Originally published on April 1, 2013.
By Taylor Griffith
To Columbia University senior Sarah Darville, participating in a fellowship program seems like a welcome post-graduation option in a turbulent era. “Just as news organizations are looking for a different way to fund their journalism, [a fellowship is] another way of funding young journalists,” she says. “It’s nice to say, ‘Here are a few positions,’ especially when it seems there are so few entry-level positions in media organizations out there.”
Google seemed to have the same thought: The technology juggernaut has launched the Google Journalism Fellowship program.
“It became a kind of pet project for me, but also one for Google as well, because we do an awful lot to support the [journalism] industry,” says Maggie Shiels, Google’s international media liaison. “So this is really one part of a bigger picture of things that we do both in the U.S. and globally to try and support an industry we really care about.”
The fellowship is a 10-week summer program, starting June 3 with a week at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, followed by eight weeks with the fellows’ respective host organizations. It concludes with a week at the “Googleplex,” Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California. The students receive a $7,500 stipend and $1,000 travel budget from Google.
The 2013 fellows include Nathaniel Lash, who will work at the Center for Investigative Reporting; Lauren Fedor, the Committee to Protect Journalists; Nicole Pasulka, Investigative Reporters and Editors; Darville and Linda Kinstler, Nieman Journalism Lab; Jan Lauren Boyles, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism; Anna Li, the Poynter Institute; and Stephen Suen, ProPublica.
Only four of the fellows come from universities that have journalism-specific majors or programs. For Suen, this does not come as a surprise.
“Digital journalism and data journalism have so many different entry points,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore says. “Because…you could be a seasoned journalism veteran and have no experience with code, or maybe you are an information designer but haven’t written a story or done an interview in your life.”
Suen was shocked that he was accepted. “I was honestly not expecting to get it, given my lack of experience. I guess part of it was that [ProPublica is] taking a gamble on me.”
Darville was also surprised that she made the cut. “I remember seeing a page with a description of [the fellowship] a few months before the deadline, and was like, ‘I have to apply for this, it’s just too amazing.’ I figured there would be tons of people applying and that my chance was incredibly slim…. Later on, when it was clear just how many people applied, I was just completely flabbergasted.”
Because she put the program together in a relatively short period of time – roughly six weeks – Shiels expected only a few hundred students to apply. But the company was taken aback by the 2,300 applications it received. “We had so many applications – on the last day they poured in at a rate of roughly one every two minutes – that we extended our review period by a week to make selections,” she says.
While the fellowship may bear Google’s name, the company stepped back during the application process to let the host organizations take the lead. “All the decisions were made by the individual journalism organizations that were partnering with Google, so it wasn’t like anybody at Google was making the decisions,” Darville says. “You applied directly to one of the host organizations, and then they took it from there. So I was interviewed by [Director] Josh Benton from Nieman Lab. It was probably only a week after my interview that Josh Benton sent me an [acceptance] e-mail. We talked on the phone, and then it officially came from Google a couple of days later.”
The students picked which host organizations they wanted to work with. For Suen, ProPublica , the nonprofit investigative news outlet, was the clear choice. He says ProPublica senior editor Scott Klein and Jeff Larson, a news applications developer, made a strong impression on him when he heard them speak at MIT last October. “One of the things that stuck with me from the ProPublica talk at MIT was that the next generation of journalists might not come from journalism schools, they might come from engineering schools, so I think they’re really looking for me to kind of bring this stuff back to MIT and really make a difference,” Suen says.
Given that less than half of the Google fellowship winners come from traditional journalism programs and the larger-than-expected applicant pool, what does all of this say about the state of the news industry?
“I think there’s no doubt that what you’re seeing is the role of technology playing a bigger part in all of our lives,” Shiels says. The fellowship “is just [Google], as a tech company, recognizing the role technology can play for reporters…reporting the news, publishing the news and helping the public get access to the news any way, any ‘how,’ that they can.”
Suen agrees: “I think when you have such a big company dealing with this combination of online content in media and these technological tools, there is certainly a niche for journalists in that space. I think they’re just giving a name to it [with the fellowship] and making it official, so I really think that this is a great venture for them to pursue.”
While creating good journalism is the clear focus of the fellowship, Darville is also expecting to spend time focusing on changes in the field and how to solve its many challenges. “Once I got to college, I eventually became the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Spectator, and doing that, I was thinking about all of these issues that so many media organizations are obviously facing in terms of how to stay in the black and attract readers online and all of these big picture problems,” Darville says. “And so I’ve been paying more and more attention to how other news organizations were solving them, which brought me to the Nieman Lab. Every news organization has to be thinking about these questions that I think Nieman Lab is working to help provide answers for all the time.”
Darville says she also hopes to learn technological skills that will “make me more helpful to wherever I end up…. I hope that I’ll have even more exposure to ways that news organizations are innovating…. And I’m hoping to learn some specific skills too over the summer in terms of coding and certain things I don’t necessarily have at the moment.”
Suen would like to add journalistic context to his coding proficiency. “Trying to secure the data, making sure to present the data not as just being disembodied, but as part of a greater story – I think that’s part of the big challenge when it comes to data journalism: extracting the story from data,” he says. “You have to be wary and think about what the story is behind it and think about how to present it.”
As for future applicants for the Google fellowship, Suen says they shouldn’t let a lack of journalism experience scare them away. “Whether you’re a coder with a passion for storytelling, you’re a designer with a passion for journalism and storytelling, a data scientist with a passion for storytelling, the story drives everything for me,” he says. “If you care about the story and you care about telling it in a very engaging or interesting way and you have some sort of skills that would allow you to do that, I think that’s enough.”
Taylor Griffith is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.