Journalists remember Paul Pohlman, ‘a quiet leader who helped countless journalists’
Tributes from friends and colleagues
Butch Ward, Poynter Senior Faculty member:
It’s striking how many people, remembering Paul this afternoon, called him a great “coach.” That’s exactly what he spent so many years convincing leaders to become — great coaches. Clearly, he taught what he knew. And he knew it very well.
Paul is one of those wonderful teachers whose impact on those he coached has lasted for years. Talk to folks who came to Poynter 20 years ago and they tell you about the difference Paul Pohlman made in their careers. Quite a legacy, eh? Oh, that we all could have such a positive impact on the direction of someone’s career. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what Paul tried to convince all of us leaders we all could do.
But if you really wanted to know Paul, you had to spend some time with him at the ballpark. Talking about his beloved (and usually beleaguered) Cleveland Indians. Or his adopted favorite team, the Rays. Hear him every spring, talking with optimism about the player who might be the long-awaited answer. Hear him in mid-summer, a bit more realistic, but still a believer in late-inning rallies. Get him to a last game in late September, and realize that the winning didn’t really matter all that much — he just plain loved the game.
That’s what I loved about Paul Pohlman. Whether or not we excelled or stumbled, he still hung in with us. Still coaching, still cajoling, still encouraging. He just plain loved the game — and most of all, the people who try to play it the best they can.
Keith Woods, NPR Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations
Some people remember when they first met Paul, but I don’t. It seems I’ve always known him. He shows up in my memories as the deceptive introvert who used the ruse of teaching to make mischief and used mischief as a powerful tool of teaching.
His favorite device was to suddenly switch into a role-play and, thus, force people to act out a solution to a problem right there on the spot. Sometimes you were a witness to these seminar dramas. Sometimes you were a victim.
I was at Poynter fewer than three weeks when Paul brought me into his New Leaders seminar, my first as a member of the faculty. It was a scary moment that got scarier when, leading a session on diversity, the conversation turned to the matter of how leaders should handle crying in the workplace. It was a man-woman thing, and as someone still doing diversity then as a black-white thing, I was way out of my comfort zone.
Women were describing how hard they tried to keep that emotion in check. Men were squirming in their seats trying not to agree that they preferred it that way. And from the back of the room, Paul took in all the intellectual tap dancing and boomed, “What’s so wrong with crying at work?” And as people laughed at the funny man in the blue shirt, the tension went out of the air and we had what is still one of the most remarkable conversations I’ve ever witnessed.
I thought about that day as I sat in my office in Washington last week reading the terrible news that brought us to this day. And I cried. Right there in the workplace.
I grieved selfishly that I’d not been able to get back to see Paul and tell him how much I loved him; how much he’d helped make me the teacher I am today. I wanted to thank him for being the first one to model for me what it’s like to speak up for someone else’s cause so they don’t have to. I wanted to thank him for being a confidante, even consigliere, during my years as Dean. I could tell him what I really thought. He would tell me what he really thought, and we got things done.
It was ironic that Paul struggled so famously with incontinence in recent months, because when it came to some things, the man leaked like a sieve. But I learned that that, too, was strategic. He traded in information and kept no secrets that got in the way of solving problems. He led even as he appeared to follow. He was the quintessential role-player. Humble and without discernable ego, happy to be the one on the side cheering for those he helped to succeed.
That’s why he was so uncomfortable accepting help after surgery a year ago. He harrumphed about people wanting to visit and cook for him and bring him stuff. You might easily wonder after he’d turned down yet another offer of help if he knew how much he meant to us all.
But when my son and I visited him the weekend after surgery, he brought me into his small kitchen, opened the refrigerator and freezer, and waved his arm around the room at the pots of soup and stew and bundles of vegetables and bags of goodies.
Look, he said, at all they’ve done.
Pegie Stark Adam
Paul, our colleague and friend, will be sadly missed as we travel into the uncertain future of journalism. His wise observations on what we should think about and how we could talk about it as a group will be missed. His calm presence in faculty meetings and seminars was always appreciated. He could cut through disagreement and help us see solutions. And his sense of humor helped us see that we could laugh about ourselves and our circumstances. What a great guy who contributed so much to all of our lives.
Tom Huang, Dallas Morning News editor and Poynter fellow:
I first met Paul when I attended a Poynter seminar more than 10 years ago. At first, I was skeptical of his teaching methods. All he seemed to do was ask the seminar’s participants a bunch of questions, as if he hadn’t fully prepared for the session.
Boy, was I wrong.
It wasn’t until I was a Poynter fellow in 2008 that I learned about Paul’s magic. Watching him closely, I began to see how he built his teaching around the gentle art of asking questions. He wouldn’t lecture to his students. Instead, he would guide them and coax them into confronting his questions. He would encourage them to think for themselves.
He was a masterful coach.
And so, when I first began to teach at Poynter, I would always get Paul’s advice whenever I was designing a teaching session. I would write down every point that I wanted to make, and we would go through the session, step by step. And he would ask me his trademark probing questions: Well, what would happen if you did it this way? How do you think the participants would respond? What ways can you make your point more clearly?
Paul helped me become a better teacher. More importantly, Paul and I became good friends. He was an avid baseball fan, and we went to many Tampa Bay Rays games in 2008, the year the team went all the way to the World Series.
In the years since, whenever I returned to Poynter to teach, I could always count on going to a Rays game with Paul. I will miss him for his coaching, for the baseball games, for his friendship.
Karen B. Dunlap, Poynter President:
I’m grateful to Paul Pohlman for trying to explain to me why major league pitchers seldom go nine innings anymore. I thought they did, back when my father watched Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. One day at lunch in Poynter’s snack room Paul grumbled in his quiet bass about what Tampa Bay Rays relievers were or weren’t doing, so I raised the question to really get him going. It worked.
Paul loved baseball; he excelled at teaching and practicing the skills of leadership. He taught that some lead by official power and some lead by influence. He led with both. He was an early head of Poynter leadership programs, a member of the senior team in guiding Poynter and a remarkable force in knitting together people and efforts. He coached new staff members on the whats and whys of the Institute. As the Institute began teaching more custom programs in organizations and forming partnerships, Paul led in shaping agreements.
We called Paul Nelson Pohlman the long lost son of Institute founder Nelson Paul Poynter. They shared similar names, gray hair, a slight facial resemblance and mid-western backgrounds, but Paul didn’t seek position. Instead he saw needs and filled the gaps.
He was my wise adviser and friend for over two decades. A steady presence, a good spirit, I will miss him so.
Nora Paul, Director of the Institute for New Media Studies at The University of Minnesota:
How I wish I could be with you when the Poynter family will come together to grieve the loss of Paul. I looked at every possible way to get from the frozen north to Poynter to be able to be part of the celebration, and appreciation, of Paul’s life but fitting it into my class schedule here just didn’t work out. And Paul would have thought it crazy to spend that much money, right? And he sure wouldn’t have condoned blowing off my teaching responsibilities.
Paul was Poynter to me. He was my closest mentor and biggest supporter and he always had my back (including the time, in the middle of a seminar session when the president of Poynter entered the room and I just knew I’d have to introduce him to the group and, for the life of me, I could not think of his name. I sidled over to Paul as someone else was talking, and asked, “What’s that guy’s name” and he whispered back, “Jim Naughton.” And he never ragged me about it.) I loved him. I learned so much from him. I admired him. And I’ll miss him.
Dr. Mario Garcia, CEO Garcia Media
He lived peacefully. Moved gracefully. Did not raise his voice, but made his point very well. I have the fondest memories of my time with him.
Regina McCombs, Poynter Faculty member:
My colleague Jessica Blais commented last week that Paul was a ground wire for Poynter, and I keep circling back to that idea. Since I went to high school before girls could take shop, I decided I’d better double check what a ground wire does. Wikipedia talks about a common return path for electric current, or a direct physical connection to the earth.That seems to fit. When egos got too big, or static built up, Paul provided the release. He helped prevent both blown fuses and fried brains.
But the analogy only goes so far, and a simple wire doesn’t begin to describe Paul’s role in my life. As the newest faculty member, there have been times that I felt wobbly without the training wheels of being guest faculty. Paul encouraged me to move forward, to do things I didn’t know I could do, and it wasn’t until after the fact that I would realize how firmly he had been pushing me. He was sneaky that way.Now that he has let go of the back of the bike, I’m going to continue to pretend that he’s there, holding it steady and urging me ahead.
Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and Poynter editing fellow:
Paul may have been the most authentic teacher I’ve ever known. He truly did teach by example, and his example was consistently that of a patient, gentle, but firm listener, challenger and guide. He knew how to let others shine, which is a rare trait in a world of big-dog (and insecure) egos. Here’s to channeling him forward.
Sara Quinn, Poynter faculty member
Paul taught me many things. He impressed upon me the tremendous power and energy that lives between things—the quiet space in conversation that allows us to listen and observe, and the patient connection between people that strengthens understanding.
Steve Myers, Deputy Managing Editor for The Lens:
Paul was an important counterweight to the academic, discursive tendencies of the institute. The next time a meeting stretches into the second hour, please invoke his spirit by standing up, declaring that the meeting has run its course, and walking out. And then go to a Rays game.
Bill Mitchell, Poynter affiliate:
I’ll remember Paul as Poynter’s truth-teller: In seminars when a difficult issue was being avoided, in staff meetings when we were too polite to face an awkward reality, in personal conversations with the door closed when the truth sometimes hurt. Paul brought to all this truth-telling the wit and wisdom of a kind man who always put the rest of us first.
Howard Finberg, Poynter Director of Training Partnerships and Alliances:
Paul Pohlman is one of the unsung heroes of Poynter’s e-learning project, News University.
Like many heroes, Paul did not see his role as being heroic. Or even very important. Yet I’m convinced that Poynter NewsU would not have been as successful without Paul’s quiet guidance, enthusiastic support and good humor.
He made a difference when it came to Poynter’s future for many reasons. Because Paul was perceived as an analog person in a digital world, his vocal support of e-learning was critical. At times he would push hard for more e-learning, more digital offerings. He pushed harder than myself or the other members of the NewsU crew.
Maybe it was the chocolate or other food that seemed to be in abundance around the desks of the e-learning department that attracted Paul. He liked hanging out, even briefly, with the producers and others in the department. Maybe it was because the energy and humor of the young folks. Probably it was for the chocolate.
What made Paul role so important to the development of Poynter NewsU was his understanding and insights into teachers, such as Poynter’s faculty, and teaching. He had an excellent sense of the art and science of developing a curriculum, especially one that would serve adult learners.
Paul didn’t really look back. He didn’t talk about the past as if it was the only golden age. I would like to think that approach to life is what attracted him to e-learning and the future he saw for Poynter training.
Sometimes, for effect or in seriousness, he would say Poynter should stop doing seminars and teaching only online. It was bold. And it mattered because it was from Paul.
Jill Geisler, Poynter Senior Faculty member:
Paul Pohlman was the key “recruiter” when I joined the Poynter Institute in 1998. It was a tough decision to leave my newsroom and Paul knew it. So he talked with me about his vision for great teaching and for helping journalists do important work. He patiently listened to my every question, every doubt, every need for plans and details.
I already knew Paul to be a master teacher, since I’d seen him in seminars, where he could simultaneously engage the classroom and just as easily slip into the background as robust conversation and learning took hold. That’s when he was happiest — when smart people were learning as much from each other as from him. He promised to help me learn how to make that classroom magic happen.
I loved to watch Paul coach people. He did it in seminars, he did it for his Poynter colleagues — and he taught it to managers.
Aly Colón, Director, Standards & Practices at NBC News:
I met Paul in the mid 1980s when he did management seminars for the Newspaper Association of America. I couldn’t afford the tuition but Paul kindly offered me a scholarship. I was an assistant editor who wanted to rise quickly.
Paul taught me that a good leader prepares, perseveres and pays attention. Be the best leader you can be now so you can be the best leader you need to be later, he explained.
More than a decade later, I had prepared, persevered and paid attention and I had the privilege of joining Poynter where I began the next phase of my career, learning new leadership skills from Paul once again. I am using them still in a new, multicultural television news environment where Paul’s pertinent leadership lessons continue to resonate.
Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar:
The Sound of Light (For Paul Pohlman)
- When sunlight glowed on ears of corn
- That’s when Paul learned to listen.
- When moonlight spun through flakes of snow
- Where window glass would glisten.
- He learned that light could make a sound
- And heard the shape behind the noise
- He listened with his skin and hair
- To whispers of grief, to winks of joy.
- Paul left the farm one windy day
- And walked till fields met boulevards,
- Till honks of geese turned into cars
- Where meadows met suburban yards.
- He listened to the cheep of birds
- To crinkled wraps of chocolate bars,
- To baseballs popped in catcher’s mitts
- To rusty clunks of antique cars.
- He listened to the young and old,
- To rich and poor, to slave and free
- To thee and thou, and we and us
- To you and yours, and he and she.
- But, in the end, what counted most
- Was when Paul listened just to me.
- Just to me.