The case against the Spencer fellowship

The Grade Hed

While successful, the prestigious Columbia University fellowship is too small and exclusive for what education journalism needs in 2018.

By Alexander Russo

Right about now, at least a few of the folks considering applying for the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship – a year of free classes at Columbia University and a $75,000 stipend (plus expenses) – are feeling pretty nervous. They’ve only got until February 1st to get their applications submitted, including a proposal for a long-form project of some kind.

At about the same time, the current crop of Spencer fellows is waking up to the sad fact that their time in this journalistic Eden is more than halfway completed. They can’t take the classes they want and also get their project done. With just five or six months left, the program seems over almost as soon as it’s started.

I know these feeling well. Twelve years ago – never imagining I would be eligible to participate – I helped the Spencer Foundation research various options for what eventually turned into the fellowship program. Ten years ago, when the program was just getting started, I was pulling together my own application. And at this point in my 2008-2009 fellowship year – having squeaked in as an alternate – I had only really just begun to do field reporting on what would – eventually – become a book.

Some of my mentors and favorite journalists have been closely involved in the Spencer fellowship. It has in many ways been a remarkable success. The benefits to those like me who are lucky enough to participate are clear.

But education jobs and newsrooms that cover education are disappearing at a fast clip. (Education coverage has dwindled down to a single reporter at some major outlets.) Newsroom diversity has re-emerged as a top priority (for education coverage in particular). And the quality of the education journalism being produced by mainstream outlets is an ongoing challenge.

In that light, the Spencer fellowship seems like a narrow and insufficient strategy – an expensive, outdated, and exclusive club that should be phased out and reconceived as part of a broader, potentially more influential effort. There are lots of intriguing models out there.

current spencer fellows 2017-18

According to its web page, the Spencer fellowship’s purpose is “supporting long-form reporting that deepens and enhances public understanding of education in America and beyond.”

But the program is much more than that. Now in its 10th year, the Spencer is the most generous and arguably the most prestigious education journalism award program out there. It is also one of just a handful of yearlong residential fellowship programs for journalists, along with the Knight Fellowship (at Stanford), Knight-Wallace Fellowship (at the University of Michigan), the Nieman Fellowship (at Harvard), and the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship (also run by Columbia).

Over the years, the Spencer fellowship has attracted some of the top education reporters. One of the current fellows, Cara Fitzpatrick, co-wrote the much-recognized Tampa Bay Times series showing how one Florida district allowed a handful of schools to slide into segregation. WBEZ Chicago’s Linda Lutton, who reported the memorable This American Life segment about life in a South Side high school called “Harper High,” is a recent alumna. (Click here for the full lineup.)

The Spencer fellowship has also contributed to the production of a robust series of books and long-form pieces. Some of the most memorable projects include Elizabeth Green’s New York Times magazine article and book, Building a Better Teacher, and Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. (For a complete list, look here.)

For many participants, the Spencer fellowship is a professional high point, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I got a book out of the program. Others deepened their understanding of the issues, got much-needed breaks from daily education news, or even new jobs.

“I’m not prepared to say [my new job] is a direct result of the fellowship,” says Jamaal Abdul-Alim, who now works at The Conversation. “But it certainly had something to do with it.”

Many of its alumni still are still involved in education journalism. Green is a co-founder of the nonprofit Chalkbeat network of education sites. Goldstein is now a national education reporter at the New York Times. Sarah Carr has been running a newer Columbia-based education journalism program called the Teacher Project. The list goes on.

spencer 2016

So, with all that’s good about the program, what’s wrong?

Most immediately, the Spencer fellowship is deeply conflicted between academic and commercial priorities. As a result, participants often struggle to have the rich intellectual experience that the program affords – taking classes, working with professors, etc. – and also to report, research, and produce a major piece of journalism that someone will want to publish and many more will want to read.

Few manage to do both. The result is that most participants keep working on their projects well after the fellowship is over, without funding. Though not discussed publicly, this has led to challenges in reporters’ professional, financial, and personal lives.

The fellowship is also small and expensive. The foundation doesn’t list grant amounts on its website, but based on the 2007 announcement of a $2 million award over four years, the program cost roughs out to $166,000 per participant. The number is almost surely higher now.

A small but significant number of fellowships have gone to people who haven’t produced a long-form piece or even stayed in education journalism. The program has generally attracted freelancers rather than newsroom reporters. A healthy portion of the grant recipients – myself included – were not necessarily those most in need of the recognition, as much as we may have appreciated it.

Most of all, the program can’t be said to have made any sort of measurable difference at a collective level, outside the lives of those who are accepted. It hasn’t clearly improved the quality of education journalism overall or brought journalists and education researchers together in broader, discernible ways.

spencer 2015

Perhaps there are other benefits of the current program that aren’t apparent to me. But the spillover effects, much less the impact, are unclear.

At least some of those involved have no problem with that.

“’Impact’ is my least favorite word,” says former dean Nicholas Lemann, who helped bring the program to Columbia before stepping down four and a half years ago. According to Lemann, there’s an unfortunate tendency in journalism grantmaking to think that the journalism part is the means to an end. “I love that the Spencer Foundation had not used that word very much with us… They did not get into this fake ‘impact’ game.”

Lemann is not alone.

“I don’t think you can discount the value of giving a working journalist a couple of months to shake off the newsroom,” says USA Today education reporter Greg Toppo, who’d been writing education news for 15 years straight when he got the fellowship (and is now on the fellowship advisory board). “I don’t think you can underestimate the benefit of that.”

Indeed, everyone I talked to emphasized the support, recognition, and validation that flows from the experience. I can personally attest to that.

Its defenders also point to other, less tangible benefits to the broader field of education journalism, such as motivating reporters who aspire to be accepted to the fellowship program to do better work and signaling to editors and newsrooms about the prestige of covering education.

spencer 2014

2014 Spencer Fellows Linda Lutton, S. Mitra Kalita, and Joy Resmovits

But the Spencer fellowship is essentially a prize. The prize strategy is popular and relatively easy to execute. Everybody loves them. But it’s not clear that the approach is effective. A 2013 piece by Kevin Starr in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled Dump the Prizes argued that recognition programs have become counterproductive. A 2015 Inside Philanthropy article, The Perils of All These Prizes, laments that the awards-and-prizes complex is “distracting from the need for real funding, and giving outlandish sums to people who need it the least.”

And its model doesn’t fit current realities. The program came into being “right at a point where journalism started to face paradigmatic changes,” notes former foundation staffer Paul Goren, now the superintendent of Evanston, Illinois public schools. Amid the recession and the following implosion of journalism, the original conception – that staff reporters were going to leave their newsrooms for a nine-month sabbatical – hasn’t worked out.

Given where things are ten years later, avoiding tough questions about what works for working reporters and broader impact seems like a luxury that education journalism and its supporters can’t afford.

spencer 2012

Spencer Fellows 2012: Liz Bowie, Heather Vogell, Ann Hulbert

None of this means the Spencer Foundation should stop funding education journalism. Quite the opposite. I just think that those in charge of the program should think bigger, broader, bolder, better.

There are just many other potentially better ways to support education journalism. For example:

NEWSROOM FELLOWSHIPS: In-place fellowships, where journalists are hired or placed in newsrooms, are a small but increasingly popular alternative these days. They provide a place for newly-minted journalists to learn the trade and begin their careers. Many editors and smaller outlets rely on them. There’s room for scads more.

PROJECT FELLOWSHIPS: Also popular are special project fellowships, where reporters who are already on staff are given extra time and resources to complete a special project or investigation that they would otherwise have been unable to handle. This is also a great way to encourage reporters to stay committed to the beat.

DIRECT FUNDING: The Spencer Foundation already funds radio documentaries produced by American Public Media/American Radio Works. In a previous era, it supported Catalyst Chicago, a nonprofit education-focused outlet. I’m told that it is contributing to the launch of the Chalkbeat Chicago bureau. But there’s obviously room for lots more of this kind of support. How about an education version of the Kaiser Health News program?

If such a massive expansion isn’t possible, there are also some more substantive improvements the program could consider: eliminating the requirements that participants generally find the least useful – the introductory course, the residency requirement, the expectation to produce a book – and making other more practical aspects such as the book writing seminar more central to the experience. There should also be support for recent alumni still working on their projects. (The current model is remarkably ill-designed in that regard.)

The foundation could also turn the program into an Aspen Institute-like fellowship that allows a cohort of reporters to stay in their hometowns and come together during the year to bond and deepen their skills. This approach could help engage reporters working at larger outlets like NPR, the New York Times, Washington Post, and others who haven’t participated in the current model but whose work reaches the largest number of readers.

spencer 2009

The original Spencer Fellows 2009: Alexander Russo, Nancy Solomon, Claudia Wallis

The Spencer Foundation can’t do everything. And it’s already active on more than one front.

“The more the merrier is my opinion,” says Green, co-founder of Chalkbeat and a Spencer alumna. “The Spencer Foundation was totally essential to my ability to write a book, an incredible career-changing opportunity,” she says. “The foundation is now supporting our launch in Chicago – equally important work, I think.”

Yes, of course. The more the merrier. But funding is not infinite. And the current Spencer fellowships cost a lot of money – money that newsrooms don’t have these days for hiring journalists and delivering strong education coverage. The sad reality may be that too few people are benefiting from the Spencer to justify continuing it in its current form.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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