Fellowships Help Meet Training Gap

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Ginger Carter Miller

Special to TelevisionWeek

In the fast-paced world of the broadcast journalist, it’s tough to keep up with trends in the media industry.

That’s why fellowships have become popular. After all, as one broadcast journalism professor noted, doctors, lawyers, teachers-even day-care workers-are required to take continuing education courses to keep their skill set fresh. Why shouldn’t that be the case for practicing journalists?

In fact, many broadcasters around the country participate in fellowships and professional development opportunities. The names of the sponsors are prestigious-Nieman, Knight and Poynter-and so are the institutions involved, including Harvard University, the University of Maryland, Stanford University, University of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The fellowships take all kinds of forms to fit all kinds of broadcasters. Tom Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said fellowship training now has to meet the needs of the time- and budget-strapped newsroom.

“Unlike the Niemans [at Harvard University] and the [Knight fellowships] at Michigan and Stanford, these tend to be weeklong training sessions devoted to specific issues-how to better cover schools, for instance, or business, or international conflict. We invite in professionals from around the country for these sessions with experts in the field,” he said.

But broadcast professionals are not leading the surge toward the training, Mr. Kunkel added.

“[Our sessions] include some broadcast professionals, although not nearly as many as we would like,” he said. “Radio and television stations are extremely reluctant to let reporters go for three to five days.”

Specialists Wanted

The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism has offered fellowships for more than 17 years for reporters in areas including law, health, science, politics and international affairs. More than 1,800 journalists from more than 400 news organizations have received fellowships to the center.

The training pays off. Lisa Hsia, senior VP of new media and special projects for Bravo, completed a Knight fellowship at Stanford. “The Knight Fellowship offers you a chance to expand the framework from which you view the world. In my case, it meant honing my Chinese, taking classes at the business school and learning to scuba dive. I absorbed things from the perspective of ‘learning and experiencing’ versus the ‘report and edit’ mode that had become habitual. And what a wonderful world that is!” Ms. Hsia wrote of her experience.

The Radio-Television News Directors Foundation is a major force behind fellowships, with a long list of available opportunities for broadcasters at all career levels. Carol Knopes, director of education projects for the organization, said broadcasters around the country are looking for a way to stay more competitive and current.

“These fellowships strengthen the core of broadcast journalism,” Ms. Knopes said. “They support better reporting and management. Several of our fellowships enhance diversity in newsrooms.”

She and Mr. Kunkel agree that there are commonalities among those who apply for the fellowships. Everyone looks for “professional skills, quality of the applicant, strong references, management potential,” Ms. Knopes said.

Classroom to Newsroom

RTNDF’s Educator in the Newsroom project is one example of a broadcast fellowship. Funded seven years ago by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the project allows 20 college and university fellows to spend four weeks over summer break at a smaller-market television station.

“It’s important to all of news broadcasting,” Ms. Knopes said. “When professors know what is going on in newsrooms, they can better prepare their students for the real world.

“The news directors gain a valuable pair of hands in the summer. Most of our Educator in the Newsroom professors have a strong professional broadcasting background,” she said. “Our professors often mentor a young staff at the stations, give advice on ethical issues and sometimes even conduct seminars. This is training that goes two ways.”

Richard Landesberg, an assistant professor at Elon University, completed a fellowship last summer. He said he’d heard about the program from friends and thought the experience would enhance his teaching.

“I had been a broadcast journalist for about 25 years but had spent the last seven going to graduate school and teaching. I realized that my ‘boots on the ground’ knowledge was stuck in the ’90s, and I was teaching in the 21st century. I always vowed that I would never become one of those professors who stands up in front of a class talking about film when the whole world is digital,” he said.

Mr. Landesberg spent his fellowship at Journal Broadcast Group-owned KIVI-TV in Boise, Idaho.

“I anticipated getting a lot from the fellowship, and I got even more,” he said. “I wanted to follow the advice I give my students: Go to a small market where you don’t know anyone, learn your craft in a place where they allow you to make a few mistakes and those mistakes won’t be fatal to your career, and go far away from home so you can learn about how people in this country can be very different from region to region.”

He said the best part was that the station gave him all the hands-on experience he could handle.

“I did [voice-overs] and packages. I executive produced coverage of a breaking story. I wrote. I worked with anchors, producers and reporters as well as management and gave a producing seminar,” he said.

“One Saturday they decided to give folks a day off and asked me to be the one dayside reporter. And I got a chance to dust off my old skills and test what I have long believed: The technology may change, but the solid basics of good broadcast journalism-the fundamentals-remain the same and are at the core of what needs to be taught in order for broadcast journalism to survive and thrive.”

Mr. Landesberg said he has no plans to leave the classroom permanently.

“I do love broadcast news, but the truth is, as George Bush says, it’s hard work! I forgot how many hours you spend at the station or running around town in an SUV, picking up a story here, a VO there and doing it six or seven days a week depending on the workload,” he said.

“I regained a great respect for how hard these young journalists work. And I’m happy to have them do the work. I’m keeping my day job.”