The journalism fellowship as a bridge

Gotta hurry and get this #jcarn post to chief barker David Cohn for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, in which he challenges journalists and their counterparts in the academy to field one of two threads on “driving innovation:”

I’ll take the latter and ponder the fellowship as a bridge: a useful structure that traverses challenges while connecting strategic places.

I’m pretty lucky. I turn 55 this year and I’m using a Knight Fellowship at Stanford to take my career into new and exciting directions. This is partly my initiative but it’s also very much a gift of the leaders (Jim Bettinger & Dawn Garcia) and the directors of the Knight Journalism Fellowship who no longer run the 45-year old program as a a mid-career sabbatical.

Under the former rules, I may well have aged out of the target cohort. But I am able to enjoy the luscious fruits of Stanford because the program changed and now seeks a wide assortment of journalism types — provided they demonstrate a deep interest in “innovation, leadership and entrepreneurialism,” to use the mantra of the program.

In practice, this requires the fellowship applicants to propose some kind of project to “save journalism.”

(Quick note: other bloggers in the carnival tent have disclosed various ties to Knight funding. The Knight Fellowship is NOT a project of the Knight Foundation, although in the 1980s the foundation provided the grant that put this program on a permanent endowment.)

I hope Stanford’s investment in me and other non-mid-career journalists is repaid eventually via some ensuing innovations in the real world. (My “project” focuses on the reinvention of local NPR news stations. Timely and challenging to be sure!) But I don’t mean to talk about me. I mean to emphasize the immense value of the academic fellowship when it is structured to serve the present needs of working journalists regardless of medium.

If the fellowship is a bridge to innovation, it must be well-connected to current practitioners whether the bulk of their practice is in the past, the present, or the future.

For those rooted in journalism before the Internet, the program must recognize their will to advance —and their fears — if it is to extract the bountiful experience and wisdom they offer.

Thus an innovation fellowship should value those at whom innovation is directed. There’s a lot of value on their side of the span, if I may say so myself.

Of course, we all agree that the modern journalism fellowship must be future-oriented and guide its participants toward a promising vision and offer opportunity for experimentation. It must support global thinking and technological comfort. It can’t help but reveal the amazingly powerful forces driving change in information collection and distribution. And yes it must favor the emerging skills and mindsets that will be crucial in a world where journalism is needed yet journalists are disintermediated.

In this respect, the fellowship bridge should also be an on-ramp for younger, digital-natives who excel in online media and proceed unencumbered by the rules of tradition.

I don’t think this necessarily implies the fellowship should look for computer scientists with acute programming/coding skills — although those help. They should still have made a commitment to “journalism” in some form, even if that form is barely recognizable under the old order.

Even in selecting fellows, some experimentation and innovation can be modeled. For example, in the Knight class of 2011, we have a comics journalist, some alternative media people, an online news entrepreneur, and folks with other interests than your mainstream media of yore.

These newer news-comers (relative to guys like me), bring great energy and enthusiasm, not to mention a very real stake in the long-range outcomes of the experience. I may be able to think of this as what I’m doing during the last third of my career, but many of my colleagues have yet to come close to a mid-point (which is also a shifting concept).

So the suggestion I’m making for the fine people in Columbia (at Reynolds), is to think about the segmentation (and let me add diversity) of the journalistic workforce and try to mesh those differing profiles into one class of professional peers.

But I don’t think it makes sense to try to articulate a singular profile of the model fellow and fill the seminar room with them.

Our experience at Stanford shows that a good blend is a powerful combination. It isn’t that we of historical perspective and deeper battle scars are expected to mentor anyone or even offset the youth factor. Nor is it the goal that the online generation should somehow train their elders on the ins and outs of php and javascript. Rather the trick is the fundamental peer-to-peer “respect effect” that comes with sharing the fellowship experience. This completes the connection.

And so that’s my my post from the bridge. Here in the Knight Journalism Fellowship, despite many differences, we fellows proceed together. The sharing and mutual support is such a joyous part of the experience that no one feels alone while looking over the rail into the chasm of unknowns. No one is freaked out or threatening to jump (to their doom nor out of the profession).

Unless you count the deep dives we’re doing into design-thinking, Silicon Valley start-ups, leadership studies, entrepreneurialism, social innovation, liberation technology, new media production, human-computer interaction, branding and experience in social media, or any of the other subject forays readily available to the fellows.

But then that’s more like bungee jumping. It’s a thrill we may never have again.