A History of Excellence: Poynter Institute's New President Combines Background in Journalism, Experience in Academe to Lead Premier Training Center to Greater Heights

By Stewart, Pearl | Black Issues in Higher Education, July 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

A History of Excellence: Poynter Institute's New President Combines Background in Journalism, Experience in Academe to Lead Premier Training Center to Greater Heights


Stewart, Pearl, Black Issues in Higher Education


PONTE VEDRA, FLA.

Like many high-achieving African Americans, Dr. Karen Brown Dunlap was warned repeatedly as a child growing up in the South that she had to work twice as hard and be twice as good--"not as good, but better than"--her White counterparts in all her endeavors.

As the new president of The Poynter Institute, journalism's premier training center, Dunlap has reached and surpassed the expectations of the elders who urged her to "be better."

Poynter's mission statement describes the nonprofit institution in St. Petersburg, Fla., as "a school for journalists, future journalists and teachers of journalism ... our students come here in a search for excellence."

That quest will take them to the door of a 52-year-old mother and grandmother who began her career, not in the frenetic newsroom of a metropolitan daily but at a Black weekly in rural Georgia. Poynter's new president examined the history of the Black press in Tennessee for her doctoral dissertation and spent 10 years teaching at a Black university.

As the chief executive of Poynter, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, Dunlap is also on the board of directors of the Times Publishing Company. In these leadership positions, she is now one of the most influential people in journalism.

However, the latest numbers show she also remains an anomaly.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors released disappointing statistics in April, showing that diversity at daily newspapers increased by less than one-half of 1 percent in 2002, bringing the percentage of minorities on newspaper staffs to 12.5 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of minorities in the U.S. population reached 31.1 percent. Moreover, the percentage of minorities in supervisory positions fell from the previous year. For that reason, Dunlap's ascent to the presidency of Poynter is especially meaningful to media professionals and academics.

"I see Dr. Dunlap as a leader who will challenge and motivate, as she prods Poynter to greater heights ... in journalism education," says Dr. Jannette Dates, dean of Howard University's School of Communications and co-author of Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Dates describes Dunlap's appointment as "a natural progression for a person of her accomplishments ... so often a person of color is not allowed to naturally progress."

One of the few improvements the annual ASNE census cited was the increase in the number of newspapers that have minorities on their staffs. Currently 60 percent of daily papers have people of color working in their newsrooms, and African Americans constitute the largest total numbers at 5.3 percent.

"Those figures are certainly nothing to brag about, but they could be worse," Dunlap says. "Things should be a lot better. They're not better because those who are hiring still don't see diversity as a major goal. You hear people talking about having 'diversity fatigue,' as if they have worked so hard at it. How can they be fatigued when so much more needs to be done?"

That, she suggests, is where Poynter and programs such as the Freedom Forum's Diversity Institute, play an important role. As a hub for industry executives, editors, reporters and students to gather and learn, Poynter makes diversity and ethics integral parts of its discussions. Dunlap points out that Poynter's work is about excellence in journalism and that diversity contributes to excellence as much as integrity and good writing.

"Often people come away (from the sessions) knowing more, but that doesn't change the way they feel or act," she admits. But occasionally participants will have real revelations about diversity while they are at Poynter. "I remember one of the participants who gave a personal testimonial, as if it finally dawned on him that he needed to do better."

The Poynter Web site contains an entire section on the fallout from the Jayson Blair affair at the New York Times.

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