Errol Morris, the writer and documentarian, recently visited with the Nieman Fellows at Lippmann House and challenged one of the clichés about journalism.
“There’s a saying that journalism is the first draft of history,” Morris told us. “But that’s not how I think of it. Journalism is often the only draft of history. Information is perishable. If the journalists aren’t there to gather it, what happens?”
Morris’s rumination was one small moment in the history of the Nieman Foundation, but the sort that has enriched the fellowship experience for 73 years. From that comment grew a larger discussion among fellows about truth-finding, investigative technique, editing ethics and storytelling, a conversation that did not end when Morris left and is likely to stir our thinking for a very long time.
I joined the Nieman Foundation for Journalism as its curator this year about the time the new fellows were arriving in Cambridge. As a former Nieman Fellow, much about their experience was familiar to me, including these important discussions about stories and standards. But our 24 fellows are animating Lippmann House with a new and persistent inquiry, not only into the questions raised by Morris but those informing the evolving modes of journalistic expression or the dismantling of old business models.
They have found guidance and inspiration among the intellectual riches of Harvard. One fellow was invited to join a faculty member’s research into privacy issues in the age of the Internet; four are engaged in rigorous leadership study; a third is working with the business school on a set of innovations to address the disruptions taking place in his company and industry.
In return, fellows and the Nieman Foundation are contributing to the greater Harvard and journalistic communities. One fellow recently lead a campus seminar examining in honest detail the successes and failures of her newspaper’s coverage of an important and complex international story. Another group of current and former fellows formed the core of a campus symposium on Latin American free speech challenges.
And the Nieman Foundation is using its convening power to bring significant thinkers to Harvard, resulting in such expanded seminars as our lively campus-wide conversation about narrative writing with the author Gay Talese or the discussion about journalistic vs. artistic examinations of urban America with David Simon, creator of “The Wire.”
Throughout the chapters of this annual report you will find detailed summaries of our programming, fellowship, finances and content initiatives. There is also a letter from former Nieman Fellow Bill Wheatley, outgoing president of the Nieman Advisory Board, whose guidance to me in my first months as curator, as for curator Bob Giles before me, has been welcome and wise.
The sum of this information is a portrait of an institution that is contributing to individual journalists, and the craft more generally, in meaningful ways. But there is more to be done. This moment for journalism is both formidable and thrilling and I am inspired by the inventive ways in which our fellows and colleagues are answering the challenge. As we work together to evolve the program and our attendant initiatives I keep Agnes Wahl Nieman’s founding directive uppermost in my mind:
“To promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate individuals deemed specially qualified for journalism.”
Ann Marie Lipinski
Nieman Foundation Curator
1990 Nieman Fellow