Knight Fellows Switch from Sabbaticals to Hands-On Projects

    by Mark Glaser
    October 19, 2010
    The Knight Fellowships made a major change last year to focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership -- version 2.0, but still in beta

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    We expect them to produce something tangible during this year. And that can be broadly defined, but part of my job is to help them decide what that's going to be." - Pam Maples

    Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.


    For much of the past 40 years, the idea of a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University was a dream come true for mid-career journalists, most of whom came from major newspapers. The journalists were paid a decent salary, could shape their school year away from work with study and in-depth projects and thinking. And best of all, they could take their learning back to the newsroom and continue where they left off.

    But during the fellowship class of 2005-2006, something was amiss. Seven of the fellows saw their newspapers sold, or they were offered buyouts. The jobs they thought they would have upon return had vaporized. That class of fellows was more concerned about the changing state of journalism than their own personal projects. How could they relax and learn when they weren’t sure what kind of work, if any, would be there at the end of the program?

    Pam Maples was a Knight Fellow that year. She came from senior management at the Dallas Morning News. She’s now the innovation director of the Knight Fellowships, which changed course last year to focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. The Fellowships are now not so much about mid-career journalists; they’re about journalists who want to bring change to the industry.


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    Pam Maples

    After her fellowship, Maples went from the Morning News to a post at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and even became vice president of editorial at the startup Newsy in Columbia, Mo., before taking the position at the Knight Fellowships earlier this year. In a wide-ranging phone interview, she told me how she would describe her job as innovation director.

    “One of my primary jobs is to work with [fellows] on their projects,” she said. “We like to think of it as being kind of like a coach. Part of my job is to help them keep themselves accountable. It’s also to watch out for the program. We expect them to produce something tangible during this year. And that can be broadly defined, but part of my job is to help them decide what that’s going to be.”

    Maples said prospective fellows have to pitch ideas to get accepted for a fellowship, and have to prove they have what it takes to make those ideas a reality. But she also admitted the program has had stumbles in making the transition from free-form sabbatical to results-driven projects and startups. The following is an edited version of our conversation with some audio highlights.


    When they said they were changing the program, did that make sense to you? Do you think they should have made the changes sooner?

    Maples: Yeah, one thing that really affected them was not just people in the [fellows] class I was in and what was going on for them in the industry — but we wanted to talk about it, and not just cry over spilled milk. We wanted to talk about journalism and what was going on. It used to be that fellows were really into disconnecting. We organized some of our things, we were a very entrepreneurial group [when I was a fellow] and we wanted to talk about what was going on and how to navigate it not just as individuals but as fellows. And what could be some of the answers.

    Personally, I like change and I have always tended to want it to happen sooner than it usually does. I think the appetite for this kind of fellowship was out there in our profession. But I don’t think we missed the opportunity and it made total sense. Jim [Bettinger, program director] or Dawn [Garcia, deputy director] would tell you that they wished all this could have happened faster, but they wisely involved and consulted the major stakeholders — alumni, industry leaders, Stanford faculty members — and that takes time. Plus in an annual fellowship there’s lead time required to change application and selection criteria when you’re dealing with an annual fellowship.

    What’s your assessment of the first class of fellows with this new direction? What worked and what didn’t work?

    Maples: The first class was really messy, and I mean that in the best way you can. A lot of things were being figured out as they went along. There was a lot of trial and error. Jim and Dawn were also changing what the staff [of the fellowship program] do. Think of it as trying to manage 20 high-performing reporters. So we learned some things from that first class of fellows. Their feedback was great.

    Their feedback was that the year started too slowly. The message they say they got in the beginning was, ‘Don’t sweat your project so much at the beginning, during the first quarter. Get your feet on the ground, relax a little and enjoy the fellowship experience.’ For some of them who wanted their project to become their livelihood, by the spring they were saying, ‘Man I wish I had started harder earlier.’ So we changed the pace of the beginning of the year.

    Maples explains how some fellows are taking classes with the design school at Stanford, and they’re even running a bootcamp in collaboration with the school:


    How much of a role does technology now play in the work and study of fellows in the program?

    Maples: We look at innovation broadly, so it doesn’t mean it’s just technology. I sensed in the spring that there were fellows who were trying to create technology-based initiatives. Some of the other fellows were feeling like, ‘Oh that’s what I have to do!’ You can get infected with that out here [in Silicon Valley]. ‘I got to do a startup!’ I had a conversation with a fellow who wanted a risk-free startup. She didn’t say that, but I said, ‘You need to ask yourself if this is the life for you, and it’s OK if it’s not.’

    So we’ve tried to be clear with folks about that. If you come here with a concept and want that to be your future livelihood, it’s not impossible, but it would be unusual to take a very broad concept to a funded startup in nine months. We’ve tried to be clear about what you can expect while also walking a line to not dampen [their enthusiasm]. We had some folks, and that’s what they were trying to do, and it was getting late in the year and they were trying to find money. We’ve been clear that we’re not a seed organization. Well really we are, we invest in this year, we pay for this year, but we’re not a financing organization or an angel [investor].

    So maybe it makes sense to have a seminar on getting funding?

    Maples: One of our roles is to help them get the tools and knowledge they need to pursue their project. We’re running a little survey with them. They have so much initiative. There are some things they are going to teach each other. There will be a special set of seminars. Some of the fellows have volunteered to teach other fellows things they know. For things they don’t know, I’m putting together seminars on things like ‘How to Write a Business Plan,’ ‘How to Make a Pitch’ and have some investors there — not to put money down but to listen to pitches and give critiques.

    How have you changed the requirements for Knight Fellowships? It used to be for mid-career journalists but that’s changed. How many people are doing it and going back to organizations and how many aren’t?

    Maples: We don’t have the same sort of requirements any more. One of the things we changed was who we consider an applicant and how we define it. In last year’s class of fellows, we had more U.S. fellows not going back to organizations than people who were. We don’t have language about ‘mid-career’ journalists in our literature anymore. Our average age is close to what it was, but the span is wider. We have people in their late 20s this year, and people in their late 50s — it’s a broader mix.

    People have to pitch their idea in either entrepreneurship, leadership or innovation — or in all three of those. Somebody can have a fabulous idea but if you don’t see any sign that they’ve ever been entrepreneurial or pushed an envelope, then we think about that. What’s our sense of whether this person could effectively pursue this? We found that a few last year completely changed their projects, and the world changes so fast now.

    When you’re accepting more freelancers, do you also accept people doing journalism on a blog rather than with a traditional media outlet?

    Maples: Absolutely. Absolutely. We have a woman this year, Wendy Norris, who is editor and publisher of WesternCitizen.com, an independent investigative news network of journalists and citizens who participate in crowdsourcing. She started her life as a social worker and came into journalism. It used to be that you had your organization’s support, and they promised to give you a leave and you promised to go back. What we say now, because some organizations won’t promise anymore, is that if you do promise to go back, then you have to keep that promise.

    We have a guy this year, Dan Archer, who’s a comics journalist. You wouldn’t have seen that in the Knight program three or four years ago. He’s doing some very interesting work and thinking about telling stories visually.

    Maples talks about a fellow in Ecuador who was working on making newspaper opinion pieces more interactive, and a fellow in Nepal who was helping people in community radio share content:


    How do you define success with projects — especially after you changed the way projects are done?

    Maples: We’re still talking about the ways to define success and figuring that out. We looked at this as a program that helped one journalist at a time, in the old days. And now we look at it as a program that tries to help journalism through these people. In some respect, some of the successes will be projects that actually happen — whether it’s about technology or not. We probably won’t know the impact [of many projects] for a few years. If some web initiatives actually launch and become companies or non-profits, that’s a concrete sign of success. For some things, the project is less important than what the person takes away, but that’s hard to measure.

    There was one former fellow, Teru Kuwayama, who ended up getting funding through a Knight News Challenge grant. Do you think there will be more of that kind of synergy between those programs?

    Maples: We’re talking about that. But Teru did that on his own. They don’t hold a slot for a Knight Fellow and we didn’t ask them for that. We are in an interesting spot because we have our own endowment, we don’t get our money from that part of Knight. But we’re in communication with them.

    How much input did they have in the change you made?

    Maples: They didn’t. They’re very happy with it and they talked about that, but Jim and Dawn and the board did this on their own. We technically don’t answer to them [because of our endowment]. The Knight Foundation gave this money to Stanford and it’s a separate endowment. We keep them posted on what we’re doing, and we’ve been talking about how we can take advantage of the expertise they have [at Knight].

    Maples talks about how Knight Fellows work with the computer science school and business school at Stanford:



    What do you think about the new direction by the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford? Have you taken the program before, and what was your experience? How do you think it could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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    Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

    Tagged: innovation knight fellowship pam maples sabbatical stanford university startups

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