From its earliest days in a former bank on Central Avenue to its current waterfront home alongside the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, Poynter has made a stubborn man’s dreams come true.
For 40 years, Nelson Poynter produced newspapers in St. Petersburg that reflected his belief that excellent journalism, published independently, could help a community prosper and a democracy flourish.
And he saw no good reason why his passing should change anything about that.
That’s why he founded the Modern Media Institute in 1975 and willed, upon his death in 1978, that his new school would own controlling stock of the St. Petersburg Times Company.
From the beginning, the idea flourished. Not only did the unique ownership model protect his publications from the insatiable demands of the Wall Street-owned chains, it also fulfilled Nelson Poynter’s dream of a school that would help working journalists improve their skills to the benefit of their communities. Today, the paper, now called the Tampa Bay Times, is the largest in Florida and one of America’s best; Poynter is the center for journalism excellence worldwide.
Thousands of journalists, teachers and members of the public have come to Poynter to learn what makes the best journalism work—whether the platform is print, broadcast or online. They come to learn from Poynter’s faculty of accomplished journalism professionals and academics. They come to learn from Pulitzer Prize recipients and Edward R. Murrow Award winners, on-air reporters and syndicated columnists, newsroom visionaries and industry innovators. They come to our campus in St. Petersburg, to sessions held in newsrooms and conference centers around the world, and to our site, Poynter.org.
And no matter how they come to Poynter, they find a curriculum that has changed as much as the world in which they work. Once focused only on print and broadcast journalism, Poynter today offers a full complement of courses in online journalism, fact-checking and digital skills for journalists and academics, as well as programs that help newsroom leaders develop digital and organizational strategies.
Strong leadership has helped Poynter establish its reputation for excellence in teaching. In early 2014, Tim Franklin became The Poynter Institute’s fifth president. He came to Poynter after being managing editor at Bloomberg News and leading the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University’s School of Journalism.
Dr. Karen B. Dunlap was named the institute’s fourth president in August 2003, and oversaw the expansion of school’s curriculum into multimedia and faculty-led courses for the public. She introduced Community Conversations, programs designed to give members of the public access to professional journalists and a greater understanding of how they gather and edit news. The Conversations have featured, among others, Gwen Ifill, Dan Rather, William Raspberry, Ted Koppel, Steve Lopez, Tom Brokaw, Joe Scarborough, and Byron Pitts.
Dunlap’s predecessor was James M. Naughton, former White House correspondent for The New York Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Naughton oversaw the most recent expansion of the institute’s main campus and presided over the emergence of Poynter.org as journalism’s most relied-upon Web site for media news. During Naughton’s tenure, the name Romenesko became synonymous with the latest scoops from inside America’s newsrooms.
Robert J. Haiman was Poynter’s president and managing director from 1983 to 1996. It was Haiman, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, who moved the institute in 1985 from the bank building on Central Avenue (seminars were conducted near a former vault) into the award-winning building across Third Street from the bay. Haiman also expanded the focus of Poynter’s teaching beyond newspapers to include broadcast, and solidified the school as a player on journalism’s big stage.
Poynter’s founding president was Donald K. Baldwin, another former editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Baldwin, a longtime colleague of Nelson Poynter’s, recalled in a 1984 interview how he saw the institute through its humble beginnings: “At first, when (Nelson) Poynter was alive, we were very small and we deliberately stayed that way. We had a limited budget, and what we were doing was experimenting. He [Mr. Poynter] was excited. He thought we were on the right track.”
About a year before he died in 1978, Nelson Poynter talked about his vision for his new school:
“Modern Media Institute is going to be something big and important—it has to live modestly for quite a number of years, but its job is to help train the people who are going to help maintain the integrity, the stability, the progress of self-government.”
Those are ambitious goals for the journalists who serve our communities—and ambitious goals for a school founded to help them succeed.
At Poynter, those goals are very much alive.