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Dec. 5, 2017, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Investigative journalism is tough for local newsrooms with fewer resources. The Abrams Nieman Fellowship focuses on that need

The Nieman Foundation, with funding from the Abrams Foundation, will support up to three fellowships next year for U.S. journalists working in local news. The fellows will spend two semesters at Harvard, followed by up to nine months working in the field on a public service journalism project.

Local news: It’s how people are informed about what’s happening in their communities, it’s what gets them to care about their communities, and it’s what gets local governments in turn to care for the communities they represent. When accountability journalism disintegrates at the local level, all of this topples, and the consequences of a news desert can cascade up to the national level.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, with funding from the Abrams Foundation, will support up to three fellowships next year for U.S. journalists working in local news, with the aim of improving the health of the local investigative journalism ecosystem in the U.S. (The Abrams Foundation, among its many program areas, has supported recent journalism initiatives such as Frontline’s new longform documentary podcast series.)

Abrams Nieman Fellows will spend two full semesters at Harvard, followed immediately by a period of up to nine months working in the field on an investigative project for their home newsroom (or if they are freelancers, with a newsroom partner). Through the knowledge, guidance, and networks gained from their fellowship, these journalists will in turn serve as resources for their own newsrooms, as well as for reporters and editors in the local and regional journalism community at large. Fellows will receive financial support throughout their time at Harvard and in the field, and receive additional training and access to mentors from the wider Nieman and Harvard networks.

“While resources have decreased across the industry, editors in the largest metro areas are still able to make the choices to advance public service investigations, and are more likely to have journalists in their newsrooms with the necessary skills and experience,” Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation, told me ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. “I’ve talked with reporters in smaller markets who, for the lack of a colleague with data reporting skills, for instance, have been unable to decode really important developments in their communities. There are states where there is virtually no reporting on the statehouse. There are communities that have only one source of reporting or, worse, none. We’re hoping to hear from those editors and reporters who have ideas for how we can help them improve that.”

The fellowships are intended to support journalists who work in communities undercovered by existing news organizations and are from smaller newsrooms that don’t have the resources — whether technical skills or money or time — to pursue investigative work. For that reason, Nieman intends to look beyond journalists from established news organizations in the top metro areas of the U.S., such as New York, L.A., or D.C. There’s no restriction on medium: radio journalists, podcast editors, freelancers, daily newspaper reporters, TV reporters are all welcome to apply. Nor is there any lower limit on the size of the applicants’ home newsroom, but applicants’ newsrooms should be willing to support their proposed projects through the fieldwork phase of the fellowship.

The Abrams Nieman Fellowships for Local Investigative Journalism join a several efforts in the past year focused on sustaining quality local journalism. The need for, and the interest in, investigative journalism on a local level is apparent. For instance, ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, which will pay six full-time investigative journalists working in local newsrooms in cities with fewer than 1 million people for a year, saw 239 applications from across the U.S.

The turmoil in the news industry nationally has been widely reported, as has the American public’s decline in trust of newspapers as an institution (only 11 percent report having a “great deal” of confidence in newspapers as an institution, according to a 2017 Gallup poll). But here’s another recent data point: Americans actually seem to trust local news outlets more than national ones.

“When I was introduced to the Nieman Foundation, I immediately connected with its mission to ‘promote and elevate the standards of journalism’ and looked for ways for the Abrams Foundation to partner with Nieman. Since its inception, the Nieman Foundation has inspired generations of talented reporters and editors through its transformative yearlong fellowship,” Amy Abrams, Abrams Foundation president and Nieman Advisory Board member, said in a statement. “Now, the Abrams Nieman Fellowship is piloting an approach that focuses attention on underserved news markets, providing enhanced educational opportunities for journalists and increased resources for investigative reporting. In finding new ways to support local journalism, the Nieman Foundation demonstrates its gift for evolving while staying true to its vision of journalistic excellence.”

Mismanagement or corruption in local communities that go undercovered have devastating consequences. In 2014, Flint switched the water source for the city to the Flint River, but didn’t treat the water that flowed through old pipes. Flint residents had been searching online for information about the safety of their water before the government became aware of the contamination and before there was any news coverage, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of anonymized Google search terms between January 2014 and July 2016. We now know from recent research that the fetal death rate in Flint, relative to non-affected cities, rose by 58 percent after the water source switch, a figure researchers said was likely an undercount. The proportion of kids in Flint with high lead levels in their blood had roughly doubled.

This is just one prominent example of the many urgent stories the Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism hopes to help newsrooms uncover.

I asked Lipinski a few questions about the thinking behind the new Abrams Nieman fellowships, for examples of work that would be a good fit for this fellowship, and in what ways she hopes the fellowship might help improve the state of local investigative journalism.

Shan Wang: I know many interested journalists will be wondering what counts as an “underserved market” or an under-resourced newsroom, and whether their ideas qualify for the Abrams Nieman. Can you give me a sense of what you’re looking for, when it comes to the project proposal, and maybe a general profile of the “underserved news market” the fellowship is focused on?

Ann Marie Lipinski: Let’s talk about the project proposals first. Some of the greatest, most noble public-service journalism in this country has come from small staffs working hard to shed light or right wrongs in their communities. The work of Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, to solve civil rights cold cases — work that sent Ku Klux Klan members to prison. Stories about the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners published in Virginia’s tiny Bristol Herald Courierstories that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting. The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s relentless digging to expose the opioid traffic into West Virginia counties with the nation’s worst overdose death rates, also a Pulitzer winner. Current Nieman Fellow Dustin Dwyer’s Michigan Public Radio investigation of housing in Grand Rapids, where an exhaustive examination of housing records showed how investors were pricing residents out of their neighborhoods and changing the racial makeup of the community.

I’ve talked to several of these reporters and know what it took to do this work. In addition to time, this kind of journalism often requires training and resources that are not always available in smaller newsrooms. We’ll be looking for proposals that demonstrate an applicant’s commitment to local public service journalism and ideas that will arm communities with information that would otherwise be overlooked or not understood. Harvard University and the Nieman community offer abundant opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills to help our fellows decode the world around them and explain it to others. We’re eager to hear from journalists who would benefit from that education and support.

The sorts of markets and newsrooms we’ll be looking for are those that, without this support, might not be able to do this work. While resources have decreased across the industry, editors in the largest metro areas are still able to make the choices to advance public service investigations, and are more likely to have journalists in their newsrooms with the necessary skills and experience. I’ve talked with reporters in smaller markets who, for the lack of a colleague with data reporting skills, for instance, have been unable to decode really important developments in their communities. There are states where there is virtually no reporting on the statehouse. There are communities that have only one source of reporting or, worse, none. We’re hoping to hear from those editors and reporters who have ideas for how we can help them improve that.

As we worked on developing this fellowship, Amy Abrams wisely and inspirationally kept the focus on our shared belief that researched, fact-based journalism is necessary for the functioning of a democracy. And that doesn’t mean just Washington D.C. We are experiencing a moment in our history where there is justifiable focus on news out of our capital, but a functioning democracy needs watchdogs at every level.

Wang: What is the purpose of the fieldwork component of the fellowship? What should fellows be doing about the investigative project component of their projects while they’re not in the field, at Harvard, for the first two semesters of their fellowship?

Lipinski: We feel strongly that the combination of the fellows’ time and research on campus and then work in the field will both fortify the journalism as well as the journalists. This fellowship is designed in two phases so that we can invest in helping individuals build skills, expertise and even leadership potential while at Harvard, and then support the reporting work in the field that will deliver strong public service journalism. We’ve had some past experience with offering shorter periods of fieldwork following fellows’ time on campus. We did that with a global health fellowship, for instance. It allows fellows to acquire important knowledge while on campus that can help, say, an education reporter learn from scholars, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers about the most urgent issues in education. It is also time for learning everything from how to be a better narrative non-fiction storyteller to how to translate one’s work across media, expanding the audience for your journalism. And we hope to help shape stronger leaders for local journalism.

By supporting up to nine months of fieldwork following concentrated work on campus, we are connecting our investment in the individual to the work she will create going forward. During this time, we will continue working with the Abrams Nieman fellows to make sure they have the guidance and tools they need to make the most of this opportunity.

Wang: This is the first-ever Abrams Nieman fellowship cohort, so parameters may change. But what do you see these fellows contributing back to their newsrooms after the fellowship here and in the field? How will “impact” be measured?

Lipinski: Nieman has 80 years of experience working with journalists from across the globe — from large international markets to small U.S. communities. Every year we see our fellows make the industry stronger by returning to their newsrooms and communities with renewed vigor, greater knowledge, and plans for advancing journalism in a troubled time. Many innovations have grown out of a Nieman fellowship year. Some impacted a single newsroom while others — like Philip Meyer’s invention of precision journalism or Robert Drew’s pioneering of cinéma vérité for use in television and documentary — had broad and lasting impact. But throughout, there’s been a tremendous history of making journalism and journalists better for the people we serve. Our plan is to keep track of our Abrams Nieman fellows’ contributions and demonstrate how their progress was shaped by their fellowship and what the experience was in their newsrooms and communities following their return. Undoubtedly we will learn a lot and make adjustments going forward. But if there is public interest journalism that otherwise would not have been supported; better understanding of how to sustain and possibly scale local public service journalism; and stronger leadership in the relevant local markets, then I think that will be a very happy outcome.

Applications for the 2018-2019 Abrams Nieman Fellowships are open to U.S. journalists until February 15, 2018. For more information on how to apply, visit the Nieman Foundation page.

Photograph of the Flint, Michigan water plant by George Thomas, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 5, 2017, 11 a.m.
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