February 20, 2023

Al Tompkins is known throughout the world of broadcast journalism as a bulldog of a reporter and a teacher with a relentless enthusiasm and work ethic.

He’s spent 25 years working in local broadcast newsrooms of Kentucky and Tennessee and 25 years teaching professional journalists at Poynter.

After 50 years of making the news and teaching others how to make the news, Tompkins is retiring. Although he promises to do the occasional teaching gig, for the first time in his adult life, he will not have a full-time job in journalism.

March 31 will be his last day as a full-time faculty member at Poynter. Although he’ll retain the title of faculty and occasionally step in to teach workshops on a contract basis, Tompkins says this is really it, he’s actually retiring.

Many people, including me, are skeptical.

That’s because I’ve been Tompkins’ colleague for 20 years and his boss for 10. He works longer and harder, travels to more cities and continents, than journalists half his age. The man is a reporter’s reporter, driven by his undying love for both the craft and power of broadcast storytelling.

Whenever Tompkins stood in front of a room of journalists, particularly television journalists, he did so as their most hopeful cheerleader. He wanted them to do their best work, because when they did, it made such a difference.

That’s why photojournalist Les Rose made so many guest faculty appearances in Tompkins-run training seminars. Rose often partnered with Steve Hartman, the CBS News correspondent behind the award-winning feature series “Everybody Has a Story.”

Tompkins invited Hartman to one of his first seminars at Poynter in 1998. Hartman invited Rose to join him.

Al Tompkins works with students during the Poynter Fellowship for College Journalists, May 16-28, 2010, at the Poynter Institute. (Photo: Jim Stem)

“It was almost cult-like,” Rose said of Tompkins’ presence in the room. “He was telling these journalists that their job was to make people feel something.”

Tompkins grew up in Princeton, Kentucky. His mom worked at a prison and his dad was a logger. He got his first job at age 15, reading the news at the WPKY AM station. His mom had to drive him to work.

As a young reporter working for WSMV in Nashville, he investigated Rockwell International, the largest employer in rural Kentucky, and exposed the company for polluting the rivers running through the city of Russellville, leading to a civil settlement. While reporting a story in Guatemala, he met a child living in a garbage dump. He arranged for her to come to the United States on a medical visa and eventually adopted her.

Tompkins was promoted to news director at WSMV. He joined The Poynter Institute in 1998. Prior to that most of Poynter’s teachers came from newspaper backgrounds.

Tompkins graced Poynter’s fledgling website with Al’s Morning Meeting, a column of story ideas designed to improve the quality of local broadcast journalism. The column ran five days a week for nine years and cemented his reputation as an advocate for good TV news. It also introduced Poynter to a much wider audience.

The column became a metaphor for digital transformation, said Bill Mitchell, the first person to edit Poynter’s website. “It took something that happened mostly in broadcast newsrooms, but there were variations on it in newsrooms all over the world,” he said. “And it melded the analog and digital eras.”

Tompkins brought the intensity of the newsroom to Poynter’s publishing.

“He was always on our case, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? Why don’t we do that?’ And we’d say, ‘Well, we have limited resources,’” Mitchell said. “And then he’d say, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Rose described it as “old-school bull-headedness.” “But he’s funny as hell about it,” he said. “Relentless, but funny.”

Whenever I found myself in a disagreement with Tompkins, the conversation followed a predictable pattern. Tompkins would criticize me for not paying attention to something he thought was the most important issue of the day. I would explain the 10,000 things demanding my attention. He would walk away, annoyed. Within a few hours, he would reach out with a solution to at least one of my 10,000 problems. Once, when he’d heard that my plan was to feed my kids cereal for dinner, he snagged an extra pan of lasagna from a caterer. Many times, he gifted me with well-researched case studies to use in my teaching.

Tompkins became a powerful presence in Poynter’s training workshops, employing a rapid-fire Socratic method to challenge professional reporters, photographers, producers and editors to think critically about the craft of stories and the ethics of journalism.

Al Tompkins works with seminar participants as part of Multimedia Storytelling With Video, Sept. 20-24, 2010, at the Poynter Institute. (Photo: Jim Stem)

Poynter senior scholar Roy Peter Clark used to introduce Tompkins as the “hardest working man in the journalism training business. I doubt any Poynter faculty member has logged more travel miles to conduct workshops on journalism craft and values; or covered more topics that are essential for public understanding.”

Tompkins created Teachapalooza, an annual conference for college teachers. When drones became commercially accessible, he got an operator’s license and created drone workshops for photographers. He once took a busload of reporters to a gun range to teach them to write about firearms policies with accuracy and credibility. Along with his wife Sidney, a licensed therapist and United Methodist minister, he created a workshop for journalists on recognizing and mitigating the impacts of trauma and stress.

When it became apparent that it would be increasingly difficult for local television stations to pay for reporters and producers to enroll in weeklong in-person Poynter seminars, Tompkins evolved his syllabi for Power Reporting and the Producer Project so they could be delivered online over several weeks, with a shorter, optional in-person weekend component.

Al’s textbook on storytelling for TV and multimedia, “Aim for the Heart,” is in its third edition and taught in broadcast classrooms across the country. Tompkins is also one of the most traveled Poynter teachers. He’s taught in 49 states (for some reason New Hampshire won’t have him) and several countries, including Canada, Denmark, South Africa, Japan and Egypt.

In 2020, two days before Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19 and the NBA shut down its season, Tompkins told Poynter’s managing editor that Poynter should launch a daily newsletter on the looming pandemic and delivered the first edition of the daily Covering COVID-19 report. For the next three years he delivered daily briefings to journalists who were struggling to bring critical information to the public. Late last year, the column was renamed, The Morning Meeting.

Last week, a 30-year-veteran journalist from Lansing, Michigan, wrote to say how much he leaned on teaching he’d learned from Tompkins as he navigated his newsroom through the Michigan State shooting.

“I’ve had the pleasure of being coached by (Tompkins) at Poynter and various conferences,” the news director wrote. “I’ve always brought back something new each time that I could use to make my journalism better or to be a better leader.”

When I told Tompkins I intended to write this public announcement to commemorate his contributions to journalism, he told me to keep it short. When I tried to interview him, he distracted me with stories about his first impressions of Poynter.

“It was shocking to me to hear the first ethics conversation I ever had and to think about all the things I’d done badly,” he said. It became his life’s work to guide other journalists through the nuances of making tough choices.

His retirement is causing him to reflect on the rapid changes endemic to the news media. “My biggest worry in journalism is that we are losing a lot of institutional knowledge. My urging is for the next generation of journalists to soak up as much as they can from people who know their communities,” he said.

Then, ever the cheerleader for good reporting, he added: “I am not at all pessimistic about the future of journalism. The amount of phenomenal work being done just blows me away.”

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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  • Al Tompkins has been a teacher, a mentor, and a friend since he joined Poynter and no one is more deserving of a hearty good-bye in retirement. I was in one of the first classes of leadership when he arrived in 1998 and have had the honor of his wisdom and help on countless occasions as well as the privilege of teaching beside him as visiting faculty at Poynter for many years. I always learned far more than I ever taught. Al set the bar for pragmatic journalism coaching and training, and yes, he is the hardest working journalist in the country. Not only does he travel and teach, he also never fails to take a phone call, answer a text or email, and impart his priceless wisdom even one-on-one if you care to ask. I treasure my time with him and consider myself so privileged to have spent time with him. I know this won’t be the end (I am also skeptical of his “retirement”) and I look forward to seeing what he does in his next iteration of life. God bless you my friend.