Fixing the fellowship model

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Journalism fellowships for early-career reporters have flourished in recent years. But are they doing any good for young journalists – or for journalism?

By Kristen Doerer

Helen and I sat down in the cramped quarters of Baked & Wired, a staple for many Washingtonians. She had heard that this was the place to come for cupcakes. She was right. The line to get into the little café ran down the block.

A recent college graduate passionate about covering education and international news, Helen – who asked that only her first name be used – was new to Washington, DC, having moved across the country from the Bay Area.

She’d spent weeks doing research on the DC-based fellowship she’d been offered, calling individuals like myself who had taken fellowships early in their careers, trying to figure out whether she could afford to accept the position.

It’s not an easy question to answer.

The competitive fellowship she had been offered has launched the careers of numerous young journalists, landing them permanent staff positions in places such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Washingtonian, and National Geographic.

But it also paid a whopping $12.50 an hour in a city where the median rent is roughly $1,500 for an individual sharing a two-bedroom apartment. And for every successful graduate of the program, there were many others who hadn’t been able to find the kind of job that they wanted.

 

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Fellowship programs are everywhere in journalism these days, seeming to have replaced the old model of the unpaid internship (although they still abound).

Ideally, they are a professional utopia of mentorship, skill building, and opportunities to produce stellar journalism. But there are questions about how well these programs are serving a new crop of journalists, the industry in general, and – since this is The Grade after all – education journalism in particular.

Journalism is in crisis. Hiring is at a standstill. Budgets are tight. Layoffs, buyouts, and outright shutdowns are frequently in the news. Newsroom diversity is an ongoing challenge. Fellowships today often reflect those difficult realities. But fellowships shouldn’t exacerbate the industry’s problems. And they don’t have to.

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Fellowships can refer to various programs, but the type being discussed here are entry- and early-career opportunities. They generally require early-career journalists work at one outlet for a period of time between four months and year, which can then sometimes be extended. Most pay close to the local minimum wage, whether they are salaried or hourly, without benefits. Most recipients are recent college or journalism-school graduates who may have taken multiple internships in media and haven’t yet been able to land a job at as a full-time reporter.

The obvious benefits are that they offer a chance to get clips at leading outlets, to push one into the territory to be hired in a full-time position with a salary and benefits.

I can attest to that. I started the Washingtonian fellowship in February 2015. Over the four months I worked there, I convinced my supervisor that I should go to CPAC to cover a debate on marijuana legalization and managed to get my first print piece published on a topic I would have never imagined – in vitro fertilization. When I could, I freelanced for The American Prospect and coached tennis on the weekends. Eventually, I landed a full-time position at PBS NewsHour.

For most early-career journalists, fellowships are something of a gateway into journalism. Or at least they’re supposed to be.

“There are very few entry points particularly when people exist outside of the [industry] social circle,” said Matt Tinoco, who recently completed a fellowship with Mother Jones magazine. “The fellowships signal an entry point.”

They can also be a good place to learn the ropes and – with luck – snag some valuable mentoring from more experienced journalists. Many fellowships offer brown bag lunches – opportunities to sit down with staff and other writers to learn about a topic, whether it be interviewing a source, covering a beat, or social media training.

“I kind of viewed Mother Jones as grad school,” said another former fellow who didn’t want to go on the record. He had not studied journalism in undergrad and was cautious about spending the money to go to graduate school for journalism.

Rachel Cohen, a former American Prospect fellow who specializes in education reporting, can attest to the many benefits. “I think my fellowship did offer me tools to write and report successfully on education,” she said, noting that she was able to write magazine-length feature stories, blog posts, and web articles and that the Prospect sent her to do field reporting in cities like Hartford, Chicago, and L.A.

Cohen is now freelancing pieces for The Intercept, among several publications.

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The current crop of Teacher Project fellows at Columbia University’s school of journalism, led by Sarah Carr (left)

Along with outlet-based fellowships like the Prospect’s, there are university-based opportunities including one specifically aimed at journalists interested in covering education.

At the Columbia Journalism School, veteran education journalist Sarah Carr leads an effort called The Teacher Project. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Emerson Collective, it gives three recent graduates per year the opportunity to do in-depth, enterprise reporting “of the kind that you would not necessarily get in typical entry-level newsroom position,” said Carr.

Asked if she thinks the fellowship invests in its participants, Carr is quick to respond that it invests in both education journalists and education journalism. “Just look at the work that has been produced,” she added.

Indeed, the latest cohort of Teacher Project fellows examined online credit recovery courses in a remarkable series published on Slate that The Grade listed in its top education stories for 2017. Teacher Project fellows have also gotten the chance to help produce a podcast series, What My Students Taught Me, in partnership with The Atlantic.

“It’s the kind of thing that if it had been available when I was graduating, I would’ve died for it, because you get to spend weeks working on a story,” said Carr, noting that fellows have reported from places such as Mississippi, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, Detroit, Portland, and Oregon. There’s also plenty of one-on-one mentoring, with Carr being the dedicated editor for the three fellows.

After her Teacher Project fellowship, Alexandria Neason got her first assignment for Harper’s Magazine about school vouchers in Detroit, a piece she doesn’t think she’d be able to execute without her experience from the fellowship.

“Working on those larger pieces, learning how to take a local story and make it appealing for a national audience–these are skills that I learned working at the [Teacher Project],” Neason said. She pointed to other lessons she learned from the experience: “It was also learning how to properly plan for a long reporting trip, how to keep my notes and research organized, what to do when you’re traveling and interviews fall through. How not to panic.”

She now reports on media at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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Clockwise from top left: The Reveal Fellowship’s Martin Reynolds, EWA public editor Emily Richmond,  Teacher Project alumna Alexandria Neason, and former Prospect fellow Rachel Cohen.

Fellowships like Columbia’s seem ideal, but they aren’t without their flaws – and they aren’t the norm.

By far the biggest shortcoming identified in my interviews was that participants are paid near-poverty wages.

“It’s almost like to be in journalism you have to be from an affluent family,” said Martin G. Reynolds, director of the Reveal Investigative Reporting fellowship, a project-based fellowship that’s designed to increase diversity in investigative journalism. He points out that this is a far cry from when he entered the newsroom and journalists often had blue-collar backgrounds.

Though there are a few outliers that pay better – The Teacher Project, the IndyStar Pulliam Journalism Fellowship, The American Prospect, Google’s News Lab fellowships, and The Intercept – most of the fellowships reviewed for this story pay between $10 and $14 per hour.

A number of outlets don’t even list the pay of these fellowships on their websites, as if it wasn’t important to applicants to know what they would be making. Or perhaps these outlets know it’s low and are embarrassed (as they should be).

It’s ridiculous that so many fellowship programs pay so little.

“If fellows aren’t being paid enough to live in the area, that means they need parental support or have to take on some sort of debt,” said former fellow Tinoco, who comes from a multicultural background and was able to break even during his stint at Mother Jones only by freelancing for other outlets. “Those are extra barriers for people of color, public school kids, and so on.”

Another former Atlantic fellow answered decisively when asked if he could live comfortably off of the $25,000 he was paid for his DC-based fellowship. “Definitely not.” He lived with a family in order to cut back on expenses. “I am not sure how I would have made it work otherwise,” he said.

The proportion of nonwhite education reporters is higher than in journalism over all, but it is still “not even close to the school populations they often cover, considering that over half of American schoolkids are non-white,” wrote Amadeus Harte last year for The Grade.

Teacher Project alumna Neason believes fellowships have the potential “to open doors that, for underrepresented groups, are really difficult to get access to.” But, she adds, “for programs like this to have far-reaching success improving the really distressing racial homogeneity of the education (and journalism in general) reporting community, they have to be unselfconsciously intentional about recruiting racially diverse candidates.”

The Columbia fellowship offers benefits and paid vacation time, and pays $42,000. But fellows must live in one of the most expensive cities in the nation and have attended Columbia’s J-School — an endeavor that costs over $100,000.

Neason reports that, during the two years she was there, she was the only person of color in the program.

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Besides pay and exclusivity issues, some fellows feel like they were duped into taking an internship; that is, their fellowship experience felt much closer to that of an intern’s. They point to activities such as answering the phones, fact-checking, coordinating events, and running errands. One fellow described being asked to bring a pitch to a meeting, and once the pitch was approved, it was assigned to another writer.

I know there are some editors reading this, saying, “Hey, that’s part of the hustle. It’s what you make of it,” while looking back nostalgically on their days as a paperboy. Consider this: Most fellows, some of whom have Master’s degrees, have taken several internships, some of which were unpaid, to get a fellowship.

“You need internships just to get internships,” lamented another fellow who did not want to be named.

“If [a fellowship] is providing an actual route to a real career and training to give people a step up, that’s great. If they are just slapping a name on it to cover up being poorly paid, well…” said EWA’s Emily Richmond. “Recognizing potential… [that’s] the essence of giving a fellowship.”

Sometimes, one fellowship leads to another, and then, with luck and talent, there’s a job opening at the end of the process. Jessica Huseman, another alumna of the Columbia program, first got a fellowship at ProPublica and is now a staff reporter there,

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There are a number of things editors can do to improve their fellowships (and help early-career journalists and the journalism field in general):

— Hire more diverse candidates. Realize that many of them will not have have been able to take unpaid internships and that some of them will not have had a private school education. That’s OK. Fellowships that are making a concerted effort in this include Reveal and the Ida B. Wells fellowship at the Investigative Fund.

— Invest in the diverse fellows you hire. “A lot of news organizations are using [fellows as] a way to diversify their newsrooms,” said Reynolds, director of the Reveal fellowship. “I don’t have a problem with that if they perform and get a job through it.”

— Treat fellows with respect. This should be a no-brainer, but if you want young talent to remain in your news organization or to continue to write for you after their tenure, treat them well. Young journalists talk with one another. You don’t want your outlet to have a reputation for disregarding or neglecting young talent.

— Pay people a livable wage for the city they are in. Paying people fair wages allows your fellows to relax when it comes to their finances and gives you happier and more productive employees. Your fellows shouldn’t have to work second jobs simply to afford rent. Some young journalists have begun to push back: Fellows at Mother Jones won a modest increase to $14 an hour. First-year fellows at the Prospect also won a raise to $37,000 a year as part of a newsroom unionization campaign.

— If mutually beneficial, include a second-year possibility. Among outlets to offer this are The Teacher Project, Mother Jones, and The American Prospect.

A few other things: If it’s an internship, call it one. Interns and fellows can live in the same ecosystem; just make sure you clearly differentiate between the two. Positions should be at least six months (preferably a year) so that fellows do not need to be looking for another job immediately. Be explicit if you know there are not going to be any job offers for fellows, and ask yourself whether you should have a fellowship in the first place if you can’t hire the talent you find and (presumably) nurture.

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Sitting in front of me, Helen excitedly tells me about the first few weeks of her fellowship. She’s already made connections with editors and gotten a good handle on the media scene here. She feels like she’s becoming a better reporter with support from her supervisor and editor. “They keep telling us, ‘you don’t need permission to go report’,” she told me.

With three internships under her belt and an undergraduate degree in journalism, Helen appears to be an expert in making the most out of these programs. However, as the daughter of two teachers, she didn’t get financial support from her parents to move to DC to take the job. The fellowship doesn’t offer health insurance either, and it’s too expensive to be on her parents’ plan.

So, a big part of her agenda for the weekend: to find a part-time job to work at after her day job at the fellowship. Maybe a coffee shop, she joked, someplace with free food.

Helen doesn’t mind working a second job, but it does eat into the time she could be using to write, network, and apply for full-time positions. And it puts her behind her wealthier counterparts who don’t have to work.

“I don’t want to lose sight of why I moved out here,” she said.

Kristen Doerer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. You can follow her at @k2doe.

Related columns:

The case against the Spencer fellowship

How a Teach For America-inspired journalism program aims to bolster local news coverage

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

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