A few weeks ago, I read about some changes in the Knight Fellowships at Stanford University. These had a sign of the times quality to them. The program is one of several mid-career fellowships for talented journalists that have stayed pretty much the same over the decades. The top ones are at Harvard, Stanford and University of Michigan. The model is the academic sabbatical: a year off to learn deeply and re-charge. Freedom of inquiry predominates: fellows study what they choose to study. The “product” is the enriched journalist, refreshed and returned to his or her calling.
At Stanford, that’s now changing. “Beginning with the 2009-10 fellowship year, the program will put a new emphasis on journalistic innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.” (My italics.) For some background, see this post from Bruno Giussani—a former fellow at Stanford—noting the sharp drop in applications. “Many journalists are afraid to take a year off their job if they get accepted in a fellowship program, because they’re not sure that that job will still exist after the year’s over.”
At the Nieman Foundation—Harvard’s fellowship program—similar questions came up, but the decision was different. “Stay the course and preserve the original purpose of a year for fellows to learn and reflect,” writes Bob Giles, the Curator (boss) of the Foundation. In response to the crisis in the news business, Nieman has instead re-tooled its magazine Nieman Reports (which is becoming very valuable) and started the Nieman Journalism Lab blog by Josh Benton, which is promising.