Make Something Valuable to Journalism and Give it Away: Stanford Re-Deploys its Journalism Fellows

In which I interview the director, Jim Bettinger, on why one of the most prestigious mid-career fellowship programs in the U.S. has shifted its focus to innovation and entrepreneurship in journalism. "Our epiphany came sometime in the fall of 2005," he says.

30 Dec 2008 12:42 am Comments Off on Make Something Valuable to Journalism and Give it Away: Stanford Re-Deploys its Journalism Fellows

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.

At Stanford, the master narrative itself has shifted to innovation and starting stuff. It stresses projects with “a coherent proposal that will lead to a tangible result.” It wants some of that culture of “innovation and entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.” And it’s eying the situation in countries that are just now coming into a free press. In a blog post explaining the shift, the program’s director, Jim Bettinger, said:

We want to widen the pool of people whom we consider good candidates for a fellowship, that we want to increase our impact on the development of independent journalism in emerging democracies, that we want to enlist the intellectual firepower of Stanford and Silicon Valley even more than we already have.

“My journalistic headwaters couldn’t be more old technology,” he acknowledged. “We typed on manual typewriters, using triple sheets of paper inter-leafed with carbon paper, which were then pasted together with rubber cement, edited with thick pencils, sometimes trimmed from the end with a pica pole (also useful for scratching one’s back), sent to a composing room by pneumatic tubes, turned into lead type that was placed in metal forms that were turned into newspaper pages. Something of the romantic in me remembers that fondly. But I much favor what technology allows us — even encourages us — to do now, and that’s what I want to focus on.”

That Bettinger, an old media guy, much favored the new intrigued me, so I caught up with him for this IM interview on the changes and what’s behind them. Of course I want you to read the Q and A, but here’s the scoop:

The people who steer the Knight Stanford program decided it had to become more valuable to the social practice of journalism, worldwide. They don’t necessarily know how to do this, but they want to increase the supply of public goods the fellows create as a result of their year at Stanford. The “product” cannot be the enriched journalist, refreshed and returned to the newsroom, because the newsroom is unstable, and in no shape to receive that person. It may be expelling others just like him or her. Fellows now have to make something valuable to journalism, and give it away. Then try to create a future for themselves based on what they create, or the connections they made while creating it. In its own way, it’s an open source move. Here’s our Q and A.

PressThink: Could you tell me what your “mission” was prior to this shift to innovation and entrepreneurship? How did you think of it, before?

Jim Bettinger: We saw our mission as giving outstanding midcareer journalists the opportunity to use the resources of a great university to significantly improve their work. For the most part, for most years, that meant taking classes and otherwise connecting with the academic life at Stanford. We thought of ourselves in some sense as improving journalism, one journalist at a time. Further, of course, was the luxury of a year away from deadline pressures, editors, and all the challenges of journalism.

PressThink: So it was general enrichment, and a personal learning project, without being directed too much?

Bettinger: Definitely without being directed too much. Freedom to pursue whatever intellectual paths one wanted has been a hallmark of our program (and to a large degree, that will continue).

PressThink: With relief from deadline pressures being key to learning?

Bettinger: Journalists are adept at learning under deadline pressure. You have to be to be effective. But all too often, you’re learning just enough for the next story.

PressThink: Okay, so what put pressure on that model for you? What were the stress points or factors in front of you that argued for a change?

Bettinger: Our epiphany came sometime in the fall of 2005. That year, we had seven fellows from U.S. daily newspapers. During the year, five were offered buyouts, and two had their newspapers sold out from under them — twice (Knight Ridder sold all its papers to McClatchy, and McClatchy then sold a number of the papers to MediaNews.) Neither had ever happened even once before.

This was a big deal, because one element of our model was a two-way relationship between the Knight Fellowships and news organizations— their newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations. Fellows came to our program with the endorsement of their employer. They used the year at Stanford to blossom and grow, and at the end of the year they returned to their news organization, which then benefited from the fellowship. This didn’t happen in every instance, of course, but it worked well.

But when news organizations are under the kind of pressure that gets them sold, and has them offering buyouts to their best journalists, it was clear to us that this model couldn’t be our only one going forward. And that got us to thinking about what the Knight Fellowships should look like in five years. Fellows were every bit as energized and invigorated by their year as before. We just wanted to make sure we stayed relevant.

PressThink: What you say online is, “The program is transforming itself in order to serve the needs of journalism and journalists.” Could you just summarize it for me: you’re transforming from what, and to what?

Bettinger: The way we think of it is as becoming a program whose benefits go beyond that of the individual fellow. Our fellows will continue to benefit personally and professionally from their year here, of course. But our goal is for their time here to generate something tangible — we’re being deliberately vague — that others can use as well.

That’s why we will be expecting fellows to come with a particular journalism problem, challenge or opportunity that they want to work on during the year, and to have something to show for it, which we will then publish on our website so that others can use it. Our idea is that these results would be replicable, scalable and open-source: It could be putting on a symposium, which we would record and post. Or it could be guidelines to using new digital or other tools for better storytelling in a specific realm, like foreign correspondence. Or maybe the beginnings of a business plan template for independent publishing. We’ll see.

PressThink: It seems to me that you decided the program had to become more valuable to journalism by increasing the supply of public goods the fellows create as a result of their year at Stanford-

Bettinger: That’s a good way to put it.

Pressthink -which gets to the next thing I want to ask you about. Back in 1994 I spent a semester at Harvard at the Shorenstein Center there, and I got to know the Nieman fellows pretty well, as we went to their events and they to ours. I learned something from them about the news business when one of the fellows talked to me about his dread in going back to the newsroom. It wasn’t the deadlines and the hard work, he loved the work, but something deeper that he knew would be amiss.

“When I get to the newsroom, you know what they’re going to say? ‘Welcome back from your vacation…(smirk) you’ll be on the business desk…’” With no attempt to ask him what he learned, no effort to assess how valuable that learning was to the organization, no thought about how to tap into what the reporter now knows or realizes better, no strategy for actually capitalizing on this year.

Newsrooms like that do not understand or value intellectual capital, which ain’t just a fancy phrase. Jim, if you did this at Sun or Microsoft, or some other large knowledge-based company, sent a key employee off for a year to learn, and when he comes back, make no attempt to “capture” that learning for your team and firm and also find work for that person that taps it, you would—and should—be fired. In newsrooms: it’s routine, I am told.

Now how does that compare to what you have seen?

Bettinger: I would say that there has been a wide range in how newsrooms re-integrate returning fellows, and also that it’s something that I’ve been concerned about since I came here as deputy director in 1989. After all, the most important element of the fellowship is not what happens during the year, but what happens after.

PressThink: Correct.

Bettinger: And part of that is learning how to be effective when you return to your newsroom, and the dirty coffee cup you left on your desk is still there, and still dirty. We think this is important enough that we do a day-long workshop each spring, in which we help fellows think through what they’ve learned while they’re at Stanford, what they want to accomplish when they return and some strategies for achieving this.

PressThink: I am just saying it tells you something about these organizations that they would do that—waste the gain represented in that person—without thinking much of it. It tells you something about what they were, and were not, organized to do. Am I wrong?

Bettinger: Over the years there has been a wide range in the way that newsrooms re-integrate returning fellows. Some have been exceedingly savvy about it. Others have been woefully ignorant. The ones that have been savvy have for the most part been newsrooms with a long tradition of sending fellows to our program and to Harvard and Michigan. They understand the experience, and they understand that this is a valuable resource, someone who has gotten recharged about their own work and about journalism.

PressThink: Can you offer some examples of savvy use and re-integration, and what the gain was for the releasing news organization?

Bettinger: George Haj came to our program from the Miami Herald during the 1999-2000 academic year, intending to studying international relations so that he could become a foreign editor. During the year, he got fascinated with the online world (this was the height of late 1990s boom, and it was in the air around here). When he returned to the Herald, Marty Baron made him technology editor. I’m not positive, but I think it was a new position that the Herald created. He eventually became business editor at the Herald and now is a Deputy Managing Editor at the Houston Chronicle. To me, that’s a savvy use of a returning fellow. It also demonstrates the necessity of allowing fellows to change course during the year, something that will continue to be a key element of our program.

PressThink: Well, that is the idea of mid-career learning, isn’t it? “Change course.”

Bettinger: We think returning fellows need to figure out how to make themselves effective — to, in effect, be entrepreneurial within their news organization. It’s not just the responsibility of the news organization.

PressThink: Very true. But now they may need to be entrepreneurial outside the setting of the “news organization,” as well. Is that a part of your thinking?

Bettinger: We think of the key to being entrepreneurial as looking for opportunities. In a news organization or outside of one. Another example: Rick Attig was a fellow in our program last year from the Portland Oregonian editorial page. He spent a lot of time immersing himself in the online world, especially including social network media. And he’s been given the charter of helping the Oregonian figure out how to turn its editorial page into something like a community town hall.

PressThink: You say that “changes in the program will enable fellows who embrace the challenges facing journalism to focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.” Your phrase, “Fellows who embrace the challenges…” I read that as “no curmudgeons.” I’m sure your language will be more delicate. It seems to me you’d be looking for people who have in a sense overcome newsroom culture and its defeatism and embraced the web, as well as the need to “transform” the press: am I getting carried away?

Bettinger: I don’t know that I’d say, “no curmudgeons,” because a curmudgeonly attitude, savvily applied, can lead to interesting innovation. We are looking for people who have been able to get beyond woe-is-us, and more deeply, who think that the core values of journalism are so important that they want to devote significant time and energy to strengthening them. For us, a corollary element is deep thinking about what those core values are, and whether they have or should change. Not an easy question, for me at least, but one that seems essential.

So I think of this as embracing the challenges, rather than specifically embracing the web. We’ve been pretty firm that we are not turning this into a digital fellowship per se, although the digital/online/social networking realm is a major part of it.

Pressthink: What we need is not “digital” innovation, but innovators who know how to create editorial value, on any platform.

Bettinger: Why is The Week the fastest growing magazine right now, when “all” it does is provide a useful, intelligent package of news from other sources? It does in some sense what a daily newspaper used to do.

Pressthink: I want to ask you about the projects the fellows will do.. I understand that it can be many things and there is no pre-set definition and you want fellows to choose. But what are the points you are going to ask these projects to hit, what does there have to be “in” them to make them work for your program?

Bettinger: This is hard to answer right now, because we haven’t seen a single proposal yet (our international deadline was Dec. 15, and our U.S. deadline is Feb. 1) so we don’t know what people will come up with. That said, we think of it almost as a question to be answered during the year. At one point we even called it a “quest,” but our fellows hooted that down, pointing out that having a “Knight” Fellowships with a “quest” sounded like Dungeons and Dragons.

PressThink: Journalists cannot be pretentious. Ever.

Bettinger: First rule of changing something: don’t use language that can be ridiculed. Anyway, it could be something like “How can a foreign correspondent leverage social networking media to tell new stories about the country she’s posted in?” Or, “What are the essential steps in starting up a new online news venture like Voice of San Diego?” Or, “how can mainstream newsrooms use geospacial tools to create new communities?”

PressThink: You said in announcing these changes that you plan to rely more on the “pool of innovation and entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.” Sounds good, but how are you going to do that? Why would the movers and shakers (and engineers) of Silicon Valley be interested in connecting with news people?

Bettinger: We’re working out the details on how we’ll do this. Silicon Valley has demonstrated the power of technology to enhance the distribution of information, and shown the world how to be entrepreneurial and opportunistic in creating new ways to do that. Clearly that’s something journalists need to absorb. And I know from many discussions, with people at the top levels down to the engineers, that they have a concern about a well-informed society. I believe many of them would like to contribute to solving the problems that the information technology revolution has accelerated—

PressThink: Which of course are worldwide problems.

Bettinger: Our discussion so far has been pretty U.S.-centric, but a key component of what we’re doing is international. We’re going to be emphasizing fellows who can have an impact on independent press institutions in countries without a long tradition of a free press.

PressThink: You have an advantage in incubating projects that make a difference in the press in that you have representatives of more than one press, right?

Bettinger: Not sure I understand the question, but here’s an example drawn from this year’s fellows. We have a fellow from Ethiopia, in exile in London, Abebe Gellaw. He runs an online news service, and is working on making it vibrant and sustainable. Whatever he learns will clearly be of value to others who want to start similar news services to counteract repressive forces. So that’s the kind of thing we have in mind.

PressThink: Well, what I meant is that the problems of one press, in South America, say, can illuminate the strengths of one in Scandanavia, while different stages of development in a secure press are actually different vantage points for understanding your own press— its problems, challenges.

Bettinger: That’s true.

PressThink: In the category of challenges, have you been influenced at all by the open source idea, or the Dan Gillmor thing, “my readers know more than I do?” I’m asking because I want some of your fellows to help us figure out how we make good on open source journalism ten years after an article in Salon showed its potential.

Bettinger: Sure, we’d like something like that, depending of course on the proposal itself. But I wouldn’t say that we’re going to become an open-source journalism fellowship, either: We’re trying to be very catholic in our approach, within the general corral of journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.

PressThink: To wrap this, a challenging question: journalists have not been known for their entrepreneurial approach to things, have they? I mean, this is not what their organizations have traditionally stressed. So where’s the infusion of entrepreneurship coming from, the knowledge of how to succeed in bringing it all together? Is this latent in journalists? Or maybe in everyone? What do you think?

Bettinger: In a way, yes, I do think it’s latent in excellent journalists. Really topnotch reporting requires really topnotch, creative framing of the approach you’re going to use, it requires creative and opportunistic thinking about how you can report the story, and how you can tell it well. All, I would submit, are key elements of entrepreneurialism and the urge to innovate. It is true that many, maybe most newsrooms have not been organized to utilize this — many have been downright hostile to it, in fact.

PressThink: Exactly.

Bettinger: But here’s the deal, as Ross Perot would say. My fond hope is that the crisis upon us will motivate the journalists, it will open up their newsrooms to more creativity and will offer opportunities for those entrepreneurial sorts who can’t get it done in their own newsrooms. I hope I’m not being Pollyanna-ish about this. But I have to believe that this is the right direction for us to go.

It may be as mundane as crafting open-source software that lets expatriates broadcast into a country like Zimbabwe. But we’ll see.