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June 26, 2009, 7 a.m.

How Stanford’s Knight Fellowships are revamping for innovation

There’s a friendly rivalry among the various university-based fellowship programs for journalists. It goes without saying, obviously, that the finest is the granddaddy of them all: the Nieman Fellowships here at Harvard, founded in 1938. (Along with being the finest and oldest, it is also my alma mater and my employer, so color me biased.)

But there are plenty of other worthy programs out there. Most notable are the two other general-interest fellowships, the Knight Fellowships at Stanford (founded 1966) and the Knight-Wallace Fellowships at the University of Michigan (1972). And for journalists interested in a particular beat, there are the Knight-Bagehot Fellowships at Columbia for business journalists (1975), Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT for science writers (1983), and Spencer Fellowships at Columbia for education reporters (2008). While each has its own traditions, areas of focus, and level of prestige, they’re largely similar: a chance to spend a year away from one’s newsroom, taking advantage of the intellectual resources of a great university.

The Knight Fellowships at Stanford are in the process of stepping away from that sameness by refocusing the program on innovation and entrepreneurship. (That’s in addition to their more traditional differentiation from us and Michigan: a winter without snow shoveling.) For the first time, they’re asking fellows to be more goal- and outcome-oriented with their year. Instead of a year to explore their own intellectual interests, Knight Fellows will now be asked to develop an innovative journalism project they expect to complete during their year — a business plan for a startup, a new digital tool for reporting, or something similar.

The program’s officers have been a little vague about the details over the past year — purposefully, they say, to see what applicants would propose. Now that the first class of fellows under the new system has been announced, you can judge for yourself what they were looking for.

The program’s two top officials, Jim Bettinger and Dawn Garcia, were in town for the Knight News Challenge conference last week, and I sat down with them to talk about how they are navigating these changes, how the fellowship experience will change when the new class arrives in the fall, and what they hope to learn in their first year. There’s a full transcript of our conversation below.

Jim Bettinger: I’m Jim Bettinger. I’m the director of the Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University.

Dawn Garcia: I’m Dawn Garcia. I’m the deputy director of the Knight Fellowships at Stanford.

Joshua Benton: All right — also known as another fellowship program, along with the Nieman Fellowship program — we’re all good friends here. You guys have just gone through a really significant change in how you define the program, and unlike — there were discussions about it when it was still in the process, but now you’ve selected the class and are getting ready to have them there on Stanford’s campus. Can you talk a little bit about what that change was, and how you think it went — considering that you’ve gone through at least the first stage of the process? Obviously it’ll be different when everyone shows up and actually starts working.

Jim: As to the change itself and how it went, the change is that we’re focusing more directly and more completely on journalism innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership, and expecting every fellow to come to Stanford with a proposal, a project, a challenge, an opportunity — something that they’ll work on during the year and have something to show for it at the end of the year.

We were deliberately vague about what that meant — we wanted to see what people came up with. It’s very much like Alberto [Ibarguen of the Knight Foundation] was talking about today — he said, “I have no idea what people will come up with.” So we’ve now selected our first group of 20 fellows, 12 from the U.S. and eight from outside the U.S. Want to say something about the fellows?

Dawn: Yeah — what’s exciting, I think, is that we didn’t know what we might get. We were open to all kinds of ideas, saying “Come with a good idea.” And they did. A lot of them. And that’s the thing that really strikes me, is the diversity of ideas, the range, the different kinds of things that people are going to do. So we’ve got folks coming and looking at geospatial mapping, we’ve got people looking at education — how to rank schools, how to help people, parents, teachers, people in communities figure out what’s going on in their community schools.

Jim: We’ve got a Romanian investigative reporter who wants to set up systems to do cross-border investigative reporting. We’ve got a fellow from Colombia — this is a way of saying that it’s not just digital that we’re thinking about, although digital is always a part of it. We’ve got a fellow from Colombia who is interested in how journalism changes when you go from a state where narcoterrorists are the dominant story to one which is a more stable state, where you have to start covering school boards and state legislatures. So it’s really a great variety of things and we’re excited to get started with them and start working on this.

Josh: Did you find that changing the nature of the program changed the places from which you drew applicants? Were you getting applicants from different kinds of places or different kinds of professional backgrounds than you had been when you were, you know, more of a straightforward journalism fellowship?

Jim: Absolutely. We had a record number of applications, and part of that’s due to the economy. But we also had the fewest — the lowest proportion ever of applicants from daily newspapers. As recently as three or four years ago more than half of our applicants were daily newspapers — this year it was less than 20 percent. We had more freelancers: 61 of our 166 applicants had the word “freelance” somewhere in their job title. We had something, like, one out of eight had lost their jobs within the last three months or were about to lose their jobs.

And we’ve looked — we’ve tried to gauge who would have applied for our program under the old model and who wouldn’t, and we’ve figured about one out of five people who applied either wouldn’t have applied under our old — under our former kind of guise, or we would have dismissed them because they would have been too young, too old, too weird.

And, so that’s very…

Josh: I didn’t know weirdness was a disqualifier! I should have known that!

Dawn: No, not a disqualifier! The range, again, of applications and applicants was really striking, so we had people in their 20s, people in their 60s, some people who were in newspapers, some people who were in — not in journalism, a few outside of journalism — entrepreneurs who had been journalists but then were looking to do some forward-thinking projects. So it’s really a range.

Josh: Did you see any gaps between the kinds of proposals that the international applicants were putting foward versus the kind that the Americans were? Did they focus on different things?

Jim: No, we didn’t see any particular gap which was — and we thought we would see more of a gap for this reason. We announced our changes less than 30 days before the deadline for international applications. Even though we hinted at it that those changes were coming. So it was a smaller window for international applicants to absorb these changes and react to them.

But that said, they got it some degree better than a lot of the U.S. applicants. I should say there is one other element of the changes that we’ve made. There’s five elements. One of them is the focus on journalism entrepreneurship, leadership, and innovation. But for our international fellows we’re focusing more on journalists from countries where there are issues about emerging free press — which largly means former Soviet bloc, it means Third World nations. And so we’re focusing on from those areas who can have a direct impact on the free flow of information. That’s a key element for us.

Josh: So, if you’re French, you probably shouldn’t apply. (I’m kidding.)

Jim: Actually, we have one from the U.K. I mean, but it’s just were focusing more on that. It’s not across the board.

Dawn: It’s not if you have an innovative idea and you’re coming from a country that’s not a Third World nation or developing country that certainly, you know, we’re very welcoming of that as well.

Josh: Sure. How are you planning on changing the structure of the year? I mean, these fellowship programs have historically been rather gloriously unstructured for the fellows, at least. What percentage of your fellows’ time do you expect them to be spending on these projects versus on taking advantage of everything else there is to take advantage of at Stanford?

Dawn: We still really want fellows to take advantage of the riches of Stanford — the intellectual, educational smorgasbord that is there. We’re thinking something like 30 to 50 percent of their time would be on their proposal, on their project, to allow them time to really make use of Stanford and to do all the wonderful things that happen when serendipity hits you at Stanford — and having rich interaction which each other, taking clases, going to our seminars, so it’s going to be a mix. A different mix but still a high percentage of time spent doing what you’ve done as a fellow in the past.

Jim: One of the challenges for us as the directors of the program is figuring out how to achieve that balance. There isn’t any model for doing this, and so nobody we can sort of say, “Well, how did they do it and we’ll do it the same way.” But at the same token it’s pretty exciting to go out and create this.

Dawn: One of the ways we’re going to help the fellows to do that is to set up a network of mentors for them. Fellows have always had informal mentors — we’ve helped them find mentors, they’ve found their own through through faculty and other people at Stanford and outside of Stanford. We’re going to make that a little more institutionalized and have a network of mentors for each fellow.

Josh: So if I’m a fellow who is ariving in the fall, you know, what would be the process of identifying those support systems and assistance around the university? Is that a process that has already started for each of the fellows or does that happen once they get there?

Dawn: Some fellows have already started it for themselves. They’re very entrepreneurial. The most entrepreneurial have found people who they are interested in working with who would be interested in working with them at Stanford. And we will also be helping them both inside Stanford but outside — Silicon Valley has a lot of resources for fellows.

Jim: To answer the direct issue — ideally it starts before they get there. We’ll have discussions with each fellow beginning probably in the next week or so and going on through July, in which we sort of hone in a little more on exactly what they’re hoping to accomplish — keeping in mind that it could change during the year. But what they’re hoping to and who’s the right person to match them up with.

Josh: Right. Since, as you said, there are some people who might not have made it in previous years because they were to young or too weird, do you expect — I’m just gonna stick to that — do you expect the makeup of the class and the class dynamic to be different? (We’re getting into some parochial territory and, as a former Nieman Fellow, I’m interested.)

Jim: I don’t think so. Here’s what I would say is the range of things. At it’s best, it will be wonderful — people will be talking about what they’re working on all the time and there will be a collaboration that goes on. Even just informal collaboration: “What do you think about this?”

The thing that we wouldn’t want and will guard against is people getting competitive about what they’re working on, and having them feel they have to be better than the next person. And journalists are competitive, and so that’s not an unheard-of thing. So that’s one of the things that’s in our mind that we want to guard against. I’m guessing that overall, the dynamic won’t change. You’re still going to have people at a university, away from their homes, with their families — a year to do what they want to do, and that produces their own dynamic that I don’t think is going to change that much.

Dawn: One thing that might change, which I think would be pretty exciting, would be people who have either some similar aspects of their proposal — there are two people who are working on things, say, one international and one U.S., that might be able to have a real synergy by being in the same place for a year and be able to have conversations on a real informal basis. I think that that’s always happen on some degree, but I think now that there is actually something more concrete that they’re going to come up with at the end of the year, this could be really exciting.

Josh: We’re here at a Knight News Challenge event, and one of the key elements of the News Challenge is that, after the grant goes through and it is completed, that the work has to be open sourced and available for everyone. Is there something similar to your projects?

Jim: That’s exactly right. Our goal, our thought, our mantra on these projects or whatever we want to call them is that they be replicable, scalable and open source. And our goal is to publish them in whatever form they take on our web site. And when I say whatever form they take — there’s some possibility that the result might be a symposium, so we would then video that and put it up. It might be the rudiments of a business plan that could be used by all — put that up. The idea is that this will be open to all. And this is an issue because sometimes if something comes up with a business plan, they might want to make business out of it.

Josh: Imagine that. What a crazy idea, to do that with of a business plan.

Jim: This is uncharted territory.

Josh: Right. So the fellows will arrive in September, August, somewhere around there?

Jim: Late August, yes.

Josh: So the fall. What are the big questions that you guys are looking to answer in this first year? What are the things that you’re wanting to see how they work out? Since, as you said, this is a big experiment.

Dawn: It is an experiment. I think the mix of doing a project and using Stanford’s resources — I think that’ll be a question. The pacing throughout the year — one of the things that we really want to maintain is that it’s the fellow’s prerogative as to what they do — the project they come with. So we want to help them be able to complete something, or at least have something by the end of the year if it’s not all done. So how that process works, the pacing. I don’t know what we’re going to come out with at the end of the year. It’ll be fun to see. That’s a part of what I think the exciting thing is.

Jim: I think the overall big question is how can we create something valuable? We know what we think is a good way to do it — but at the end of next June we’re sitting there and we say, “Well, okay, that was a really good idea, but that really stunk.” Not individual ideas, but our idea on how to foster it. So this is beta to say the least. It’s less than beta.

Josh: Moving from alpha to beta we can say.

Jim: It’s alpha.

Josh: Once they arrive, I think it’s at least in beta.

Dawn: We are deep in Silicon Valley and one of the wonderful things about that, besides all the resources and ideas of Silicon Valley, is that you try stuff. And you see what works. And if you don’t try stuff, you’ll never know.

Josh: Well, great. Good luck to you, from the Nieman Foundation at least.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     June 26, 2009, 7 a.m.
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