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In our latest episode of Fluent in Floridian, journalist and Poynter Institute President Neil Brown joins SalterMitchell PR President Heidi Otway to discuss the evolving role of media in our society, how Brown is shaping the next generation of journalists and some of the head-scratching Florida stories that Brown has broken.
Join us as Brown details his journey from the Miami Herald to the Tampa Bay Times, and shares how the Poynter Institute is preserving quality, ethical, local news.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. In this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, our executive producer, Heidi Otway, the president of SalterMitchell PR talks to Neil Brown, the president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
Heidi Otway: So Neil, thank you for joining this Fluent in Floridian podcast. I am so excited to have you as a guest.
Neil Brown: Well, thanks Heidi. It’s a delight to be with you. I appreciate the invitation. Let’s talk about Florida.
Heidi Otway: Let’s talk about Florida. Before we start talking about Florida, Neil, I want to talk about you and going all the way back to the beginning of your career. What prompted you to become a journalist or to enter the field of journalism?
Neil Brown: So probably a lot of folks you talked to in this business, I’m one of those who figured out pretty early this is what I wanted to do. Some of it has to do with being a pushy kid who wanted to tell people stuff first. Literally, I want to like, “Hey, did you know?” Right. See, yeah. You point-
Heidi Otway: That was me.
Neil Brown: Hear it from me first. Right?
Heidi Otway: Right.
Neil Brown: And they’ve already known it, but you were really excited to break in and tell people what happened. And so I grew up in Chicago. And I’m not making this up. I was in kindergarten when Kennedy was killed. President Kennedy was assassinated, and they sent us home. I was in the morning session, and I wanted to tell Kennedy’s been shot. I didn’t know what it meant, but you were like, are defining it. I want to be pushing that. I don’t know. Probably not until more like high school, grade school.
My father was a lawyer and he was politically interested, and so we got four newspapers at our house in Chicago back then. And it was just kind of part of the culture growing up that newspapers, journalism, even on TV, it was very high quality journalism in Chicago on television. And you’ve just felt like current events and things happening are really interesting. So it’s one of those corny stories where you go back in time and you find out, yeah, this is kind of something I always wanted to do.
Heidi Otway: Did you go to school for journalism?
Neil Brown: I did. I double majored though. You know what? I was a high school tennis player. And one day I was playing in a tennis match and then it was an indoor thing because it was Chicago and it was in the winter. And I ran into really well known Chicago TV journalist. I was probably 15 and at this tournament and I was like, wow, I was excited. “I see your work. I really like …” And he said, “You want to be a journalist?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Then here’s what I want you to do. I want you to major in political science.” And so I wound up doing a double major at the University of Iowa in journalism and political science. His point was you just need to understand government or I’ve heard double majors in English, history, other things to balance it out. That journalism should be more than just a vocation, that you should round it out. But since, as I said, politics was a big deal in my house. I did major, I was a political science major and a journalism major.
Heidi Otway: And then what was your first job? Did you go right out of college, right into a newspaper?
Neil Brown: Well, that’ll get us to Florida because it’s pretty awesome. So I did have an internship at the Boston Globe. I went to the University of Iowa. I was the editor of the Daily Iowan, which was the leading newspaper in town. I’m not kidding. And so we covered the Iowa caucuses, covered the Pope coming to Iowa. We’d do all kind of great … covered city hall in Iowa City. So I got a real taste of real journalism in college, much more than in the classroom, right?
Got an internship at the Boston Globe. That was a fantastic experience. But anyway, so I applied out of school and I got lucky. Well, I took a chance on an internship. I didn’t get accepted job, and that it was an internship at the Miami Herald. And so I drove from Chicago after graduating Iowa down to Miami and get a load of this Heidi. They go, “Well, welcome to your internship. We just are assigning people to go replace people who are on vacation this summer. And we’re sending you to key West.”
Heidi Otway: From Chicago.
Neil Brown: From Chicago with a stop in Iowa. And it’s like, I’d hardly ever been. I’ve been to Florida once in Fort Lauderdale. Anyways, so I have an internship in Miami and the guy I was replacing during the internship up and quit, never came back, and they offered, and I was having a very good internship. They offered me a job. So my first job out of school …
Heidi Otway: Was the Miami Herald.
Neil Brown: Miami Herald Key West bureau.
Heidi Otway: I’m from Miami. I grew up reading the Miami Herald. So I totally know what you mean. And the Key West bureau. I bet you thought you were in heaven.
Neil Brown: I actually did. It also had other people at the Herald telling me I was in heaven. They’re like, “How did you get Key West?” Like a lot of things in this business. Look, look.
Heidi Otway: So what were some of the biggest stories you covered down to Key West?
Neil Brown: So there was at least two storms that were coming at us. One might have been named Josephine. I don’t remember the names. Alberta, Alberto. Hurricanes, but my real … I mean, if you’re in the Key West bureau, we had a Keys page, Keys news page. This is so old school. In my day … But I had to take my own photos. And then literally because it wasn’t a digital age, get them to the airport, the film to the airport at 3:00 to send up to the city desk in Miami to develop the film.
Heidi Otway: My goodness.
Neil Brown: And so I take my own photos, write stories, three or four stories a day. But the big break … and it was the Keys. So all these bales of marijuana were washing up. It was cocaine war. But two big stories, three or four big stories, a lot of development issues. But this would’ve been in 19, I guess ’81. So it’s way back. But for whatever reason, I guess it was president Reagan at the time, set up a border patrol to try to cut down on drug dealing in the Keys. And so he sets up a border like a marathon maybe. And the folks in the Keys went nuts. How do you set up a border? We’re in the United States. Why do you have border? So they conducted this mock session call and said, “We’re not part of the United States. We are the Conch Republic.”
Heidi Otway: I remember that, the Conch Republic.
Neil Brown: And I’m telling you, it went national. And I had all these [inaudible 00:07:03] because it was this Key West was seceding from the union. Why? Because you set up a border. If there’s a border. That we’re own country. And that was the kind of life in Key West. There’s this marvelous mix of these old Conch fishermen, these native natives of the Key West. They’re the Babas. They were called the Babas if you were a native of Key West. All these great stories of drug dealers, corruption. While I was there, the entire, I’m not making this up, Heidi. The entire detective division of the Key West Police Department was indicted for protecting drug dealers.
Heidi Otway: Well, are you surprised by that?
Neil Brown: Not at all, but it was a good story. Got me on the front page a lot. And I had a great time with a lot of great people. So there was tourism, there was fishing and it was just … there was a laid back Key West mentality. A live and let live attitude that was really, really cool to be part of. And so that was my first job. So I was there for almost two years.
Heidi Otway: That’s amazing. Where did you go after that sweet spot?
Neil Brown: Well, yeah, it was sweet. I don’t know why I was … This idea of getting promoted was stupid. I should have just stayed down there, but I moved to, at that point it was still newspapers were so king, the Herald decided it was going to march into Palm Beach County and take on the Palm Beach Post and the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, which had a big grow in Palm Beach. So I was part of an expansion where the Miami Herald, totally different than today I’m afraid, went from two people, two reporters in Palm Beach to 35. We added 33 reporters. It was part of a march to cover Palm Beach County. So I was part of this incursion. Well, we did some great, great work. But as is appropriate, the Fort Lauderdale paper and the Palm Beach paper, they said, “We’re not going to eat our lunch.” And they responded.
And so there was a three paper newspaper war for the readers of Palm Beach County. Of course Broward and Dade as well. And so eventually the Herald did not prevail on that and they wound up pulling back after I was already gone. We’re part of a big bit where local news is king. And you used to think if the quality of the news is great, people will be so glad for it, they will buy it. They’ll respect it. Well, they did respect it, but they didn’t always buy it. Already got my hometown paper, the Palm Beach Post. You’re the Miami Herald. So I learned some lessons about newspapers and about the media business there and all. Great people doing great work, as did Palm Beach in Fort Lauderdale. It was a great time to be. I mean, Florida journalism has always been exceptionally strong and that was really, I’m sure there were a lot of heydays, but that was one of the heydays. But then I went from there to Miami to the Herald’s main newsroom. So I covered the building of Joe Robbie Stadium, which-
Heidi Otway: Joe Robbie Stadium. It will always be Joe Robbie Stadium.
Neil Brown: Absolutely.
Heidi Otway: I don’t care what anybody says.
Neil Brown: So I was on the city desk as a government reporter and did a lot of work on that because if you remember growing up, so Joe Robbie owned the Dolphins. I mean, that was the biggest and the most powerful franchise in all of Florida. That said, they wanted a new stadium. He said he was going to pay for it. But he got the land donated for the stadium on the Dade Broward line. And it displaced one of the few at the time, middle class Black neighborhoods.
Heidi Otway: I know.
Neil Brown: And it was really a-
Heidi Otway: That was around the Lake Lucerne area.
Neil Brown: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So somebody donated the land and they displaced these Black families, and it was quite a story, made for really good coverage.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I remember that.
Neil Brown: And then I became an editor at Herald right after that.
Heidi Otway: So you talked a lot about the evolution of the newspaper back in the heyday, right? So if we were to fast forward to now, what is your perspective right now?
Neil Brown: What’s … I’m sorry. Say it again. What’s the question?
Heidi Otway: What is your perspective now about the evolution of newspapers and newsrooms?
Neil Brown: There’s a paradox, and this is not a new observation, but it’s an important one. So the power of technology, the power of the internet, the tools available to us right now. There’s a weird dynamic where to some degree we have more eyeballs on the journalism we are doing today. More people can see it, they can read it at any time a day. They don’t have to have it delivered on their driveway steps anymore or at their front porch. And it’s powerful and you get video. You get all these things and you have more eyeballs on it than ever before. And yet, there are so many fewer dollars to pay for it than ever before.
It’s a collision. How could there be more interest and more audience and less resources, less money? The business model exploded in the time that I from … not just Key West, but since to now. And it’s a confusing time. And so what’s happened is it’s heartbreaking. I mean, I don’t believe we should linger on lamenting, but here are some realities. When I was the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, then later the Tampa Bay Times, at the height in 2006, our newsroom, the size of our local newsroom was 406 people. Okay?
And at the time, probably the Herald is already in somewhat of a smaller position, but the Herald would’ve been about the same. Today, the Tampa Bay Times, which I’m still affiliated. Poynter owns it. That full-time newsroom is probably about 120 people. The Herald is well below 100. Those are the two of the most defining brands in our time. So there’s a problem. We have fewer people covering local news. That is really bad for democracy. It’s bad for all of us, but it’s again, it’s weird. There’s fewer dollars. People have too many choices. So we have all this interest and none of the resources to really honor the interest and honor democracy the way we need to. So we have to keep working.
Again, I don’t want to just lament. It’s not [inaudible 00:13:49] that. But it’s not good for democracy that there’s … You think about it. I’ve mentioned Joe Robbie Stadium. There’s some great people to Herald. They’re doing great work. I know a lot of them still. Same in Palm Beach in Fort Lauderdale doing some excellent work. Everybody’s trying hard. But I would’ve done a story every day on the creation of Joe Robbie Stadium. I mean, as in I did. They’re watching it. The community knew. The community that was being displaced, the community of sports fans, the development community. Everybody had to check it out.
Now, if that happens today, local newsrooms only have the opportunity or the resources at times to do, maybe they’re doing one of those stories a week. That means that a lot of days stuff’s happening, and we don’t know. The citizens lose in that scenario. And we have yet to figure out some new models. On the fringes in a lot of communities [inaudible 00:14:47], and it’s not just about digital versus print. It’s literally just about the resources to do the journalism. It’s expensive work, always has been. And with the advertising model broken where advertising can no longer pay the freight, even you or me, we have a lot of subscriptions. We’re willing to buy some stuff, but that’s eight bucks a month, nine bucks a month, whatever. And that’s high for some. LA Times offers its newspaper for a dollar for six months, I mean, just to try to get the eyeball.
Heidi Otway: Just to get people in, yeah. Just to get [inaudible 00:15:22].
Neil Brown: Again, it’s a collision of forces. So I do fear that local news isn’t getting covered it once was. It’s just a fact. We have to come up with some new ways to do it. And then I guess what I would say is in that generation from Key West to now, something did, we do have to own this. We didn’t recognize the power that technology would offer. We thought we could just keep doing what we were doing without adapting. And so our industry has to own the reality that we did not adapt in a timely fashion. And it’s pretty tough going backward. I mean, just imagine. Now we’re charging these paywalls for journalism on the internet. Well, we just thought that’s never going to be a keeper, and we’ll just keep giving it for free. And we taught people, well, if it’s free, it must not be worth all that much.
Heidi Otway: Exactly, yeah.
Neil Brown: And we’ve run into a little bit of we put ourselves in a corner that we are now trying to come out and it’s very tough to play catch up.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. I recently saw an article where someone said that people are demanding quality journalism. They’re demanding the facts, the truth, and what’s really happening. But at the same time, they don’t want to pay for it.
Neil Brown: No. They have too many options or they talk themselves into in a vacuum. That sounds like what they want, unfortunately. And I think they would appreciate it, would value it. But at the same time, they also want things that they already agree with. They definitely had, I mean, this was the change that we didn’t embrace. They definitely decided they wanted in some new forms and maybe at other times of the day, instead of just sort of morning paper, evening news. That didn’t keep up with the way people’s lives were changing.
So the product started to slip not in the quality of the journalism, but in recognizing that people’s behaviors and opportunities were changing. We did not adapt to that. So now they say, “Yeah, we want it straight. We want facts. But if we really prefer it, agree with what we already think, or I don’t want to pay but a buck or two.” A lot of things are factoring in. So it defies super easy either solutions or even diagnoses. It’s complicated. Why? Because we’re all individuals to some degree. In a form that used to be simpler when it was just serving the one masses, but then as we well know it, wasn’t always serving all of the masses.
Heidi Otway: Exactly.
Neil Brown: We’re still paying for that too.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So what is the role of the Poynter Institute? I know what it is because I came there as a college student when I was a journalism major at Florida A&M University. And I get it. But for some of our listeners here who may have heard of you all, give us an overview of the role of the Poynter Institute.
Neil Brown: Thanks for asking. I appreciate the opportunity to do just that. So I’m going to give a little history related to what we just were talking about, and I’m going to tell you all the work the Poynter’s doing now. So the longtime editor and owner of the St. Petersburg Times, which was this terrific and remains a terrific news organization that served Tampa St. Pete. His name was Nelson Poynter. Nelson Poynter in the 1940s when he took over ownership of the paper from his father, he predicted that someday the people who own newspapers won’t want to be in the newspaper business and they’ll sell and all the ownership of newspapers will be consolidated in the hands of just a few corporate chains. In the 1940s. He was a visionary. Because as we know, that’s exactly what’s happened to newspapers.
Well, rather than just predict it, he had an idea. So he decided that when he died, he would not leave his newspaper to his heirs. And people said, “How are you going to do that?” So what he did was he created a school that would train professional journalists. He also believed that we don’t value training enough in any careers, professional development. You need to keep learning even as you’re a professional.
So he created a tool where journalists would come and work on their writing. They would work on their photography, their layout and design. They would use the St. Pete Times as a lab to help do that. And then and here was the magic and the vision. He announced before he died, “When I die, I’m leaving the St. Pete Times …” now the Tampa Bay Times, which back then was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. “I’m going to leave it to the school, and the school will own the newspaper.” People said, “Nelson, wait, what about your heirs? Why don’t you leave it to your heirs?” You know what he said? He said, “I’ve never met my great-grandchildren, and I’m not sure I’d like them.” So because he did not trust that they’d want to be-
Heidi Otway: Yeah, the visionary in him.
Neil Brown: So he dies 1978, and the ownership of the paper went to the school, which was then called the Modern Media Institute, but the leaders then renamed it the Poynter Institute. So I tell you that story because number one, the Poynter Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times to this day and has protected it as one of the few independent, not chain owned newspapers in America. Another sentence of Mr. Poynter uttered, which is really true and the local news concept we talked about. Mr. Poynter once said, “Every community deserves a newspaper that loves it best.” He really believed that local ownership was important. So we own the paper. The paper is run separately by a newsroom. The paper itself is a for-profit enterprise. We are a nonprofit school, but we’re there to pretty much preserve this jewel of an ownership structure, to keep it out of the hands of corporate owners and to keep it local Tampa Bay. So Poynter has that role. Now beyond that, and what you came, Heidi, when you came just a few years ago-
Heidi Otway: More like 32 years.
Neil Brown: [inaudible 00:21:46] the younger was too, whether it was college students or professionals to work on your writing, work on your photography, learn about ethics. Poynter is still the gold standard in terms of ethical practice of journalism. And so our number one job is professional journalists. It used to be, they would come to our beautiful building here in St. Pete for training classes and programs. Now, increasingly even before the pandemic, we do as much or more training, we go to newsrooms where we can train 20 of you. You don’t have to pay for travel costs, things like that.
Heidi Otway: That’s right.
Neil Brown: So we train in leadership, and we have a program coming up on diverse voices. We train in writing. We train ethics, ethics training. We have three women’s leadership academies that are training women who are already executives at news organizations and could be promoted even higher. We’ll work on their leadership skills. And we have been doing digital training and revenue training for organizations ranging from new digital startups too. We have a program right now that we are working with 80 public media stations, public TV and public radio stations, because they know that at some point people are cutting the cord. They’re getting their news online, even if you’re a big NPR fan or a PBS fan. And so we are training news directors, producers, both in the broadcast space, but also in the public TV and public radio space on ethics, on how to grow digital revenue, how to do digital journalism correctly, all of that. So we’re doing all of that. And then in the last five years, we have almost doubled the size of Poynter because we have moved into three other realms.
Chris Cate: The Fluent in Floridian podcast is brought to you by SalterMitchell PR, a communications consultancy focused on helping good causes win. We provide strategic insight and guidance to organizations seeking to make an impact in the nation’s third most populous state. Learn more at smprflorida.com. Now back to Heidi’s interview with Neil Brown.
Neil Brown: When I was at the Tampa Bay Times, we started something called PolitiFact.
Heidi Otway: I was just about to ask you about that. Tell us about PolitiFact. I love it.
Neil Brown: [inaudible 00:24:05]. Thank you. We started PolitiFact at the St. Pete Times in 2007 ahead of the Florida presidential … the Florida primary for president. That was later. That was the year that Obama ran against McCain, but Florida was going to be the big proving ground for the primaries. So we said, Bill Adair, our Washington [inaudible 00:24:29] chief had this idea, “What if we just did fact checking?” I said, “Bill, this is going to cost us a lot of time. Are you going to give up what you want to do, riding with the candidates and all that ego stuff that journalists love?” Which I love to. Yeah, we need to do something new and different. So we said, let’s try this as a six month experiment. We’ll get through the Florida primary, just like we had yesterday, right?
Heidi Otway: Yeah.
Neil Brown: This was presidential. People loved it. People, the consumers loved it. It was old school journalism really, Heidi. Records, accountability. But we wrote it in a way that was almost more like consumer reports. When people say stuff, political candidates say stuff or the pundits and you ask yourself, huh? What if that’s true? We would try to answer.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. And you’re still doing it to this day.
Neil Brown: We just celebrated our 15th anniversary this week.
Heidi Otway: Congratulations. Wow.
Neil Brown: So when I moved to from the newsroom at the Times to Poynter, I brought PolitiFact with me. In part, because the local newsroom couldn’t really afford to keep doing this on a national level because of those resources we talked about. So we moved it to Poynter. It is now that won a Pulitzer prize. It is now the largest political fact checking website in America. We’re flattered and we have helped. It has been imitated around the globe and it remains-
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I’ve seen iterations of it.
Neil Brown: … one of Poynter’s main missions. The other thing we do at Poynter that is really just critical now and we just got in this space about the last three or four years, is media literacy. So we are now working with, we got a grant from Google. We worked with Stanford University and we came up with a curriculum in middle schools and high schools so that kids, when they get stuff on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, don’t have to come to a website. See if you can learn, we can train young people. When you see stuff, check out where it’s from. Maybe don’t share it right away. Right? Well, this has taken off so much so now that our number one client for this work is not kids, but AARP.
Heidi Otway: AARP? Why? Why AARP?
Neil Brown: Well, because everybody’s struggling with this. Everybody is struggling on college campuses, high schools, baby boomers, seniors. We’re sharing stuff. We don’t know. We’ve seen stuff on the internet. We don’t know if it’s true.
Heidi Otway: Right.
Neil Brown: We work with training people so you can have some power in the information marketplace. You have some power. You don’t have to just trust what people say, including your uncles and aunts or whatever. Check it out. You might believe it, you may not, but we’re just trying to slow everything down so that we can improve the quality of information. So that has become a major rule for Poynter. So we do fact checking, we’re training of journalists, media literacy. And we’re working with organizations around the globe on all of these things. And by the way, we’re just about to start a media, that program’s called MediaWise, media literacy. And we’re now doing it in Spanish in three countries and starting a major U.S. fact checking site in the U.S. in Spanish.
Heidi Otway: That is incredible. Love to hear that.
Neil Brown: All of it rolls up to this whole democracy business. Right? I mean, the truth is journalism is so vital for our democracy, but let’s be totally honest. And this is part of our mission. I think people no longer know that is an automatic. They don’t really associate journalism with democracy like they once did. And so part of our mission is to spread the word that if you’re going to participate, if you’re going to vote, if you’re going to be involved in your school board, if you’re going to sort out your health issues in the middle of a pandemic, journalism can be an opportunity for independent credible information and give you some power in that. So you need to value it, not just for when you vote. That’s what [inaudible 00:28:31].
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So what do you tell young people who want to become journalists? What advice do you give them? How do you encourage them that this is the career to pursue? I mean, you mentioned when you were a little kid, you wanted to tell everybody everything. I was the exact same way. So I’m a journalist at heart, and I know young people who are in that same boat, but they look at the state of the industry and say, “I don’t know.” What do you say to them?
Neil Brown: I like to deconstruct things and go back to the beginning. You don’t have to be a little kid who wants to yell the answer to the quiz right away or whatever, or tell people stuff. But I talk to young people and I’m like, “What are you interested in? Journalism is involved. Do you like stories? Do you like videos? Do you like entertainment? Do you like sports?” Whatever. That there are people who are telling you those stories. You care a lot about what’s happening around your neighborhood? Tell a story. Don’t have to think of it as automatically a career. If you want to tell stories, if you want to tell them in new ways and interesting ways, there’s real opportunity. If you do want to investigate things, there’s that component. So I try to break things down for younger people and sort of say, “how do you get you entertained? How do you get information?”
Don’t make it eat your peas, or this is something that you should do only if it’s important. It is important, but it can get there through being engaging or interesting or creative. And now that’s again that paradox. There’s so many new ways to do it. We have at Poynter a major relationship with TikTok, where they’ve asked us to fact check some of their videos, because they know two things. On the upside of TikTok, and I find this totally true. It’s an amazingly engaging way to get entertained or occasionally information. On the downside, it’s really easy to slip something by people or to say stuff that’s not true.
TikTok recognizes that. Listen, they’re going to have to be held accountable for misinformation, but it’s better reality that if people are getting information or entertainment whatever it is from this form, tell journalism to TikTok. It’s not just the same old sort of way. And then again, there are people, young people who care a lot. One thing I’ve come to understand through my own kids, never think that young people aren’t interested in news, in justice. They are socially interested, and they will find out and they will be informed. So try to get them involved in the process of being informed.
Heidi Otway: I like how you mentioned that because if you think about it right now, we have five generations of alive right now. And each one gets their news in different ways. And what I’m hearing from you is that the Poynter Institute is really on the forefront of ensuring that the news they get is accurate or relevant.
Neil Brown: I got to put you on my marketing team, but that you’ve just hit on the head. The integrity of information matters, the quality. And again, not for my sake, for the sake of anybody who’s just trying to navigate their lives, whether they’re young, middle or older. So that is what we’re doing. And we’re also trying to respect that A) if people have accurate and quality information, they will have more power, more agency in their lives day in and day out. That there are many, many ways to get it. It’s not just one size fits all. And we have to respect that. That there will be differences of opinion. You have to respect that. And so then maybe if we can show some respect at all, that all of it gets a little bit more civil and helps people in their daily lives.
Heidi Otway: So did you ever think when you got that first gig down in Key West, that your career would evolve going from the Miami Herald to the Tampa Bay Times to the Poynter Institute, and it being in the Poynter Institute and not just focusing on print media, but all these new forms of media. I mean, when you reflect, what do you think?
Neil Brown: Well, to your point, even a corny journalism nerd like myself probably thought all journalism is Watergate, right? We’re going to go put the bad guys in jail. We’re going to hold the people accountable and all that. The good news is that’s still a big component, right?
Heidi Otway: Yeah.
Neil Brown: All of it around it, we couldn’t have dreamed of. Well, I told you the story that I’m taking film to the airport. Well, now anybody with a phone is a publisher and I mean, and really cool video or 15 second TikTok or 45. It’s so exciting, and you could never have dreamed it or imagined it. And yet at the same time, there’s some values that never did change. Right? We always used to say whether it was 30 years ago or today, 50 years ago or today, don’t be boring.
Heidi Otway: Don’t be boring.
Neil Brown: That is nothing to be apologized for. No. If you’re boring. There’s a phrase we used to say in the old days, I was a government reporter. So hey, you got a good story today? Well, it’s dull but important, DBI. Dull but important. And I came to realize if it’s important, then if it’s dull, that’s on me. If it’s important, let’s explain why. So now that the tools are so available, it’s so accessible. We can’t imagine what the power of it is. I mean, I do think we could never have dreamed that it would all be so available, that would be harder to find money to pay for. No listen, journalists never made a lot of money. That was not the point, but there were all these news organizations doing it. So you thought this is a heck of a robust industry. Now, that’s different.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. It’s a lot different. So you mentioned that Mr. Poynter was a visionary and actually was predicting things that actually came. Do you consider yourself a visionary? And what is your prediction for the next decade of journalism?
Neil Brown: I want to know who of all your guests said, “Yes, I’m a visionary.” So maybe I’ll be the first. Yes, I’m a visionary. No, I don’t know.
Heidi Otway: No, I wouldn’t expect you to say that, but where do you see the future of journalism in the next five to 10 years?
Neil Brown: Well, again, I think … So I just did a report for my board of trustees this week. And I said, look at just in the last five years, we didn’t have that media literacy program and now we do. Right? Five years ago, there was no TikTok. Now we used to start say, 20 years ago, there were no self … There was no internet. Well, now it’s moving. My point these days is you talked about five generations right now. I think in the world of media and journalism, a generation is a five year increment. It’s moving that fast. So what will the next five years bring? There’s some new form I haven’t dreamed up. You haven’t dreamed up. Otherwise, we get rich. That people are going to get their information.
I actually think a lot of things, there will be a bit of a back to the future component where independent, credible information that’s not opinion will find a Renaissance. I think fact checking is part of that, but even that’s become a little politicized by enemies of it, and that’s fine. People have a right to decide for this. We have this thing, PolitiFact. You mentioned you like it. I appreciate that very much. My whole team does. Our whole team does. But I would say that it’s interesting. People say, but people are, “Politicians are lying more than ever. Fact checking doesn’t work.” And here’s my point. Well, A) I’m not sure that’s even true. But B) you missed the point. We can’t stop people from lying. That’s never the point. I’m just trying to let you, the audience, have some power in the relationship so you can judge for yourself if this person is …
And so I think we’ll find ways to leverage, to make money again off of independence, credibility. We’ll find a Renaissance rather than be something that people try to attack, and it will be with some new forums and faster, and I think that’s exciting.
Heidi Otway: I’m excited about the future too. And there is a role for journalism. I don’t think journalism is dead. I don’t think newspapers are dead regardless of what people say. There’s still a lot of value. I have newspapers around my desk. I would show you the one that’s buried here. But I do believe that the power of journalism. So thank you so much. I can talk to you much longer and talk more about Poynter, but we only have a limited window. So what I’d like to do is wrap up with the questions that we always ask our guests on the show. And the first question is, who is a Florida leader you admire? It could be someone from a different industry or field, from the past or someone who is still active in their work. Florida leader.
Neil Brown: I can’t believe that I looked at Tim Nickens’ podcast and forgot to even see what he answered. Florida leader. So many. Well, I’m going to go with a journalist, Carl Hiaasen. So not only is he creative, funny guy, hilarious, champion of Florida, champion of the environment, but what people don’t remember or may not remember, some might. So I told you about when I was in Key West and the detective department was indicted, the entire. That was off of work done when he was a young man before he ever wrote his first book. Carl Hiaasen was one of the best investigative reporters that Florida or American journalism has ever seen. He was an investigative reporter.
He also exposed horrible corruption in the Bahamas. He exposed corruption related to the development of the Keys where developers were killing mangroves and putting up developments. Carl Hiaasen is a five tool, almost as well as a writer. So he is not just about the wacky stories of Carl Hiaasen. That guy is Florida through and through. And by the way, as a young journalist at the Herald, for all his fame, no ego, well probably has plenty of ego, but my point is very giving, always to help young people, cares about the state of Florida. So I’m going to throw in with Carl Hiaasen.
Heidi Otway: Great. I’m a big fan of his. What is a current person, place or thing in Florida that deserves more attention than it’s currently getting?
Neil Brown: I think this climate crisis is for real. And so I’m not sure whether it’s a place or a thing, but I think that even as journalists are sounding the alarm and citizens are feeling it about rising sea levels, whether they’re Miami, St. Pete, Tampa Bay. We have got to begin to pull people together and start to work this through. And it shouldn’t be like everything so politicized that you’re frozen in our actions. I’ve been now been in Florida more than 30 years, and it’s just stunningly beautiful and fraught. Right? And it’s not just about development or this or that, but have to, I think we need the journalism organizations in the state are doing a good job of trying to cover it, but a lot of things, you do stuff. And then you kind of pull back and forget for a while and you do things. So I think we got to keep coming at this climate crisis as it relates to Florida.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. What is your favorite Florida location to visit?
Neil Brown: So well, I actually, haven’t been in the Keys in a while, though I think the Keys are a true jewel. I’m really big on Anna Maria Island, which I just think the Gulf coast beaches. So I spent my first part of my career in Miami and in the Atlantic side. But I’m throwing in with the Gulf coast beaches, everything from particularly Sarasota, Manatee, Tampa Bay. The Pass-A-Grille, another great, great beach here in Pinellas. So Anna Marie Island, Pass-A-Grille, and then probably a little jewel of the town, which maybe, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to, Heidi, in my county right here in Pinellas is Gulfport. And it’s like, it reminds me of Key West in 1981. So it’s kind of a little throwback town that got cool little restaurants, a lot of crafts, people very relaxed. So I kind of like Gulfport.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. I stopped there for … there’s a little seafood restaurant that’s right on the water that I’ve eaten there before. It was really, really amazing. And finally, you’re in Florida. So who’s your favorite sports team?
Neil Brown: Well, listen. It’s funny. I grew up in Chicago and never once was able to get a ticket to the Blackhawks and hated hockey, hated it, because I was a baseball guy, big Cubs fan. I love baseball. I really liked Tampa Rays. I like football. I liked the Buccaneers. But this Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team … So I come to Florida. Florida where it’s 96 degrees. And suddenly I get enamored of a hockey team, which has now won two Stanley Cups and was … So it’s also a good study in an organization that really gets connected to its community. And again, I’m a baseball fan and a tennis player, but somehow this hockey team has captured my imagination.
Heidi Otway: That’s amazing. I love to hear that. Well, Neil, thank you so much for being a guest on this Fluent in Floridian podcast. I have so enjoyed this conversation, and I hope we get a chance to talk together again.
Neil Brown: Well, you have been so kind with your great questions and to invite me on. I was flattered to be asked, and it’s a delight talking to you, Heidi.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, SalterMitchell PR has you covered by offering issue management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about SalterMitchell PR at smprflorida.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.
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