ST. PETERSBURG — Thirty years ago, Karen Brown Dunlap visited the Poynter Institute as a summer student and knew she had to come back. The former reporter and university professor joined the faculty in 1989, and became its president in 2003.
Now Dunlap, 62, is ready to try something new. She announced Monday that she will retire in January.
Dunlap, the first African-American member of the Times Publishing Co. board, said it was time to step down because she felt fatigued and figured "it's time for me to take a new direction."
But what that direction might be, she isn't sure yet. She expects it might have something to do with the courses she teaches at her church, the Living Faith Assembly in Tampa. Those are aimed at imparting educational skills and inspiration to middle school and high school students.
The Poynter Institute, founded by former Times Publishing Co. owner Nelson Poynter, is best known for holding seminars for print and broadcast journalists at its distinctive building on Third Street S in St. Petersburg. It owns the Tampa Bay Times and Florida Trend magazine.
Dunlap said she regards as her greatest achievement transforming Poynter so it reaches out to more than journalists. She initiated a program that brought in such names as Bob Woodward and Dan Rather to give talks that were open to the public.
"Democracy needs good journalism," she said, "and the public needs to be aware of that."
The other reason for Dunlap's decision, she told Poynter's staff of 45 on Monday, is "we need to take some big steps" to guarantee the institution's future.
"And I think it's time for somebody else to do that."
The school has had to face some of the same economic challenges affecting the media industry it serves.
Dunlap said she and her husband, Henry, are thinking of returning to her native Nashville, where she was first bitten by the journalism bug. A seventh-grade teacher told her she could be a writer, so when the Nashville Banner advertised for high school-age interns, she made sure she was first in line.
That internship led to reporting jobs at the Banner as well as the Macon News and Warner Robins Enterprise in Georgia. Meanwhile, she earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University, a master's from Tennessee State University and a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She taught at the University of South Florida in Tampa before taking the Poynter job full time, and became Poynter dean in 1994.
In retirement, she expects to do some writing, in between running a half-marathon in Puerto Rico and spending a more time enjoying her 12 grandchildren.
"Karen deserves a thunderous round of applause from the Poynter Institute, and from journalists far and wide," Paul Tash, chairman of the Poynter Institute trustees and Tampa Bay Times CEO, said in a statement. "Building on her superb work, the next president will have the chance to play an enormously important role both at Poynter and in the world of journalism."
Tash said the Poynter board will meet next week, at which time he will organize a committee to begin searching for Dunlap's successor. They may be able to find a replacement before her departure in January, he said.