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Jan. 7, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

Calling American journalists: It’s time to get serious about your Nieman Fellowship application

The photo above — bucolic and autumnal and sunny — is a bit of a lie at the moment. It’s cold outside. Nonetheless, that image could be a lot like the one you’ll be seeing next August when you arrive at Lippmann House to start your Nieman Fellowship year. But, like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play, and it’s time for American journalists to get serious about preparing their applications.

(We love non-Americans too — but their deadline passed last month.)

For those just joining us, the Nieman Fellowship is a decades-old opportunity for working journalists to spend an academic year here at Harvard, studying the subjects of their choice. Are you a business reporter who wants a stronger grounding in macroeconomics? A foreign correspondent who needs to dive deeper into contemporary Islam? A statehouse reporter who wants to put the daily political maneuvering in a theoretical context? Then a Nieman Fellowship might be for you.

Those examples are all pretty purpose-driven, but Niemans aren’t tied just to the study plan they propose. They end up taking lit classes with James Wood and Luke Menand, law classes with Alan Dershowitz, government classes with Robert Putnam, science classes with E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, history classes with Niall Ferguson, economics classes with Amartya Sen — even if those subjects have little directly to do with their beats back in the office. (I don’t mean to give short shrift to the thousand of Harvard faculty you haven’t heard of — they’re pretty brilliant too.)

Aside from classes, Niemans spend the year in the company of their fellow fellows, who are typically some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet. (Speaking as an American Nieman Fellow ’08, I can say that spending a year with a dozen top non-American journalists prompts a lot of thinking about how the way we operate isn’t the only way.) Perhaps most important, fellows get to soak up all there is to take from Harvard outside the classroom: an endless stream of lectures, lunches with faculty, and engagement with the many smart people who live within a 10-mile radius of campus. And if Harvard isn’t enough for your intellectual interest, there’s a little place called MIT down the street.

All this can be yours, for the low, low cost of an application, plus evidence of your general awesomeness. The deadline for applications is January 31, which means you’ve got some time to assemble yours. We typically get around 10 applications for every fellowship spot we have to offer, so it’s competitive — but that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a try.

You can learn lots about the fellowship program on the main Nieman Foundation site; click through the links in the orange bar at the top. Here are a few of the questions I usually hear from applicants:

Q. Am I too young (or too old) for a Nieman?

A. No! There is no age requirement for a fellowship. We require at least five years’ experience in journalism, which in practice means if you’re 22, you’re unlikely to qualify. (Those middle-school years spent as a paperboy don’t count as journalism experience.) I’d say most of our fellows run between late 20s and mid 40s, but that’s just the typical range — there have been younger and older, and all are welcome to apply. The perfect applicant will have enough experience to show a strong record of achievement, but still have plenty of years ahead of her to use what she learns as a fellow.

Q. I’m a [photographer|documentary filmmaker|blogger|public radio producer|opinion writer|database nerd|news librarian|magazine editor]. Am I eligible?

A. Yes! (Well, assuming you meet the other requirements, like the five years bit.) Historically, most Niemans worked at newspapers, but the current batch of fellows includes journalists who’ve worked primarily in magazines, TV, radio, wire services, and online. And they’re not all reporters — editors, photographers, documentarians, and others are welcome, so long as you work in the production of journalism and can show evidence of your general awesomeness. Also worth noting: Freelancers are welcome.

Personally, I’d love to see more fellows from the world of online journalism — developers, data journalists, entrepreneurial types, or reporters and editors who’ve worked at startups or nonprofit outlets. The kind of people we write about here at the Lab, in other words. There are lots of opportunities through Berkman, MIT CMS, and here at the Lab for digitally oriented fellows to improve their game and plan their contribution to the evolution of journalism. If you’re a regular Lab reader and you’re generally awesome, you’d probably be a strong candidate.

Q. I see there are specific fellowships reserved for certain kinds of reporters. I’m not one of those kinds. Am I eligible?

A. Yes! We do have specific fellowship slots we typically reserve for journalists who cover the arts, business, global health, and smaller communities. That’s great news if you fall in one of those categories — but most of the fellowships are open to all comers, no matter your beat.

Q. What do I tell my boss? He’ll notice if I’m gone for a year.

A. Traditionally, Niemans have asked their employer before assembling their application if they can have a leave of absence for their time at Harvard, so that their job is waiting for them back at their newsroom when the year’s up. We ask those employers to send us a letter confirming the leave offer.

But we recognize that employers aren’t always as willing to do that as before, even though journalists typically return from a Nieman ready to rock and roll and excited to use all they’ve learned. Talk to your boss and see if a leave is possible; if not, that doesn’t mean you can’t still apply. You’ll just have a difficult conversation ahead of you if you’re accepted. As we say:

We encourage news managers to work with fellowship applicants to help them shape their aspirations for a year at Harvard. We also encourage potential Nieman applicants to be upfront with their news organization’s leadership about their intentions, whether or not a supporting letter is forthcoming. In the absence of such a letter of support, however, a candidate is still eligible to apply for a Nieman Fellowship.

Some employers continue to pay part of a journalist’s salary while they’re here, which is awfully nice of them. But probably the most important thing they can do is keep you on your work health insurance while you’re a fellow, which will save you from trying to arrange it on your own.

Q. What’s the most important part of the application?

A. The application involves two brief essays, four letters of recommendation, and samples of your work, plus a form. Details here. Your general awesomeness should likely seep through every piece of that — your clips/portfolio should be impressive, your recommendations should be impressive. But the essays are the heart of it; a mediocre essay can sink an otherwise solid application. Give special thought to the study plan, which is our best evidence of what you’ll actually do with a fellowship.

Q. What about money? I like money.

A: Details here. The exact dollar figures vary on the size of the family you’re bringing to Cambridge. If you’re flying solo, you’re looking at around $65,100 for the academic year. (You’re only a fellow for 10 months, so that’s about the same as what you’d get at an annual salary of about $78K.) If you’ve got three young children, that goes up to $77,000 (which roughly equates to a $92K salary, annualized.)

Q. My husband/wife is generally awesome. Can he/she come too?

A. Yes! We even have a special name for the spouses (and significant others) of fellows: Nieman Affiliates. Arguably, affiliates get the best deal of all — they can take classes at Harvard too and have nearly the entire Nieman experience, but without some of the responsibilities that come with being a fellow. (We host a number of events each week at which fellows are expected to attend; affiliates can attend or not at their option.)

We know that most families are dual income these days, so we try to make the year family friendly and rewarding for a Nieman spouse. On the other hand, some spouses choose to stay back in their hometown when their spouse heads to Cambridge, either for job or family reasons. Either way is fine with us.

Q. What does the fellowship have to do with the Nieman Journalism Lab?

A. The fellowships and the Lab are both part of the Nieman Foundation. The fellowships have been around over 70 years and are the core program of the foundation; the Lab’s been around about two. We love it when fellows want to work with us in figuring out what we can about the future of journalism, and I play a role in organizing some of the fellows’ lectures and activities. But working with the Lab is completely optional — fellows are free to spend all year working with us if they choose, and they’re also free to focus completely on their own interests and just wave at us from a distance.

As someone who’s been through the process, I get lots of emails this time of year from people working on their applications, looking for advice. I’m happy to talk you through any questions you may have. If they’re questions that would be of interest to others, please leave a comment below and I’ll respond. If it’s something more unique to you, drop me an email at and I’ll get back to you. One final piece of advice: Get started on your application now. You don’t want to be running to a FedEx drop box the night of January 31, hoping you remembered to include that last front-page story you just photocopied.

POSTED     Jan. 7, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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