of Trustees.
This is a splendid beginning, he said. But you don’t have to be able to see even five years into the future to start moving forward, Clark said.
“Even if you’re driving down a dark, windy road at night, if you’ve got a good set of headlights, you can make all the progress you need.”
Franklin’s helped turn on those lights, Clark said, and “he’s clicked on the brights, so that we can see a little farther down the road.”
Poynter President Tim Franklin outlined the details of this strategic shift in a Webinar on Tuesday, May 20. You can watch the on-demand video replay here.