(Note: this post has been updated June 19)
Journalism fellowship programs in many US universities, including Stanford, MIT and Harvard, have suffered a significant drop in applications from American journalists in the last couple of years, reports the New York Times.
Why am I blogging this? Because I was invited to participate in one of those programs, the John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford, in 2003-2004, and spent an incredibly rewarding and stimulating year there with 18 other Fellows from the US and half a dozen countries around the world.
But the Knight Fellowship at Stanford received only 83 American applications this year, down from 101 in 2006 and 107 in 2005. The Nieman program at Harvard
also had 83 applicants, down from 91 in 06 and 110 in 05 had 91 applications, down from 100 in 2006 (see the comment to this post by Nieman curator Bob Giles). Other similar programs at the universities of Michigan and of Maryland were about even.
The impression is that this decline is tied to the rapid changes and increasing uncertainty in the US news media landscape: many newsrooms are scaling back; buyouts and mergers and job cuts are a daily diet in major news organizations, and 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.
It's significant, for example, that the Stanford program did not receive any application this year from employees at the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and some other large newspapers (both the Trib and the LAT had Fellows in my class, 2003-04).
In parallel, applications from international journalists were way up -- 132 this year at the Stanford Knight program, for example, compared with 118 last year and 111 in 2004-05. At the Nieman, they received 121 applications in 2006 and 149 in 2007.
As Giles says in his comment, numbers don't tell the whole story: "The quality of the applicant pool gets better every year", he writes. Still, the downward trend in US applications grants a bit of speculation. Journalism fellowships were set up -- the Nieman in 1938, the Knight at Stanford in 1966 -- to serve the needs of a very different news media: a classic newspapers and broadcast landscape, with lifelong careers and steady growth. Journalists would step out one year, spend it in a university seeking to specialize in a field, to retool themselves, or just to get a rest from the daily deadlines. They would enjoy the intellectual stimulation of the campus and of their peer group of Fellows, and then go back to the same news organization with new energies, new ideas, to become the engines of a betterment of journalism. This was to be the contribution of Fellowships.
Then came the Internet and, well, let's not go into details but things have changed. Increasingly Fellows have seen those organizations changing skin, and often even flesh, while they were away -- particularly those working for newspapers. And that's threatening: if they can go without you for a year, probably they can continue to do so. (And indeed several in different programs got offered buyouts during their fellowship last year).
Let''s be clear: these Fellowships are not broken. But clearly the landscape around them is shifting. So some of them are starting to re-think their role and figure out how they should change to adapt to the new reality and continue pursuing their mission (Knight: "To improve the quality of news and information reaching the public through the news media"; Nieman: "To promote and elevate the standards of journalism in the United States"; I'm mentioning these two because they are the leading journalism Fellowships in the US, but there are many other programs). The Knight Fellowship at Stanford has recently set up a working group -- of which I'm a member -- to help with this process (It's too early to report on our discussions).
At the same time, the increase in applications from international journalists is symptomatic of the growth of vibrant media systems in many countries around the world, that have transitioned or are transitioning to democracy and free market, and of how many journalists in those countries still see a model in the history and the true values of American journalism -- which are somehow being suffocated at home by the news media themselves (24-hours-coverage of Paris Hilton in prison anyone?). By inviting into their programs promising journalists from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the former Soviet bloc, fellowships are contributing massively for example to the improvement of the standards of journalism in those countries.