In Depth

For Some, Fellowships an Option Never Before Considered

By Allison J. Waldman

For many professional journalists, the current economic downturn has resulted in doors closing, opportunities squelched and options denied.

With the employment market shrinking, even the most accomplished and adaptable journalists have wondered if there’s something else to do to help maintain and further their careers.

One possibility is fellowships, paid sabbaticals for experienced news professionals who are looking to expand their skills.

On the surface, fellowships may seem not only too time-consuming, but very difficult to get in the first place. However, that’s not always the case. In fact, some journalists who end up with fellowships had never considered pursuing one until they filled out the first application.

Columnist Nancy Nall was facing a situation in which her newspaper, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was being dismantled. She was in the middle of her career, married to a fellow journalist and the mother of a first-grader.

“My whole career had been at a small newspaper. I considered myself a journalistic nobody, but I went through the process,” said Nall, recalling her decision to apply for the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan.

A friend had won the fellowship the year before, and with his encouragement, despite her reticence, Nall pursued the program. She filled out the application and presented letters of recommendation and her clips.

To her surprise, she was called for an interview with the program director in which she was asked to articulate her goals and dreams, and ended up being one of 18 journalists selected for the prestigious fellowship. “He was looking for strong personalities. He wanted [to form] a group that would interact in interesting ways,” she said.

Nall moved her family to Ann Arbor to attend the University for nine months. “You take courses in subjects you’re interested in. It was like grazing. That’s part of the program, but it’s not the most important part,” she said. “You spend a lot of time together with the other fellows. You have a house in Ann Arbor. We had twice-weekly seminars there. We traveled together. We went to South America, Toronto, Chicago.”

As for the particulars, the program was completely funded — “You get a nice stipend that was more than generous” — and most of the participants were in their 30s or 40s. The gender mix was equal, and most fellows brought a spouse, who also was given university privileges.

In her nine months, Nall studied screenwriting, learned Russian, took a course in historical survey, and enjoyed a respite from the daily grind. “My program was called ‘Old Media, New Media and an Informed Public.’ I was really interested in looking at how the Internet was affecting the news business, but I learned far more outside the classroom than inside. The seminars were great.”

Her experience was rejuvenating, too, even though when she returned to her job — employers are legally obligated to take the employee back after a fellowship — she was bumped from a columnist to a copy editor. “They gave me ‘a’ job, but it wasn’t unexpected, and I was ready to move on.”

Overall, the fellowship was a success for her. “The cliché that everybody says is that it was the best year of my life, but it really was,” she said. “You’ll never have another one like it. I would encourage anybody who thinks they have a shot to go for it.”

Azadeh Ansari learned of the Metcalf Institute Environmental Reporting fellowship when the institute’s executive director, Sunshine Menezes, found Ansari’s resume on the JournalismNext.com Web site and invited her to apply. Ansari had previous experience as a Kaiser Family Foundation media intern, so she was open to the idea of a fellowship. After a six-month process, she was offered a spot.

“It was journalism and science and the environment,” said Ansari. “To my surprise, the year I applied was when CNN decided to take on a fellow. I got a call from Peter Dykstra at CNN and had an interview with him.”

After a monthlong prep period at the University of Rhode Island, Ansari moved to Atlanta and went to work at CNN. “It was exactly what I wanted to do. Fellowships allow you access to insiders that you wouldn’t have access to as just a journalist,” she said. “There’s a big support system, and that’s essential in this day and age given the current state of news media. You’re supported from the news side and from the foundation.”

Ansari needed that support because two months into her fellowship, CNN’s science and technology unit was let go. Ansari was spared, thanks to Metcalf. She moved to CNN.com and was able to continue working. “That’s why I’m such an advocate for fellowships, because even when things are tough, you have a go-card, a free pass. You’re not dependent on the organization.”

When asked to rate her experience, Ansari was effusively positive. “There were a lot of ups and downs along the way, situations that are not in your control, but in terms of how the situation was handled by CNN and on the fellowship side, I was extremely impressed.”

Simone Aponte was an Emmy Award-winning news producer at KFMB-TV in San Diego, where she helped create and produce “Earth 8,” an environmental segment created in partnership with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California, when she received a fellowship in Metcalf’s annual workshop for reporters program.

She discovered the program during a Google search for subjects she wanted to learn about. “I felt like I needed to get in with the scientists and get as much information as I could. The Metcalf was exactly what I was looking for,” said Aponte, who wanted to hone her skills to bring more to the collaboration with Scripps. In fact, she had the director of that organization stress in her application recommendation how the fellowship would facilitate their TV work.

The fellowship was a one-week workshop in Rhode Island. “It was intensive. We had to be up every day by 7 o’clock and at the van. It was fantastic to be with the scientists all day,” she said. “They really pulled out all the stops. The people that they brought in were very impressive.”

In retrospect, Aponte is grateful for the experience and encourages others to try. “I went into it as maybe one of the least experienced journalists, so don’t be intimidated by the breadth of knowledge they’re going to be throwing at you,” she said. “It never crossed my mind that I was wasting my time. I was thrilled to be there. It was completely worth it.”

For freelance health care journalist Meryl Davids Landau, fellowships had always intrigued her, but they didn’t fit with her lifestyle. “I have kids and I work from home, so for many years fellowships looked interesting but I couldn’t go away for a week, a month, however long it was,” she said, adding that when she came across information about an Association of Health Care Journalists fellowship, she thought, “I could do this now.”

She had only recently joined AHCJ because she hoped it would be a good venue for freelancers. “It was a one-week fellowship at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The idea of any fellowship was exciting to me, but going specifically to the CDC to learn from their experts face-to-face was exciting to me. The CDC is all about public health, which I write about a lot.”

Landau, who has written primarily for magazines, was somewhat confident that she’d be chosen. “I thought AHCJ might skew more heavily toward newspaper writers, but they had people from all different kinds of media,” she said.

In her favor, was the angle that her CDC experience would be used for articles in a variety of publications. “I played that up in my application,” she recalled, adding that she elicited a recommendation letter from an editor at a parenting magazine she writes for that was particularly effective. “She was very supportive of my work,” she said.

Landau is still developing and pitching stories based on what she learned in Atlanta. The fellowship also boosted her credibility with editors. “It was very good for networking.”

One other plus is that she recognized that she needed to be more aggressive in her work. “I didn’t learn reporting skills, but some of the journalists there were a little bit more tenacious than I was, and I think that was good for me to see. It was helpful in getting me to sharpen my claws.”

Her advice to other writers about fellowships is this: “Don’t be intimidated that they’re not going to select you. You don’t know who your competition is.”