by Black Issues
A History of ExcellenceJuly 31, 2003 |
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 Pearl Stewart
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. Blair’s meltdown, the resignation of the two top editors and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, have prompted thoughtful analysis at the institute.
“In society, studies show we don’t have the values and we don’t have the shame we should have,” Dunlap contends. “Sometimes we are too quick to forgive and not supportive enough of those who are doing things right. People aren’t being held accountable.”
In her previous position as dean of the faculty at Poynter, Dunlap was an ambassador for the institute’s programs. Dr. Reginald Owens, who took a group of his journalism students from Louisiana Tech University to Poynter last spring, says it was Dunlap’s warm invitation to a group of Black faculty members that led him to organize a visit for students. “I remember vividly her invitation to faculty members to take advantage of Poynter’s facilities. She said: ‘If you have the party, we have the place.’ And she meant it.”
Working Harder, Doing Better
Under the presidency of James Naughton, Dunlap has played a major role in shaping the institute’s programs, combining her background in journalism with her experience in academe. “It is a rare quality in the journalism academy — a person with professional journalism experience and solid academic credentials,” Owens says.
Dunlap says her climb to the top of the journalism profession has been relatively unfettered, compared to the struggles of many others, but she credits them with paving the way, especially civil rights leader John Lewis and friends who were sent to desegregate southern schools.
Dunlap overcame some adversities along the way by falling back on the adage of working harder and doing better.
“Once, when I didn’t do well on a particular project, one of my professors told me I wasn’t ‘cut out’ for the doctorate,” Dunlap recalls. The criticism stung, but she deflected it by working harder and proving the professor wrong. She also sought out an adviser who offered encouragement.
While she no longer accepts the “be twice as good” tenet, Dunlap advises young journalists to work hard, find mentors and learn the craft and do it well. Dunlap worked so hard early in her career, that she became two people — on paper. As the editor of a Black newspaper in the early ’70s, Dunlap recalls having to write most of the stories that appeared in the financially strapped weekly. So instead of having the same byline on all the articles, she created an alter ego by using her first name and married name for one byline and middle name and maiden name for another.
With the exception of that brief stint at the Black-owned Warner Robins Enterprise, Dunlap says she was the only Black woman in so many situations that it became the norm. “I would just go in, look around, make a mental note of the situation, grit my teeth and get to work — and wait for the opportunity to do something about it.”
Another ground-breaking journalist, Wanda Lloyd, former USA Today senior editor for administration, says Dunlap’s new position makes two major statements: “One, that someone clearly highly qualified is in charge of the institute; and second, Poynter has set the bar even higher in the industry’s efforts to address the issue of diversity.” As executive director of the Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute, Lloyd says Dunlap’s appointment “sends a clear message that this industry … must continue the dialogue about the importance of diverse newsrooms and diverse news content.”
Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, hails Dunlap’s presidency as “a great example of how top organizations can recruit and promote top people.” The Knight Foundation recently awarded a five-year, $2.8 million grant to Poynter for News University, an online training portal for journalists.
“She’s at the helm during a critical time,” Newton says, “when journalism is remaking itself.”
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