Fellowship season

28 Feb

Eleven years ago, I caught the break of my life: I got a one-year Knight Fellowship at Stanford. (I still find it so shocking that I rarely mention it. Friends say it usually takes at least 18 seconds before I bring it up in conversation.)

I’m unabashed about how grateful I am to the program – whatever I’ve achieved in the past 10 years of my career is due solely to what I learned on that fellowship.  Jim Bettinger and Dawn Garcia are to be commended for dramatically shifting the program’s focus to address the radical changes facing our industry.

Until two years ago, the program operated much like the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard, or the Knight-Wallace program at Michigan: Pitch us an idea that will make you a better journalist. It might be Internet economics (my topic); it might be studying the narrative form of American musical theater.

Stanford has unique qualities, however – it’s a world-class university in the heart of Silicon Valley, a place that has consistently spawned great companies.  Now the Knight program asks applicants to submit ideas that “focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership to foster high quality journalism during a time of profound transformation.”

For several years, I’ve gotten to peek at the stack of ideas as one of several former fellows who help the program staff screen applications (nearly 150 U.S. applications for the 2010-11 class). We completed that initial screening last week. There’s still a lengthy process of interviews and review by the program committee before next year’s fellows are announced in April.

Still, there are several useful lessons in this year’s stack, applicable not only to future Knights, but to anyone who aspires to entrepreneurial journalism. (All opinions are my own, of course, not those of the program.):

What was great:

  •  A “just do it” attitude: Personally, I loved the people whose proposals (and, usually, their current work) showed a bias to action. They launch stuff knowing it isn’t perfect, then adjust based on the audience reaction. That’s a far cry from the attitude most of us developed in the days of monopoly outlets. (I remember an editor screaming at us we should never experiment on our readers. Sounds reasonable – but in practice, it meants we never tried anything new.) A thousand start-ups are experimenting out there – and an axiom of the startup world is that with enough experiments, someone will figure out what works.
  • Awareness of the trends in technology. You don’t need to be a technologist to get a fellowship – but it sure helps to know broad trends in technology, especially as they affect journalism.  The best applicants understood that cheap tech gives anyone the ability to publish; and that it’s getting easier by the day to organize and display vast pools of raw data.
  • It’s not just about the World Wide Web anymore. (Doesn’t the very phrase “World Wide Web” sound archaic?) Several applicants noted that publishers need to deliver information when, where and how consumers want it – and increasingly, that means mobile devices. The best name-checked the iPad specifically.
  • Recognition that Stanford is a candy store of knowledge. The best went out of their way to discover the particular professors, classes and research going on at Stanford related to the applicant’s idea. (Hint: If you’re thinking of applying for a fellowship anywhere in the future, write that one down.)

What wasn’t so great:

  • Applicants who focused their proposals on “saving newspapers as we know them,” rather than saving journalism. There’s a difference.
  • Those who acted as if the fellowship is a lifetime achievement award: “I’ve done this and this and this – so someone somewhere owes me a sabbatical.”
  • A corollary: “I need a year off to learn all this new, foreign digital stuff.” Stanford is a marvelous place to learn about the interplay of technology and storytelling – but basic knowledge can be acquired anywhere. Start with the people on the digital side of your current or former shop.  And don’t make the mistake of implying that they’re not journalists because they sometimes hold different opinions than you. (Someone did that in a fellowship application a year ago. Guess what? They didn’t get a fellowship.)
  • “At the end of the year, I’ll have produced a report.” To steal a line from my former colleague Chris Krewson: The future of journalism isn’t going to be invented at a conference. Studies are helpful, of course – but only when they lead to actual publications that can be tested in the marketplace.

Best of luck to the Knight class of 2011. I’m insanely jealous of you all.

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