Benét Wilson: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. I’m Benét Wilson, the editor of "All Digitocracy." I also serve on the boards of the Online News Association and the National Association of Black Journalists. I’m very happy to host this event.
First, I want to apologize about our technical difficulties last night, and I want to thank everybody that has come back today. Second, I want to give a special thank you to current Nieman Fellow Wendi Thomas, who actually approached me with this idea, and I was happy to do it.
We’re going to first introduce Ann Marie Lipinski. She is the curator for the program. Then we’re going to hear from the Fellows. Then we’re going to just open it up to your questions. Ann Marie, please go ahead.
Ann Marie Lipinski: Hello, Benét. Thanks so much for working on this with us. It’s great to be with you tonight, to see you again. It’s been a while since we were together at ONA, recently.
This is just really a time for all of us to talk about what is a Nieman Fellowship, how to apply for a Nieman Fellowship, and to talk about what…There’s not a typical Nieman experience, because every Nieman Fellow’s experience is unique, I’ve discovered.
I was a Nieman Fellow, and my year is still one that I cherish—not just for sentimental reasons, but because I can look back on that year here at Harvard and I can see the ways in which it was this major pivot for me professionally, in ways that I did not appreciate at the time.
There’s some magic that is working on the fellows right now. I think they suspect it, but they’re not fully sure yet how that’s going to play out for them. Dawn, who we’ll talk to in a bit, is a year out from her Nieman, and so she’ll have a better view of that than the two current fellows do.
It’s really a chance to come and to realize a new set of ambitions—a new set of intellectual and creative ambitions, and to really think about where you want to take your journalism next. To walk out of here having had Harvard, the Nieman Foundation and your fellow Fellows really fortify you for what’s coming next for you in your career.
Every fellow comes here with an individual study plan, something that she or he really wants to pursue. Sometimes when they get here they may even actually study that particular plan, but very typical, as it was for me, is to get here and you realize that there’s something even better than what you imagined when you were not at Harvard. You get here and the opportunities really explode and expand exponentially. You spend two semesters—a full academic year—course auditing, being part of pretty robust Nieman programing, which includes seminars and master classes and shop talks and do-it-yourselves and all kinds of creative and intellectual pursuits here.
The history of the fellowship has been that people leave here and they expand their work in some kind of way. They go back to what they were doing but do it in a very different way. They seek new opportunities.
I think, very importantly, Harvard and Nieman are places that allow you to think about yourself as a leader. When I use that term I don’t mean it in the old-fashioned kind of masthead way—whose name is at the top of a masthead pyramid. As we all know, people can lead from any point in a newsroom, and some of the most powerful leaders in journalism have been people who are leading from their position as a columnist or a metro editor or something.
I have found, as I did for myself, that fellows looking back on their experience see that that was a point for them where they realized new ambitions for their work and for their news organizations. That’s a very powerful thing, and it’s something that’s often harder to achieve when you don’t stop to take stock and nourish yourself intellectually.
Benét: Thank you, Ann Marie. I appreciate it. Dawn, would you like to go ahead and start with the introductions?
Dawn Turner: Sure. I’m Dawn Turner. I’m formerly of the Chicago Tribune, and we have this amazing group of Niemans there. For years, my colleagues had invited me to apply for a fellowship.
I had every reason under the sun not to do it. I guess you can say that, "It’s not right until it’s right." For me, last year it was the perfect time in my life to be there.
People will tell you that your Nieman year is a transformative year, and you don’t know exactly what that means until you get there. It’s almost like someone trying to explain what being a parent is. They can tell you it’s wonderful and there are challenges and all of that, but you don’t know what it’s like until you actually experience it.
The transformation is so much contingent upon what you need, what drove you to apply for the fellowship. So it’s about how you arrive. Then what you go through when you’re there—the academics, the programming there at Lippmann House where the Nieman Foundation lives and breathes, all of this. There is this massive transformation. What you get from your fellow Fellows, the staff there at Nieman. It’s this amazing experience. You really don’t understand that transformation until the end. Even then, you don’t fully understand it until beyond June, when there is a graduation, because months later I’m still understanding and getting a hold on what the fellowship meant. I believe, even years beyond, it will be this experience that I will still continue to unpack.
I just think that the saying that you will hear, as someone who is applying, you will hear that, "This is a transformative experience." And it’s that—but you don’t completely understand the transformation at one time. I think it’s a lifelong unfolding of the process.
Benét: Thank you. Mónica, would you like to go next?
Mónica Guzmán: Yeah. Hi, everyone. I’m Mónica Guzmán. I’m based in Seattle. I’ve been a freelance tech reporter for a number of years.
I’m halfway through my Nieman year, along with Wonbo. It’s difficult to describe. Actually, when people ask me—who are not here—what it’s like, I sort of begin by going: [Mónica breathes in deeply]. I have to take a breath. There’s so much to say. There’s so much that’s still being formed in your head about what your takeaways are going to be, what the richest things are.
I’ve told people, recently, that it’s been wonderful to have an experience to let everything rest and see where my brain goes naturally. In most respects, it’s confirming the things I already knew I was passionate about. But in other respects, it’s pointing out things that were always there and I never noticed and that maybe should be more of a mission for me, more of a driver.
I’m particularly interested in community engagement, audience engagement and development in journalism. It’s all kind of meshing around that one sphere, and that’s so exciting for me because it’s just more and more of an affirmation of what I already know I’m excited about. I’m even more confident that these are the things I need to be working on into the future. That’s really, really fun for me. Not to mention getting to know everybody here. Like this guy. [Mónica points to Wonbo Woo.] He’s awesome. I’ll leave it at that, and get to your questions when it’s time.
Benét: Last but certainly not least, Wonbo.
Wonbo Woo: Hi, everybody. My name is Wonbo Woo. I’m a TV and news producer. I worked for ABC News in New York for 12 years, and then at NBC for the last three years. I came here hoping to just kind of look at what the next step in my career is. Figuring out how to learn, how to grow, and how to take this year as an opportunity.
I remember when I came for my interview, I think Dawn was at the table right outside of this room. She said, "It’s just the best year ever. It’s the best year of my life." I think Denise [Denise-Marie Ordway, a 2015 Nieman Fellow] said something very similar. It sounded a little bit kind of like a line that had been practiced, and now we’re going to say it too.
I just went to New York to visit some friends. I was there on one trip and all of them kept coming up to me—I was with a bunch of work people—and I just kept saying, "It’s just the best year ever." It’s incredible to…in our business where so much of the time we are just running around on deadline and just thinking about the next story and just constantly moving—the idea of having this kind of time to reflect on A, our own careers, and B, what’s happening in our industry, in an industry that’s changing in the way that it is. To be able to be in a room full of people—23 this year—who are from such different aspects of the industry and who have such different experiences, but who are all really committed to this business. To be able to sit in a room and talk about issues and learn about things that affect the industry has been incredibly, incredibly enriching. We are already starting to talk about the end of the year coming up.
It’s an incredible experience, and I so encourage everybody in our industry to apply. It’s really the best thing you can do for yourself, ever.
2. Why did you apply for the fellowship? Were there any barriers to making that decision?
Benét: Before we start taking questions, I want to tell people that are watching to please type your questions in the Q&A section, and we will get to as many as we can.
The first question I’ve got is—it’s a common question and Dawn, you kind of brought it up: People are reluctant to apply, and they struggle with the decision. What made you all decide that you wanted to apply for the fellowship?
Dawn: Should I start?
Benét: Sure, please.
Dawn: I don’t know that there’s anything that I’ve ever really been involved in that was so unanimously praised. You just don’t hear anybody say anything bad about it.
But it is a matter of trying to fit it into your life, and that’s why I said no. Nieman itself makes so many accommodations. If you have young children, the children are welcome. I love that kids feel part of our year.
Spouses could be Nieman affiliates. My daughter came for a semester as an affiliate, so it’s a matter of really trying to work it into your life. I would say that it is something that is so worthwhile, and if you can do it, just do it.
Our class, we had this fellowship that went beyond just the individual. We really bonded. That’s one of the things that I know Ann Marie tries to do, put together a class of people so that the class works very well together. That’s part of the process, and that’s part of just making it feel like a home and a fellowship.
Benét: Thank you.
Mónica: I’ll follow up on that. Initially, I think all the years that I’d heard about the Nieman Fellowship, I, without looking into it, did assume that it was probably for people far older than me—I’m in my early 30s. That it was probably for people far more experienced than I am, maybe higher up in the newsroom leadership chain.
Like I mentioned, I’m a freelancer. I don’t even have a home, and I figured, "Oh, there’s language in there about, ‘Make sure your newsroom lets you go,’" and I thought, "Well, I don’t even have a newsroom. Is that OK? I don’t know."
There’s a former fellow I knew who is close in age to me, and so I just kind of asked her. We had some conversations, and I went to the website, and I learned about… I have two very young kids, a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and so another inhibition for me would have been just, how in the world am I going to move my family across the country? How would my husband be OK with that? You just ask the question, "So, honey, let’s say this would happen. What do you think?" I got support from that corner. There are—because money’s important—there’s significant assistance given to families. You look for housing around Cambridge; it’s not the cheapest place to be living in, even when you’re renting for a little bit of time.
I’m very impressed with how Nieman, I think, goes out of its way to make sure that fit, like financial fit, and all those tactical, logistical things are not the reason you wouldn’t come. That really meant a lot to me. So that was a huge…That was probably, honestly, one of the primary barriers.
But also just feeling, "Is this me? Is this even where I would be?" I think since I’ve been here, now that we’re halfway through, it’s very clear to me that this is a big mix. There are fellows younger than me. I didn’t really expect that, and there are. And there are fellows older than me. There’re executives, and there are people who have 10 years or less experience in the industry, like myself, and that’s awesome.
That makes me want to tell a lot more people like me, or a lot more people who might think, "This is not for me," that I think they really look for people in different levels in their career who share certain qualities and certain passions and excitement for the industry, and for their own possibilities within it.
Ann Marie: I’d like to say, just to follow up on that, because I think it’s really important: When I got here four years ago as curator, I went through all of our materials, everything on the website, any printed materials, and I tried, and I hope we succeeded in scrubbing the term mid-career out of all references to what Nieman was looking for. Because what really does that even mean, and even if it does mean something, why do we want to restrict ourselves in building a class to people who are only mid-career?
I want people as part of the class who are in nascent stages. Not maybe right out of college, but maybe not with a whole lot of experience. But in whom I see the potential for much more, and for potential leadership of some sort, and I want to invest in them, and I want Harvard investing in them at that age. Exhibit A [Ann Marie gestures to Mónica].
But I also want people who are… I mean, the three of us just came out of—we have a weekly, it’s called a sounding, and it’s where one of the fellows kind of presents their story for the class. And this was given by one of our fellows who’s a senior executive in a news company, and I like putting a class together the way I liked my newsroom. I like a range of experience. I want a diversity of experience and of abilities, and you can’t do that if you’re just fishing from the same shallow pond, whatever that is.
It used to be in the earliest Nieman classes they were all men, and they all came from daily newspapers. There was a time where broadcast journalists were not part of it. Women were not part of it.
Just like we can’t think about going back to that standard, I can’t imagine not having a class that’s half international, half US, but also the riches that people bring based on their experience, and also the range of aspirations that that age range and experience range naturally implies in a group.
3. Is the application process different for freelancers?
Benét: Mónica, you brought up that you came into the program as a freelancer, and we have two questions about that. I don’t know who can answer these, but if you can kind of go into a little more, I feel like these two people say they’re both freelancers, and wanted to get some information about how to apply.
Mónica: So as a freelancer, how to apply?
Benét: Mm-hmm. Ann Marie, you can jump in, too, please.
Mónica: The short answer is — it’s the same exact process. The only difference is that you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to get the time off your work, because your work is your own. It is the exact same process. There’s nothing different at all. Again, if the difference is confidence, don’t let that be something that would prohibit you from applying. But it is exactly the same. So just go online and it’s all there.
4. How did you approach writing and submitting materials for your application?
Benét: The application process, it calls for two essays, a profile, the study plan, work examples and three letters of recommendation.
I wanted to ask the fellows, how did you guys decide what to submit as part of your application packet?
Wonbo: For me, a lot of it had to do with presenting what I thought was the best picture, holistically, of who I am. Some of that is laid out in terms of recommendations. I think it’s two recommendations [Editor’s note: Three recommendations are required]: one from an immediate supervisor, one from a colleague, one from a personal… I can’t remember exactly what the breakdown is, but just thinking about people who know me in different ways and what they would be able to say about me, and how that speaks to my work ethic, who I am as a journalist and also who I am as a person, because we spend a lot of time together, and I think that’s an important consideration. No matter what, one of the biggest things that’s going to come out of this for me is really having made some of the best friends that I will make anywhere, at any time, ever.
These are friends that I’ve made for life, and people who I can really count on. It’s an interesting thing to be in that situation, because I don’t think that any of us have really been in that situation since maybe college, where we all come in together at the same time and have this year to think about things together.
We get to bounce ideas off of each other. I’m pretty sure that there’s going to be people in this group that I will call on a fairly regular basis when I’m dealing with a tough story or difficult, you know, something tough with a boss or somebody that I’m managing, or whatever it is.
I think this group is one of the first places that I would turn [to], because it’s a group of people who I know know the industry, and who I trust.
In terms of what I wrote about, I also just wanted to make sure that Ann Marie and the other people on the panel got a good sense of who I am, and the sounding—which Ann Marie was touching on a little bit, the one that we just came out of—it’s the one thing that we do in the year that is at all stressful, because we have to start thinking about answering this question. The question that was set to us is, why we do what we do.
Mónica: He’s already done his. I have not done mine.
Wonbo: But that’s how I thought about the essay, too, is that I wanted to be able to say, "Here is what I want you to know about me as a journalist and how I am different from my colleagues, what it is that stands out in my mind about my work and where that comes from, the things that make that important to me."
I actually felt like that application was very helpful in preparing my sounding, too. Really, more than anything else, you just want to be able to give the judges an opportunity to really get a sense of who you are as a journalist and as a person.
Mónica: I’ll say this very quickly. The application is not easy to just put together. It takes some time, but I remember thinking when I was finished and I handed it in, you know, not too long before the deadline, "Even if I don’t get this, I’m really glad I went through the process of reflection that the application makes you go through."
It was really, really valuable for me. It felt like the first step in this year.
Dawn: To continue on that, I wanted to say that because the application process is a lengthy one, that if you are considering applying, to give yourself enough time.
You do not want to misspell Nieman. It’s N-I-E.
You need to have time to go over it, and to really sit down and think about it. I agree. I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have been able to flow through my sounding, that presentation that we give, why we do what we do, as well if we hadn’t thought about some of these things during the application process.
Because the day-to-day work of what we do every day is so deadline-oriented that we don’t have much time to stand back and think about why we do this. Most of us, we love this business.
The application allows you to reflect. It allows you really to lay your thoughts out. It’s a lengthy… It can be daunting just to look at it. If you take it piece by piece and really give it some time and some thought, then it’s definitely doable.
I remember when I punched the button, I think I was so exhausted afterward, but it was that gratifying exhaustion, that feeling like, "Wow, I just did something big."
As you just said, Mónica, I kind of felt like if I didn’t get it, it was a wonderful process to have gone through.
Ann Marie: I just want to offer an alternative view. And maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I actually crashed my application on deadline. I realized, looking back, I had been thinking about it for so long and that for various complicating personal and career reasons I really didn’t make a decision, my husband and I didn’t make a decision, until it was Sunday and the thing was due Tuesday.
But I knew the answers to the questions. Someplace in your brain, like those stories you write up here [Ann Marie gestures to her head] before you actually write down here [Ann Marie mimes typing on a keyboard]. I’m sure I stayed up all night doing it, but I did it pretty quickly, which, you know, it’s something journalists know how to do. We know how to write on deadline. I didn’t labor over it like this. I had just been thinking about it up here for so long that when it finally came time to actually type, the essays came out pretty easily.
The one thing I wanted to say to anyone thinking about applying—something that I’m looking for in the essay—is some sense from you on why Harvard, why now?
There are infinite ways that any of you can spend a year, could spend next year. Giving us some sense about what about this place and this point in your career and your development makes a year with us…What’s your compelling story for that?
Sometimes I get applications and people have gone through course catalogs and they’re listing dozens of faculty members and specific courses and all of that. We’re not looking for that kind of specificity, but we are looking for a sense that you’ve done a little bit of homework about what are your areas of interest, what might Harvard; MIT, which you have access to as well; and the greater Cambridge and Boston communities; and the Nieman Foundation, which includes not just the fellowship but Nieman Lab, Nieman Reports, Nieman Storyboard…What about this collection of riches—what particularly about it—speaks to you right now, and what do you imagine taking advantage of in a year here?
It shouldn’t look like an application that could have gone to just anybody, any year. It should look like something particular to where you are right now in your development and something particular about this community, meaning Harvard and Nieman and the greater environs.
5. What if an applicant does not have an immediate supervisor to write a recommendation letter?
Benét: I have another question: "As a freelancer, I do not have a supervisor. How would I handle that in the application process, particularly in terms of recommendations?"
Ann Marie: We are really happy to hear from anybody who knows you and your work. A supervisor can be an editor you’ve had on a story, or a producer who worked with you on a freelance assignment, just somebody who has insight into you as a professional. That’s what we’re looking for. We understand that freelancers don’t have a boss in that sense, a supervisor in the traditional newsroom sense, but you do have people who are familiar with your work.
6. What if an applicant has an immediate supervisor but is unable to ask that person to write a recommendation letter?
Benét: I have another question about recommendations. This person says that they know that the foundation wants recommendations from present employers, but what if you know that they probably won’t support you coming to do the fellowship? Can they use former bosses and supervisors? How do they work that?
Ann Marie: That’s perfectly fine. I think that if you look at—in recent years—we’ve really evolved from that, "You must have your supervisor’s approval. You must agree that you’re going back to your former employer." Relationships now between journalists and organizations, just given the state of the industry, are different than when Nieman was founded. We appreciate that. We understand that.
Again, what we’re really looking for is people who can testify, with some credibility and experience, about you as a professional and as a colleague. I’m really trying to understand how are you going to be in this mix.
Your fellowship is yours individually but it’s also, there’s a reason it’s called a fellowship. You’re a part of this team, this group, and I want to know how you comport in professional environments, in newsrooms. Even if you’re a freelancer, how you work with your editors. But it does not have to necessarily be your current employer.
Wonbo: I didn’t. My recommendations, one of mine was from one of my early mentors who I hadn’t worked with in probably six or seven years, but he had been my immediate supervisor for… eight years he was my boss.
I actually left NBC to come here. My contract was up pretty much the day that the application was due, so there was no way, in the process of writing that, I couldn’t really go to my employer with a contract negotiation coming up and say, "Hey, can I have a year off?"
So that was something that I worked out for myself, but the recommendations, I think, worked out OK.
Benét: Got another question here for the fellows. The question is, "How did you choose your study plan, and do you think it was beneficial for it to clearly align itself with your current career path?"
Dawn: My study plan had to do with storytelling and just trying to understand the different modes of storytelling, the anatomy of the story, and I wanted to deconstruct on the story because I felt that—and I still feel that—although there are so many things occurring in this business, one of the things that will be enduring is the story, and that is, how do you tell a good story, and how do you make it accessible and interesting and all of that.
While there at Harvard I did a number of different things. I had planned to study documentary filmmaking, and veered onto screenwriting. It’s another form of story. So I think what happens is, we have these game plans going in but there is this embarrassment of riches. There’re so many things that we can, as Ann Marie just said, you can take classes at MIT, at Tufts, I believe, as well as Harvard.
And so you get there and you’re partaking of seminars. I was looking at Harvard’s events calendar, and so there are so many things that pop up, and there’s this part of being there that’s just a serendipitous learning, which is fascinating.
So what you plan initially, it may evolve. Some of my fellow Fellows, they may have started the first semester taking classes that were part of their project. But then by the second semester they were taking classes in Egyptology or something.
But the beauty of the fellowship is that all of it, somehow, it all works together and it becomes this, just, learning experience where you’re able to pull off of it to make you a better writer, a better journalist, a better person.
Wonbo: I want to also just say, the study plan Dawn was talking about, the embarrassment of riches. There is what, 7,000 classes offered at Harvard? I mean, it’s really overwhelming. In the first week we were all…and Dawn came and she told us, "In the beginning you’re all completely crazy about this, and then you realize things fall into place.” And we just didn’t get it. Ann Marie told us that too, but it’s helpful to have that study plan and to have that idea of thinking about, what am I trying to do?
I think it’s helpful in thinking about, through the application process, it helps you really to sort of envision what the year can be for you, and what kind of things you want to focus on, and it helps once you get here to provide that kind of a framework. But there are tons of different things here that you can do, and if that evolves and that changes, it’s an important step along the way. It was very important for me to have that idea. I’m not focusing my studies on exactly what my project proposal was, although it’s still something I’m very interested in, but sometimes there aren’t classes that are being offered that fit exactly in that, or you find a class that you just really want to take.
I’m taking a class on religion, politics and public policy that I love—that has nothing to do with my project area. I’m singing in a chorus, and I love that, and it has nothing to do with my project. I think there are ways that you can work within that framework, but establishing that framework is helpful in the early phases, especially.
Ann Marie: And we also, here at Lippmann House, have a yearlong curriculum that all the fellows are a part of, so again, everyone’s out individually doing whatever they’re doing on campus. But then here at Nieman we have every week—we talked about the sounding we have tonight, but we have a weekly seminar with somebody, usually from the Harvard faculty. Most weeks we have what we call a shop talk, and then this week we have one of the founders of Vox who’ll be with us on Friday, talking about their start-up and their business model and their journalism, which is distinct and really interesting.
We have fellows—we’re Day Two into a three-day, pretty intensive master class on how to make video, how to do video. Each of them will finish this week having actually created some kind of video story. That’s just one week here at Lippmann House.
Those master classes, by the end of the year, will add up to a fairly robust curriculum. You may come in here being primarily, or even, only a broadcast journalist, or we have magazine reporters, we have news executives, we have people whose entire career is with digital, but you should walk out of here with a tool belt of where you’re very comfortable working in different media, and where you’re able to think about, this is a story. Actually, I’m not going to do it the way I usually…This story’s actually a podcast, it’s not just a narrative, or I’m a photographer but I’m actually taking… We offer two intensive writing courses here, so we have people who are visual journalists who are now learning to communicate—in a couple of cases pretty brilliantly—as writers, and it’s not a form that they had worked in much.
There’s an intense focus on journalism here at Lippmann House, even while people’s individual study plans out in the university may be politics; we have somebody here who’s been working all semester on cyber war issues, and it relates very specifically to coverage she’s been doing in the Middle East, so we’ll now bring to her a foreign editing job when she goes back to work after the end of this year.
All of it kind of adds up to more than just your individual pursuits because there’s this group dynamic with the classes here at Nieman that’s really pretty powerful and rich.
Wonbo: It’s also Harvard; I mean, there are so many speakers. I’ve heard Jill Lepore—and one of our colleagues heard Ta-Nehisi Coates—Candy Crowley and Frank Schaeffer, Frank Gehry, Calvin Klein. It’s just the people who are on this campus on any given day is crazy, and it’s just dizzying, the opportunity to have, to take advantage of all that.
Dawn: There’s also the opportunity to learn from our fellow Fellows because the people there are just so incredibly talented that we would have our own, as I’m certain you guys have, the DIY, the do-it-yourself sessions that were so helpful.
The beauty of being there at Lippmann House is that you can focus, you have this great curriculum that’s journalism focused, and then you can take classes, whether at MIT or Harvard or the other places, that they don’t have to be so journalism-related because you’re getting that from Lippmann.
8. How do you decide how to spend your time during the fellowship?
Benét: And that’s a perfect segue to this next question. How, when you have all of these resources, and not just Harvard, but all the other schools, and people just walking in, how do you decide? It sounds dizzying, so the question that’s being asked is, how do you decide what fits in your study plan, how you can do everything that you want to do during your fellowship?
Ann Marie: You have to get pretty good at saying no. We all remember that from college, right? I know college seems to stretch on forever when you’re an undergrad, and obviously a year is not four years. But I think the fellows that I think succeed are those who, again, you come in with a focus—who succeed the most, or have the least stress about how to put their year together—is coming with some kind of focus, and I think Wonbo was explaining this, and you go out into the 7,000-course catalogue with this study plan in mind, and it’s the one that you wrote in your application, the one that got you in the door. And in the course of—all of you listening understand this because you’re a journalist—it’s just like reporting a story, right? You go out with a hypothesis, or an idea, or a tip, and in the course of reporting that and investigating that idea, you may find that that was exactly the right idea and that’s exactly the story that needs to be told, and you start gathering up all the sources to support that story, or you go out and you find a better story. And you realize you were going down this road and, wait that road is a better and more interesting and more productive road. So it’s really, I think, those same reportorial instincts that got you where you are professionally, that serve you really well in this environment. It’s pretty similar.
Mónica: I’ll say that there’s been a former fellow from several, several years ago, who I met at a conference over the summer, who sat me down and really went—it was just like, have lots of wisdom—and the advice he gave me that I really took to heart was—we talked for a while—and he said, "You know, I’ll bet you’re a little like me, and so let me tell you this." And he said, "Really work hard to make time your friend instead of your enemy," and time has been my enemy for most of my life. I always want to do more than there’s time for, and my attitude at the outcome and the gap is not always healthy, so I really wanted to approach this year more generously, and to understand that it’s all a gift, and that there is nobody who’s going to beat me over the head for not taking 10 classes.
And so I made a choice that I want to be able to breathe here, and I want to be able to have serendipitous conversations in the Lippmann House with the fellows who might be coming in and out, because there is this amazing space, I hope we get to it, that the fellows kind of cross through. I love being able to just have that time and that space, and that’s a choice I’ve made.
There’s also other fellows who are taking seven classes, or however many, and just love it, and they’re just so immersed in the academic environment. I also have my family and have made certain choices about the time that I want to leave available to them.
Really everybody does things very differently, and I think one thing to keep in mind when you get here, and also when you prepare to get here, is that none of this is a competition. Everybody’s doing their own thing, and it’s got to be good for you, and you have to know what that is, and it can be difficult because we’re human. You know, to hear about somebody else taking this or that thing, and you go, "Oh my God, if I were only more whatever, I could have thrown myself into that." You just have to sit back and have confidence that you know what you need, and maybe some of you need a break more than you need, just endless, just more time, just endless like up-all-night work. That’s OK, in fact, in some respects, I think that’s encouraged for people. It all depends on what you need and what will help you grow.
9. What assistance is there for fellows with families?
Benét: Thank you, that kind of sets up this next question, and Mónica, I think it’s more for you. Someone wants to know if you can elaborate the process of moving with family with young children to Harvard, and wants to know about what support, either logistical, financial, etc., is available for a potential fellow that has a family?
Mónica: On the website it details the amounts that are available, the ranges anyway, for families if you’re moving in with kids. There’re stipends for housing and for health care, which have been really wonderful, and also the staff here at Nieman is unbelievably generous, it’s so great, with their time and their advice.
One of the first things that happened when I heard that I got my fellowship was, OK, now here’s what we’re going to do. I think it was a Skype, or a Google Hangout, with a couple members of staff, and they said, "All right, now here’s your checklist. We’ll send you a couple of apartments that you might consider; we know a little bit about where it’s easier to rent for small children." There’re a couple of things in Massachusetts that make that interesting. Actually, the first apartment that they recommended was—I looked into it, I checked it out, and said, "Sure." We just had help every step of the way. They sent us a lot of links and resources for daycare, which for small kids is by far the most complicated thing.
We’re actually switching what we’re doing halfway through this year, and that’s just our own choice. These things are difficult if you have small kids and like, God, it can get really stressful, but our kids love it here. They’re having a lot of fun. My son is going to a half-day preschool that’s about a 12-, 13-minute walk from our apartment. I’ve been walking everywhere. We’ve got the double stroller. In Seattle we used to drive. I’m feeling healthy walking all the time. I’m looking at my iPhone going, "Wow, 18,000 steps. That’s pretty good."
Our family’s adjusted to this new way of living, and it can seem daunting because by the time you’ve learned you got the fellowship it’s… if you have small kids it doesn’t feel like a whole lot of time, and so you do, you’re like, "OK, let’s go." So I partnered up with my husband like, "You got this?” “Yeah, I got that.” “How you doing on that?" "Pretty good."
You do have a lot of support, financial and otherwise. So again, don’t let that be a worry that gets in the way at all because everybody figures it out. In a lot of ways, figuring out what classes you take is going to be a tougher and more stressful situation, with all the support that you get.
Ann Marie: The first class I chose, there was a family that came from—it was one of the international families—they had come here from the Middle East. They showed up with their three young kids, and she was eight months pregnant, the affiliate in the family, and it was just really great to see, and they had the baby, and the baby became part of an extended Nieman family. I think just like in any kind of healthy work environment where you’ve got really good colleagues, the support of that network is not…We’ve been talking a lot about the professional importance of that, but there’s really a personal value that a group creates as well.
That’s just sort of, I mean, that’s true of this class too. They take care of each other. They’re together a lot, just like you are with your colleagues in your newsrooms. You get to know each other really well, and the support that one is supplying to the next, whenever they need it, is really a rich part of it here.
Mónica: By the way, the kids have become friends. There’s a fellow who comes to babysit my kids; you know, just because she wants to, because she loves spending time with them. There’s…yeah.
Wonbo: It’s also the affiliates, I would say. I’m here as a single, which is a different experience also, but for the affiliates—there are certain affiliates, which is the word that we use, by the way, for spouses or partners—but there are some who are at every single event, pretty much, and who spend as much time at the house as the fellows do, and there are others who we see less often but we still feel quite close to. It’s possible to be really almost like one of the fellows, as an affiliate.
10. Describe Lippmann House and its role in the fellowship.
Benét: Can you guys talk a little bit about Lippmann House, and what role it plays, and how it works with the fellows?
Ann Marie: Yes, it’s just a really glor—I wish we could.
Mónica: I know I wish we could [Mónica mimes swiveling the computer around].
Benét: White House tour.
Ann Marie: I wish we could tour. I think there are pictures on our website of it, but it’s an old, white clapboard house with enormous gardens, and it really is, I mean, it’s everything you need it to be. It’s a studio, it’s a clubhouse, it’s a newsroom, it’s a workspace, it’s an up-all-night-crashing-your-paper-for-your-Kennedy-School-course house. It’s a gathering place. It’s where we teach the master classes; it’s where we hold the seminars; it’s where we just came from a sounding.
Wonbo: We had a holiday party this weekend.
Mónica: I never have a holiday party.
Ann Marie: Yeah, we had a holiday party this weekend. When the weather’s nice—orientation was partly outdoors this year—we will hold seminars out on the patio, outdoors. We’ll have big gatherings; when the fellows arrive in the fall, we have a big Harvard community gathering here.
We invite faculty and others who have been really great supporters and part of the Nieman community to come and to meet the fellows, and it’s a house that can hold a lot of activity and a lot of people. It’s just hard to imagine the year without it. It’s a convening space for whenever or whatever you need.
No matter what time of day or night I come here—it’s like, I forgot some work and I need to take it home, or I’m stopping by, it can be on the weekend—there’s always somebody here doing something related to their Nieman year.
Dawn: Ann Marie, can I just say that for us, it was a great dance place as well. We spent Friday nights dancing, and it was fantastic. It really is home away from home. We were able to get in via our ID. I mean, yes we had a lot of programming. But it was also a place to gather and to have fellowship. That is, as you were saying, that is one of the reasons why we’re there: It’s to learn from one another. But we also create these amazing bonds and relationships. And, I just told you, the Friday nights that we danced, I’ll never forget them.
Wonbo: It also really does continue. I mean, I feel like I know Dawn; I feel that, you know—and Denise [Denise-Marie Ordway, a 2015 Nieman Fellow] is on campus—but you get to know other Niemans and…what is it? “Once a Nieman, always a Nieman…”
Mónica & Dawn: “There are no former Niemans.”
Wonbo: It really does feel like that already. The other thing that I’ll say about Lippmann House is just, it’s the really…I mean, I grew up in Cambridge so I know Cambridge and Harvard somewhat, but walking up to this house, it was really the moment that was like, “Whoa, this is Harvard.”
It’s funny because right now the house seems totally unintimidating; it feels like home, and it feels really comfy and wonderful, but it’s also, it’s really a reminder of looking in Cambridge at this amount of real estate and this kind of a building and these kinds of resources are really sort of astonishing.
Mónica: I’m a big believer in your state of mind being affected by the state of the space you’re in. I was telling both of these guys yesterday that for an industry that’s, in some ways, crumbling, it’s really inspiring to walk up to the steps of Lippmann, and walk inside, and just be in this majestic, beautiful space that, again, the staff just takes such good care of.
You feel like you’re doing such wonderful things and wonderful work, and what you do is really as awesome as this space. That means a lot to me.
Ann Marie: Being a Nieman Fellow now is different than when I was a Nieman Fellow because journalism is so different. It was not in the kind of crisis—or at least we couldn’t anticipate or weren’t anticipating as an industry—the kind of crisis that was around the corner. It’s an industry that needs all the help it can get, and I just love that this great institution which is Harvard is investing in these remarkable journalists to the extent that is. That it opens its doors and says, “Come and let us fortify you in the ways you need to be fortified to go back out there.” There’s more rigor to the program now than there might have been or than I imagine there was maybe during some periods where…you know, journalists, you could take a year off and everything was waiting for you back in your newsroom exactly the way you left it. There was your desk and there was your job. Somebody might have filled in for you but then stepped aside when you returned. It’s just not like that anymore. To have this space, and to have it be a space where the most remarkable, creative work and planning and conversation and hard work can go on. Where you feel so supported by this remarkable institution. It’s really special for them to see.
I mean, I think about Dawn’s class. When I see the power of this year on those alumni and what happened to them—the number of them that went off, you know, became editors of major news organizations…just the promotions that took place for her classmates coming out of this year were really remarkable and, I think, a testimony to the power of the year, and to giving yourself permission to really invest in yourself as a professional and as an individual.
It paid dividends, not just to those fellows, but I think to journalism more broadly because I can see the impact that they’re now having in their profession and on their colleagues. To me, it’s still very inspirational.
11. What advice do you have for people who might be applying for a second or third time?
Benét: I was thinking about the application process. There are people who say that there are repeat applications, and that should be expected. Some people will get it on the first try. For the fellows, how many times did you apply, and what advice would you give to people who have applied more than once?
Wonbo: I wanted to apply, probably, five or six years ago. The timing didn’t work out. I came very close to actually submitting the application, but the timing didn’t work out with my employer. It didn’t quite work out with me. And it stuck with me, and I thought about it pretty much every year. This year it just happened to work out timing-wise. This was the first time that I actually applied, though.
Ann Marie: I think for all three of these fellows, they were first-time applicants. I want to encourage people that I’ve had—I think in most of my classes—I think in one of my classes I had somebody who had applied four times. There’s at least one fellow in the current class who had applied twice. It’s just a very common thing.
I remember when I was applying somebody saying to me, "You know you should think of this as a two-year process right?" Just because that had been his situation. It was a very common thing. Dawn was saying, "You know when it’s your year. You know when it’s time."
For some people, they apply and if they don’t get it they just decide their time came and went. Maybe that next year isn’t right for them. But if you don’t get it, and you think you’d still really love to do it, definitely come back to us. Come back to us again.
Dawn: We had a couple of people where— I happen to know one person in my class who got it on their second time around. I’m so glad that they made it this time because they were a big part of our class. I think that what’s important to keep in mind is that, when Ann Marie and the judges have to be putting together a class, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not qualified. It’s just that they have to put together 23, 24 people. And maybe this is just isn’t your time. I would encourage anyone to apply and apply. And apply. Because it’s such a worthy experience.
12. What do fellows typically do after their fellowship year?
Benét: I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone. I’ve got one more question. Then we’ll kind of wrap things up. Do most of the fellows go back to their newsrooms, or do they go and do something else?
Ann Marie: That is all over the map. I’m thinking about Dawn’s—of course this class is still a work in progress and you don’t know—but Dawn’s class, I think a lot of people went back to their news organizations. Some of them in different roles. Some people, when they came out of their fellowships, had already had a conversation with their employer that maybe it was time to try something else. There were no traumatic partings. For people who did go back, they went back to, often, new and interesting things.
Like I mentioned, in a couple of cases, Dawn had two people in her class who, you know, one came here as an editor and another who came as a foreign correspondent, and each of them went back to become editor-in-chief of their individual news organizations, which were quite large.
In other cases, people had, you know, when they left, they had had a really good parting with their newsroom and had really made the decision that it was time to move on, and so used this year to think about what they wanted next. Something that one of our fellows did—left a really interesting start-up organization that she had helped get off the ground in New Haven, Connecticut—left and really wanted to calibrate, and now is part of another start-up, which is Stat, run by the Boston Globe Company. Lots of stories like that. In no cases can I think…Actually this is my fifth class as curator. I can’t think of any really traumatic partings. They were just very healthy, natural transitions for people.
Benét: Go ahead.
Dawn: I wanted to say that I did. I went back, and then left. So there are so many different ways to return.
Benét: I want to thank you all for doing this. Thank you again for taking the time to do it tonight, after the technical difficulties of last night. I think that we couldn’t get to all the questions, but I think we got to the big ones. I hope it encourages people to apply for this program. Thank you again. Ann Marie, did you want to say anything in closing before we end?
Ann Marie: If there are people who still have questions that didn’t get answered, please—our emails are on the Nieman website—please email us. We’re more than happy to answer them. This isn’t the only time that we can answer questions about the Nieman Foundation. We’re really happy to do that.
Just a reminder that applications are due at the end of January for the US applicants. Anything between now and then that occurs to you as a question, I’m sure fellows would be happy to help us answer them, and I know we would be.
Then finally, Benét, just to really thank you for taking the time. You were with us last night, as everyone was trying to figure out what was happening. Just great to be with you again tonight. I’m glad this worked out. We’re very grateful to you.
Benét: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Thank you to the fellows, to Wonbo, Mónica and Dawn. Thank you all so very much.