Going Back To School: NPR Journalists And The Nieman Fellowship

Nov 11, 2013
Originally published on November 12, 2013 9:32 am

Sylvia Poggioli. Howard Berkes. Margot Adler.

These names elicit thoughts of sound journalism and memorable stories you've heard on NPR over the years.

Even the most seasoned journalists make room to improve their craft from time to time. So, what do they do? They head back to school, of course. Journalists at NPR are encouraged to seek out additional learning opportunities throughout their careers as a way to deepen their professional knowledge and develop their skills as a journalist.

For example, NPR Counterterrorism Correspondent Dina Temple-Raston and All Things Considered Senior Editor Alison MacAdam are currently taking a year off from their regular duties to participate in the Nieman Fellowship program.

The Nieman Fellowship was established by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard to provide an opportunity for journalists to spend a year at the university participating in seminars and workshops, listening to talks by Harvard faculty and attending classes.

Using Fellowships to Hone their Craft

"[During the Fellowship] there is a constant flow of newsmakers, world leaders, artists, writers, other journalists and some of the best thinkers of the time," says Howard Berkes, NPR's Rural Affairs Correspondent and a 1997-1998 Nieman Fellow. "They appear in classes, speak in auditoriums and sit privately with the Nieman Fellows in seminars."

This close access to and interaction with newsmakers and thinkers during his time as a Nieman Fellow helped Berkes to hone his craft as a journalist.

Berkes focused his year on expanding his expertise in investigative reporting and studying public opinion polling. He utilized the access Fellows get to the entire Harvard campus including the Law School, the Kennedy School the Business School and classes at MIT, which gave him a wide range of learning opportunities from classes on criminal law to lectures on evolution.

The Nieman year for Berkes closed with a final assignment – write goals for the future based on the Nieman experience. Berkes had covered two Olympic games in the 1980's and made his top goal an effort to expose the culture of entitlement and corruption within the International Olympic Committee. By the end of the year, his reporting helped transform a largely local story about illicit payments to IOC members into an international ethics scandal involving Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Olympics.

In discussions about journalism, the Fellows used real-life examples to talk about how to improve their reporting.

"[As a Fellow] we spent many hours discussing the craft, ethics and future of journalism, often prompted by the headlines: the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the death of Lady Diana and the Kosovo War," says Berkes.

Returning to Campus

Every five years, Nieman Fellows return to Harvard for a reunion. This past September was a special milestone for Nieman and its Fellows: the program celebrated 75 years of training and sharing ideas of innovation in journalism.

For this year's reunion, 14 NPR journalists who have been Nieman Fellows were able to attend the reunion. Throughout the weekend, the Fellows heard from journalism experts including The Washington Post reporter Anne Hull; ProPublica Senior Editor Joe Sexton; Lyndon B. Johnson Biographer Robert Caro; and NPR's Technology and Culture Reporter Elise Hu, who is not a Fellow but was inspired by her opportunity to rub shoulders with many others who were.

"If you talk to any NPR Fellows, they said that being away and doing fellowships have made them better as journalists and better in the newsroom," she says. "Being at Harvard with so many of my colleagues and hearing about their experiences was very motivating."

NPR Senior Business Editor Marilyn Geewax, a 1994-1995 Nieman Fellow, agrees.

"Being a Nieman Fellow is one of the greatest things in the world. The only bad thing, I tell people, is that it ends."

At the reunion, Geewax particularly enjoyed hearing from former Nieman Fellows, specifically those that came to Harvard from different countries. She said she liked hearing about their unique reporting experiences that led them to the Fellowship.

During her time as a Fellow, Geewax attended classes on economic history, geopolitics, biology and MBA global management courses. Geewax appreciated these courses and the Fellowship for the training in how to find and cultivate more credible sources in reporting, and building relationships with other journalists.

"The Nieman Fellowship creates circles within circles," she says. "It allows an opportunity to listen to one another and for each person to be a curious thought leader."

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