The Institute was founded by the late Wilton C. Scott in 1950 to help high school and college students acquire skills in communications. Scott, a strong advocate of minority participation in the media, served as the director of public relations at Savannah State from 1947 until 1972. In his honor, Charles J. Elmore, Ph.D., institute director (1974-1975;1980-1986), established the Wilton C. Scott Award for Scholastic Journalism in 1981 at the 31st SRPI. It is awarded during the Institute to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the field of scholastic journalism.
Elmore also established a second award, the Robert S. Abbott Memorial Award, named in memory of Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender. It is awarded to a communications professional annually. In 1997, institute director Novella Cross Holmes established a new award, the Louis R. Lautier Award for Career Achievement, which is annually awarded to an outstanding journalist, and in 2009, she established the Louis J. Corsetti Award for Excellence in Journalism. In addition to workshops in photography, writing for multiple platforms, news, magazine and feature writing, new media, copy-editing, headline writing, broadcasting, public relations, advertising, and newspaper layout and design, all of which are instructed by media professionals from across the nation.
The two-day Institute is traditionally held in February or March.