Remembering Don Baldwin, first president of The Poynter Institute

Don Baldwin at Poynter’s 30th Anniversary in 2005. Dave Pierson / The Poynter Institute

By Karen Brown Dunlap, president

(Originally published August 7, 2006)

On a May morning in 1964 when the St. Petersburg Times won its first Pulitzer Prize, publisher Nelson Poynter celebrated by jumping on a desk and letting out a howl. A photograph shows him with his legs crossed, a big grin on his face and his eyes fixed on his executive editor, Don Baldwin.

Their partnership produced great journalism for over a decade, and after that an unusual school for journalists. When Poynter decided to will his newspaper to a school, he chose Baldwin to create the Modern Media Institute, now named The Poynter Institute.

Donald K. Baldwin, first president of Poynter, died today (Aug. 7, 2006) after recent heart surgery. He was 88 years old. Most of us remember him as a tall, elegant man with white hair, a deep voice and plenty of good cheer. He was also resourceful, tough and resilient. He was a newspaper man who rose in leadership under Nelson Poynter, departed in a dispute and returned to help establish Nelson Poynter’s legacy.

Last Nov. 10, Baldwin and his wife, Pat, helped us observe the Institute’s 30th anniversary by talking to our staff. He sat in the auditorium and described founding the Modern Media Institute with no firm plan of what it was to become. He said he began in 1975 with one assistant in what had been a bank building. In 1977 MMI had four employees, eight courses and 312 students.

In a 1984 interview with Poynter’s library director, David Shedden, Baldwin said, “We began to experiment with programs. At first, when Poynter was alive, we were very small and we deliberately stayed that way. We had a limited budget, and what we were doing was experimenting. He [Mr. Poynter] was excited. He thought we were on the right track.”

Don Baldwin set us on the right track with his style, his commitment to journalism, and a vision he shared with Nelson Poynter. For that, I am grateful.

Born in South Dakota, Baldwin grew up in Idaho and attended Idaho State University. He worked at two Idaho newspapers, moved to California and in 1943 joined the Associated Press bureau in San Francisco. In 1957, Nelson Poynter traveled to a journalism gathering in Tokyo and met Baldwin, who was then serving as the AP’s Far Eastern news editor.

Poynter persuaded Baldwin to become managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times in 1958, when Baldwin was 40 years old. In 1961 Baldwin became executive editor.

Poynter’s biographer, Robert N. Pierce, author of “A Sacred Trust,” described Baldwin in the newsroom:

One always knew when Baldwin was around. He was six-feet-three, loose-jointed and slim in a way that made him seem taller. He had a loud but modulated voice that would have been stagy except for his obvious sincerity‚Ķ His years with the wire service had trained him to work at lightning speed, and it took him two years to slow down even to the fast pace of a newspaper. (“A Sacred Trust,” Page 210)

Although they were opposites in height, Baldwin and Poynter were alike in their bold ideas and quick minds, Pierce wrote, but they were so dynamic that they eventually clashed and in 1971 Baldwin retired from the newspaper. He taught at the University of South Florida before accepting Poynter’s offer to start the Modern Media Institute. He served as president until the end of 1982.

Roy Peter Clark, who worked with Baldwin during the early years of the Modern Media Institute, said:

Don Baldwin had so much integrity and was such a good steward that Nelson Poynter hired him twice: first to run his newspaper and then to start the school that would own it.

When people visit Poynter, they have no idea of the squalor from which it was born. Don Baldwin led a skeleton crew in a termite infested building next to a saloon.

Under his leadership, we out-performed our resources and built a foundation for what was to come.

Bob Haiman, second president of The Poynter Institute, recalled his work with Baldwin at the Times.

I followed Don in the titles of managing editor, executive editor, and then president of The Poynter Institute. The Times already had the values, principles and purposes of a top-notch paper when Don arrived; Nelson Poynter had seen to that. But, truth to tell, there probably was a lack of urgency on too many days. Everything about Don, even the way he walked around the newsroom — very quickly and leaning forward about 10 degrees — said, “Let’s pick up the pace, folks. This is a deadline business!” And the staff quickly picked up the new pace.

Jim Naughton, Poynter’s third president, described his first meeting with the man whose position he would later hold:

Don Baldwin will properly be known for his superb journalism, both abroad and at home. As if that were not enough, he created the Modern Media Institute, infused it with his and Nelson Poynter’s values, and built it into what became The Poynter Institute, a beacon of knowledge and standards for journalists. The first time I ever had the chance to come to MMI, Don welcomed me and told me I would have fun learning there. I did, and kept coming back to learn. What a wonderful gift he gave to our craft.