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Nieman Curator Bob Giles reflects on his time at Harvard

July 13, 2011

Nieman Foundation curator Bob Giles retired at the end of June after 11 years on the job. During his tenure, he found new ways to strengthen the Nieman Fellowship program and expand the foundation’s critical role in discussions about the future of serious journalism.

At a time when the profession was going through a period of unprecedented change, Giles and his staff oversaw the online expansion of the foundation’s quarterly magazine Nieman Reports and the Nieman Watchdog Project as well as the creation of the Nieman Journalism Lab and Nieman Storyboard, a website offering fresh ideas and resources for narrative journalists.

Giles also established several journalism awards and raised money to build a new wing on Lippmann House that provided space for new seminars, speakers and journalism conferences.

Under his leadership, the foundation added specialized fellowships in critical areas often inadequately covered by the press, including global health, community journalism, business reporting and arts and culture issues. Giles also provided refuge to a number of international journalists who were threatened or persecuted for their work.

Giles recently reflected on his time at Harvard during an interview with Nieman communications officer Ellen Tuttle. He began by describing what it has been like to lead the Nieman Foundation for more than a decade.

Giles: I’ve had a lot of wonderful jobs in my newspaper career. Each in its own way has been deeply satisfying. I’ve had opportunities to change newspapers, hire exceptional journalists, publish great stories and serve a diversity of communities. But I have found the Nieman Foundation more challenging and rewarding than any. Being part of the Harvard community is such a privilege. To serve as steward of this remarkable fellowship program for journalists is, well, it has been a dream job. I feel truly blessed that this opportunity came my way so late in my working life.

I’ve had the honor of working with many outstanding individuals — fellows, affiliates, staff. They’ve enriched my life. I leave with a head full of memories and a heart filled with gratitude for this experience and for the people who have contributed so much to the Nieman program.

Q: How has the Harvard community contributed to the success of the foundation's work?

Giles: The Nieman Foundation’s great advantage is its location at a world-class university. The fellows learn from leading thinkers, scholars and remarkable teachers. This is one of the great attractions to journalists who aspire to secure a midcareer educational fellowship. The Harvard experience and the culture of excellence established by generations of Nieman Fellows is what make our fellowships the most desirable in journalism.

Q: We often talk about the ways the university enriches the fellows, but the fellows in turn offer something on campus…

Giles: They do indeed. Professors tell me every year how much they value having Nieman Fellows in their classes. The experience and maturity fellows bring to class discussions contribute to the students’ learning experience.

Q: The many connections fellows make at Harvard often play an important role during their post-Nieman years. How does the university help them develop into leaders in their field?

Giles: When we select a class of Nieman Fellows, we are looking for many qualities, leadership and capacity for growth among them. A leader in journalism, in our view, is someone who sets an example of excellence. It can be courageous reporting in the field or the capacity to bring clarity to complex stories or the instinct for probing deeply to reveal uncomfortable truths or the gift of directing the work of others. The Harvard experience engages the fellows’ minds, deepens their understanding, broadens their knowledge and enables them to re-engage in journalism with an authority that elevates their own work and inspires their associates to reach for higher standards.

Tony Lewis (NF ’57) is a splendid example of how the fellowship experience helps shape leaders in journalism. Tony’s academic concentration at the Law School during his Nieman year prepared him for his role as the Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times. He distinguished himself on that beat for many years before becoming a columnist for The Times. His reputation for excellence grew from his reporting on and explaining the workings of the Court in the pages of the paper.

Q: As curator, you’ve participated in the selection of the fellows each year. After managing the process for so long, what in your opinion, makes a good Nieman Fellow?

Giles: Several things, in my judgment: a passion for journalism, a commitment to excellence, a compelling desire to learn and expand their knowledge of the worlds in which they work, an understanding of how Harvard can help elevate their capacity for excellent work. Successful candidates give evidence of having thought a great deal about why they need to be at Harvard at this moment. They have identified specific courses, centers of learning on campus and leading authorities in their fields of interest.

As you read the applications, you get very excited about certain candidates. You find yourself saying, “I really hope I can get this man or woman in the class.” That’s a wonderful feeling and it helps frame our final decisions. Most fellows exceed our expectations. They contribute in so many ways.

Q: You’ve often referred to the Nieman year as a transformative experience. As a Nieman Fellow yourself in the class of 1966, how transformative was it for you personally?

Giles: The transformative experience for me was a fundamental lesson I learned from Harvard teachers. It is this: The question is always open at the end of the day. This is true in the world of scholarship and, I realized, it also is true in journalism. At Harvard, I learned that there is always room for new discovery or a fresh idea that is going to alter the perspective or the understanding of an issue. I think journalists have to approach their work with an open mind; that even though the facts at hand may suggest an objective truth, next week something could happen to change our understanding of the story.

In my subsequent role as an editor, that lesson was always with me. I tried to coach my reporters and editors in that spirit; to approach stories with an open mind and to avoid drawing conclusions.

Q: Did that educational experience guide you as curator when you came back to Harvard years later to lead the foundation?

Giles: When I came back as curator I had the advantage of having been a fellow. There were strong similarities between the routines and culture of my time and what I found in August 2000. Lippmann House [home of the Nieman Foundation] seemed quite grand compared to the little house on Dunster Street across from the Mac Gym where the Nieman Foundation had a sitting room and an office for the curator. Bill Kovach, my predecessor, had elevated the foundation’s commitment to the standards of journalism. Through conferences he organized and the book he and Tom Rosenstiel were writing, “The Elements of Journalism,” the values and the standards of journalism had become much more a part of the conversation. I thought the foundation was in very good shape and I simply wanted to build on it.

I concluded early on that Lippmann House did not have enough space for the weekly fellows’ programs. I can remember seminars where the speaker was squeezed into the seminar room with fellows, affiliates and guests crowded around; it seemed more like an impromptu press conference than an academic learning experience. So I moved to expand the house and put a lot of my energy into that task for the first couple of years. It was more complicated than I might have wanted, but in some respects it was easier than I might have anticipated. The complication was persuading the neighbors that building an addition was a good thing. I remember that Ken Galbraith, who lived down the street, wrote a letter to his neighbors saying “Nieman Fellows have been our good friends for many years. This is a good idea, support it.” And that changed the minds of a lot of the reluctant people in the neighborhood.

The easier-than-anticipated part was the help from the university. It provided support in working with the architects and contractors. It guided the project effectively, so that when we started the project in December of 2002, it was done on time in October of 2003. Having a large seminar room and library enabled us to have conferences and dinners, events that would be very difficult to organize without this new space at Lippmann House. This has made an extraordinary difference, I think, in our ability to reach out to the larger community — both in journalism and at Harvard.

Q: In addition to building the new wing on Lippmann House, you introduced a number of programs to the foundation. Under your watch, the Nieman Journalism Lab was launched, Professors Corner grew out of Nieman Reports, Nieman Storyboard was introduced and conferences were added. Do you look back and consider one thing in particular as your greatest achievement?

Giles: Well, not as a specific event. The setting here for the curator has been one in which my predecessors and I have had extraordinary range of freedom and autonomy to do what we thought was best for the program. It’s not like working through a set of academic deans where you have to get permission or approval to do just about everything. My first experience with this was on my second or third day on the job. Tim Golden, who had been a Nieman Fellow in the class of 1996 and covered Latin America for The New York Times, phoned to tell me about a reporter from Columbia named Ignacio Gomez whose investigative reporting had angered powerful people and put his life in danger. He had taken asylum in the United States and Golden wondered if I could add him to the Nieman class. I said “I’m new here, Tim, let me find out.” A bit of investigation persuaded me that I had the authority to appoint him a fellow. I called Charles Overby, my old boss at the Freedom Forum, and explained the situation. He offered to fund the stipend for Ignacio. A few weeks later, Nacho, as he was known, arrived in Cambridge to begin a year that was truly life changing. That initial experience said to me that I had the freedom to do a lot as curator.

Q: How did the programs that you introduced to Nieman get started?

Giles: One of the things I enjoy most is working with ideas. Ideas excite me. To be in a position where I could act on an idea, mine or a fellow’s or from someone on the staff, was truly wonderful. We were able to bring many of our ideas to life in a short period of time.

For example, the Watchdog Project had been in place since the mid-1990s. Murrey Marder (NF ’50) had given the foundation his Washington Post stock and asked that the income from this endowment be used to advance watchdog journalism. The inspiration for his gift grew out of his frustration that newspapers weren’t fulfilling their watchdog obligations. Nieman curator Bill Kovach had organized conferences on watchdog journalism and I also had presented one. These workshops weren’t having the impact Murrey or I wanted. So I went down to visit him in Washington one day and we decided that the foundation should build a website to raise questions the press should be asking. I hired Barry Sussman, who had retired after a long career at The Washington Post, as editor of the Watchdog Project. Under his direction, the foundation has made a significant contribution to broadening the range and depth of questions reporters might pose.

The narrative program began in a different way. There had been a narrative class for the class of 2000. The instructor wasn’t able to continue my first year, so we didn’t have a narrative program. Several of the fellows had been taking a class with Mark Kramer at Boston University. They asked me if we could get Mark to teach narrative. I had lunch with him and we agreed that he would lead a class for the remainder of the Nieman year. Our meeting inspired me to think about what Nieman’s place might be in the narrative world. Mark and I worked out a plan to create a narrative program at the Nieman Foundation that would include a narrative conference he had been directing at BU.

I sent a note to President Rudenstine explaining the idea. A few weeks later at the conclusion of the annual Nieman certificate ceremony, he pulled me aside and said he very much liked the idea of the narrative program and was going to give us a grant from his discretionary budget to help start it. This was one of those exciting moments where you had a good idea and the university helped bring it into reality.

The Nieman Journalism Lab was created in response to the digital era that was rapidly changing the nature of journalism and news organizations. I was eager for the Nieman Foundation to have a place in the conversation around how the world of journalism was changing. I shared my thoughts with the Nieman Foundation’s Advisory Board in November 2006. That began a discussion and then a planning process that led eventually to launching the Lab in October 2008. It’s been deeply rewarding to me to see how Josh Benton (NF ’08) has built the Lab as a go-to place for people who want to know how the digital world is affecting serious journalism.

Others on the staff have contributed ideas and creative energy that add value to the Nieman brand. Nieman Reports has evolved from a highly respected quarterly print publication to include a lively and informed online presence. The creation of Nieman Storyboard has maintained the foundation’s place in the center of discussions about narrative journalism. A series of highly successful conferences directed by special projects manager Stefanie Friedhoff are part of that dynamic: Let the ideas percolate and selectively invest in the ones that fit the Nieman mission and hold promise for making a difference.

Q: The programs you just mentioned reach out to journalists who don’t necessarily have the opportunity to come here as fellows. The foundation clearly has taken on a role in serving the larger journalism community. Do you see that as a strength of the foundation today?

Giles: I do. I have always felt, not in any disrespectful way, that this has been an elite program. We offer fellowships to 24 journalists each year. In the selection process, there are many more highly qualified candidates and, in the end, many close calls. Somebody gets a Nieman Fellowship and someone does not. Is one candidate more deserving than the other? Maybe, maybe not. This is just the way the interviews and the final choices play out. I believe Harvard has so much to offer journalists that there should be a way for the Nieman Foundation to give more journalists a Harvard experience or a Nieman experience. Maybe just for a day or for a weekend; bring together a group of specialists covering the environment or trauma and engage them with leading thinkers in the field from Harvard and other institutions. There’s a lot that can be learned on a weekend and it is an opportunity for journalists who may never be Nieman Fellows to have a moment of learning at Harvard.

I was very careful in thinking about these new ideas we were putting in place. They had to satisfy the mission — Agnes Wahl Nieman’s mission — of promoting and elevating the standards of journalism and educating individuals deemed specially qualified for journalism. Everything we have done satisfies that purpose. It’s a wonderful mission statement. It came to us in her bequest and has been the core purpose of the foundation.

Our conferences, our online presence and the spreading global recognition of our fellowships have acquainted many more people with the Nieman Foundation. They have strengthened and enlarged our brand and have given people an opportunity to learn under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation. Equally important, they have enriched the fellows. I remember when we first started conferences, there was quite a bit of pushback from the alumni. They were asking, “How can you add things without taking something away from the fellows’ experience?” We reassured them that the additional programs and projects are for the fellows as well. In fact, they are primarily for the fellows. 

Q: Journalism today is often referred to as an industry in crisis. Do you see the foundation being able to play a role in defining the future of journalism? Or is that beyond our scope and mission?

Giles: I think we can have an impact in parts of that dimension but perhaps not all of it. We have to keep uppermost in mind that whatever the medium is — print newspapers or broadcast or online startups — journalists need to know more. They need to be better educated. They need to have more knowledge to cover an increasingly complex world. They need to write and speak and report with authority. The crisis doesn’t change the fundamental value of midcareer education, in my view. I feel very strongly about this. Harvard’s international reach, its innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, its world-class faculty and students are the essential assets that must continue to serve new generations of Nieman Fellows and the future of journalism as well. I don’t see foundation’s role becoming a training program for digital-age journalists. There are training programs all over the country. There are very few educational programs for journalists at leading universities. So we have to hold tight to this advantage.

We also have a growing responsibility — an obligation, I think —to be more effective in helping our fellows deal with the stress and the trauma that comes with being a journalist today. We have worked toward providing discussions and counseling for fellows who are coming from highly stressful situations; life in the trenches, victims of attacks, limited freedom to work as journalists. Many are traumatized. As they engage in this remarkable and secure environment at Harvard, there is a lot going on inside them. Our relationship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, has enabled the foundation to provide personal insight to help fellows begin to understand what they’ve been through, what they are going through. We need to offer more support — not simply for the people who are coming out of rough journalistic experiences but who also may have anxieties about the uncertainty of a life in journalism or who confront other difficult situations, as well.

Additionally, the foundation will have to assume a larger role in helping fellows think creatively and productively about the next steps in their careers. I have spent a lot of time giving career advice, helping fellows develop a strategy for pursuing opportunities or trying to figure out “Should I keep my job or should I take this offer?” Others on the staff also engage fellows in discussions about the future. Nieman Reports editor Melissa Ludtke and our special projects manager Stefanie Friedhoff are particularly adept at this.

Some of our international fellows can’t go home again. One of the challenges is having this idyllic year and then everything stops. Where do you go? What are you going to do? I’ve had some success in supporting their applications for other fellowship programs at Harvard and other experiences. But there are some who, at the end of their Nieman year, are left with a transformative experience and no place to put it to use. To return home might expose them to death threats or imprisonment. They’re still in the United States. They’re scrambling for work in a tough hiring environment and it’s painful to watch.

Q: At the farewell party we had for you recently, a number of the fellows talked about the special bonding that takes place in each Nieman class. A number of them referred to it as a special kind of magic. To what do you attribute that?

Giles: One of the unexpected discoveries entering the Nieman year is how quickly ambitious, accomplished journalists come together as a family. Spouses and partners are able to have the same wonderful experience as the fellows. The foundation provides resources for childcare and gives the Nieman kids opportunities to become friends with children from all over the world. Fellows and their affiliates discover how interesting and fascinating their new peers are. They meet together several times a week at Lippmann House. They spend time together at concerts and lectures, stopping for a beer at the end of the day, inviting one another for dinner. The Nieman program is set up to engender having a good time and learning from one another and sharing experiences.

As the year goes along, we hear remarkable stories during the Soundings. Every year, fellows share stories, sometimes discussing things they’ve never told anyone before; stunning revelations about their lives or their challenges, health issues or horrific experiences in the name of journalism. The confessional nature of many Soundings brings the group even closer. When I spoke at my retirement party of the culture of hugging at Lippmann House, I meant that it is very genuine; the fellows and affiliates truly enjoy one another. They’re journalists who share common experiences and similar interests, of course, and that helps.

This evokes a wonderful family feeling and a sense of closeness. Every once in a while somebody’s going to have a setback. Everybody then rallies around. There’s a genuine caring for what the individual is dealing with.

Q: While preparing to retire, you spoke a lot about the many experiences you’ve had here at the foundation. In the end — is it good to be curator?

Giles: Is it good to be curator? Oh my, yes. Being curator is, in a sense, like being the editor of a great newspaper. You have a lot of power. You can make things happen. That’s what I loved about being a newspaper editor. You can convey your values, your priorities, your sense of what good journalism is, and influence what happens. You shape the nature of the paper and the coverage of big stories. I thought that was the greatest thing about being an editor. You have the same capacity here except you’re not under deadline pressure and you’re not worrying about the publisher saying you can’t spend the money. You have such great freedom here to bring your ideas to life and to have this ability to help people change their lives, to have this so-called transformative experience.

I think one of my strengths as a leader, editor, curator, has been my ability to enable people to succeed, to give them a lot of freedom to do their jobs, to come up with ideas, to fail, to take risks, to support them but not to meddle because they know more about what they’re doing than I do. To be in a position to give this opportunity to a group of people every year is quite extraordinary.