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Poynter Institute Aims to Give Journalists a Chance to Think

A coming windfall, meanwhile, has institution pondering its role

THE attire is shorts and running shoes - all year long. The view is palm trees and fountains. A sign in the parking lot says: ``Please go slowly. Students walking and thinking.''

It's a far cry from screaming telephones, impatient editors, and life on deadline. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, founded here in 1975, is a utopia for journalists - a restless utopia, and one that is soon to be very well funded.

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As its 20th birthday approaches, the Poynter Institute is responding to a monetary windfall and the news industry's feeling of flux by launching a nationwide brainstorming session to redefine its purpose.

``I can't think of anything more important than an institution thinking - in a strategic way - about its future,'' says Robert Haiman, the Poynter Institute's president and managing director.

The creation of former St. Petersburg Times publisher Nelson Poynter, the one-of-a-kind institute has been dedicated to journalism training and research from its inception. The institute's mission is to improve newspaper ethics and skills. Here, reporters ponder the big picture. Instead of rushing to a press conference, speeding back to the newsroom, and pounding out the story, journalists can step back and concentrate on ways to improve their work. In recent years the Institute has branched out into broadcasting, graphics, and international reporting.

Emily Jauregui, a political reporter at the El Paso (Texas) Times who participated in an ethical decisionmaking seminar last month, says the best part about it was the ability to distance herself from daily deadlines.

``In our field, we're always running, we're given very little time,'' she says. ``That's why I enjoyed it a lot. We were reflecting instead of just doing.''

Unlike other media programs, Poynter targets working journalists - often in mid-career. The institute teaches one-week seminars that focus on five areas of particular importance to the Institute: reporting and editing, graphics and design, leadership and management, media ethics, and news research.

The Institute's plans for 1995 include roughly 40 seminars - everything from a conference on challenges for minority managers to think sessions on how journalism can better enter the electronic age and a course on photojournalism ethics.

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In addition to its core courses, which remain substantially the same from year to year, Poynter's 1995 program addresses themes such as technological change, newsroom diversity, and analyzing media consumers.

But Mr. Haiman says that even after the infusion of funds, the Institute will probably continue to do much of what it is already doing, only more of it. ``If you were to walk into a seminar in 1997, I don't think it would be radically different,'' he says.

In 1999, Poynter will receive the first installment of a $30 million windfall generated by stock exchanges with a group of minority stockholders. Since it was founded, the institute's budget has come primarily from the dividends of its stock in Times Publishing - the company that publishes the St. Petersburg Times newspaper, the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Quarterly, and two magazines.

``When that money comes in,'' Haiman says, ``We wanted to be in a position to spend it.''

So the Poynter Institute hired the Cambridge, Mass.,-based consultant, Synectics Inc., to organize a ``strategic initiative plan.'' They developed survey groups of journalists and journalism educators nationwide A group of 11 staff members generated ideas for Poynter's purpose and a wish list for the Institute. Ideas are abundant: Poynter on-line, an expanded faculty, more seminars, a database of journalists worldwide, and ways to better market the institute. But definite plans are lacking, so far.

In the end, the Poynter team expects to boil down the ideas to four to six concepts that will guide their future programming. Karen Brown, dean of the Poynter faculty, says the main thrusts of discussions so far are: strengthening the core courses; zeroing in on who the institute's users are; and focusing on how journalists can better serve their audiences.

The institute's emphasis on community service is important, Ms. Brown says, because ``it connects to the very best traditions of journalism. It's an area in which the industry has a great need.''

The Poynter's search for a new identity mirrors the current quandary in the media industry. ``This is a time of substantial uncertainty,'' Haiman says. He says the industry is increasingly asking itself: ``Will there be newspapers in 25 years? Will there be network TV in 25 years?''

Poynter exists, in part, to help journalists answer that question, Haiman says. ``We believe the bar [on journalism standards] should be set very high. And we do that, not by saying, `Yes, we're good,' but ... `We're not as good as we ought to be.' ''

Brown says she is excited about the changes coming to Poynter in the next few years. ``It's filled me with a sense that we are about to take off and help the industry in ways that we never would have dreamed,'' she says.

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