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July 24, 2014, 12:45 p.m.

It’s time to apply for a visiting Nieman Fellowship

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard wants to hear your idea for making journalism better. Come spend a few weeks working on it in Cambridge.

Not every journalist who would make an awesome Nieman Fellow is ready to spend a full academic year here or has a study plan or project that merits that commitment.

And not everyone whose work is having an impact on the future of news is a journalist. That’s long been true of publishers and media company owners, but developers, entrepreneurs, academics, and others are increasingly influential in the news ecosystem — sometimes because they’re building the tools and organizations that journalists want or need to work with.

These were the facts that prompted me to propose a new visiting fellowship when I became curator of the Nieman Foundation three years ago. What began then as quiet experimentation with one visiting fellow has grown into an increasingly robust program: Our last group of visiting fellows numbered five and included a member of Google’s news partnerships team in Boston, a brand new college graduate from Chicago, and an accomplished senior newsroom manager from India. We like the questions and energy the visiting fellows are bringing to Nieman. We’re excited about the quick progress they’ve made while at Harvard, and we look forward to more.

Today we’re opening a new round of applications for Nieman visiting fellowships. Here’s the application form; the deadline for applying is Aug. 29. You can propose a stay at Nieman of up to 12 weeks, either later this year or in 2015. You can find some more background on the fellowship on the main Nieman Foundation website.

We’re looking for people with concrete ideas to advance journalism. Our early experience with visiting fellows has taught us two things about what works:

  • A focused inquiry is better than a broad one. Hong Qu was a visiting fellow who wanted to build a tool to help journalists navigate Twitter during big, breaking news stories. He created Keepr, which he tested in real time during the Boston Marathon bombing. He saw the value of some other tools, but focused on Twitter, understanding its influence and wanting to create something useful and usable during his 12-week fellowship. A fellow’s inquiry can be part of a larger project, but your proposal should be a discernable part of the whole. Scottish visiting fellow Kate Smith, who teaches journalism and is researching the use of literary craft in war reporting, used her time to explore the work of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, whose archives are in Boston.
  • Plan ahead. Before arriving, it’s important to research the people and resources here that could help advance your work. Structured exploration — being open to serendipitous discovery while moving along a path of clear objectives — is necessary given the short timeframe. Also, think about how Nieman’s resources — ranging from our traditional fellowship class to Nieman Lab, Nieman Reports, or Nieman Storyboard — might fit into your work. When Google’s David Smydra was with us, we formed a small working group of other Nieman Fellows to give him regular feedback as he developed a structured data format for future news events. They learned from each other.

Journalist Paul Salopek, our first visiting fellow, spent his time here working on parts of the project that became his epic seven-year Out of Eden reporting walk to retrace the path of human migration. His fellowship was successful in propelling his idea forward, in part because he applied a lot of discipline and rigor to the 12 weeks.

I later asked him to weigh the merits of the tight research timeframe. The traditional academic year inquiry, he observed, is the “intellectual equivalent of running a cross-country marathon.” By contrast, he saw the visiting fellowship as “more like a sprint. I came in focused, approaching my time on campus as a foreign assignment with a tight deadline: all stops out, maximum absorption mode, eating standing up at the souks and falling asleep in my clothes.”

Nieman was founded in 1937 with a mission to “promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate persons deemed especially qualified for journalism.” For decades, that has meant an academic year of study: Some 1,500 journalists from nearly 100 countries have received that invitation and gone on to produce some of the most significant journalism of the last 75 years.

By inviting applications for exciting project work from additional cohorts, Nieman has widened the doors of fellowship to include the broadest network of journalism’s leaders, inventors, and influencers.

If you have an idea for what someone called the “new Nieman,” let us know. We look forward to hearing about it.

POSTED     July 24, 2014, 12:45 p.m.
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