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Seismic shifts in journalism

One more bit of evidence: this year's class of Nieman Fellows has only one journalist from a major paper

For 71 years, the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University has been the gold standard for mid-career journalists seeking a year from the daily grind to polish their education, network with other emerging journalistic stars, and take a moment to think about their future and the future of their profession.

The most recent issue of the Nieman Foundation's quarterly journal, Nieman Reports, listed this year's Nieman class, and said more about the future of the profession than anyone had intended. What it said was shocking, perhaps, to the 1,300 journalists who have enjoyed the dozen or so fellowships offered each year for American journalists.

Of the dozen 2009-2010 fellows, only one, Shankar Vedantam, national science reporter for The Washington Post, meets what was once the criteria for many fellows: working in Washington or New York for one of the big names in the industry.

The dozen included two radio reporters, two from specialty magazines (Wired, Columbia Journalism Review), the Associated Press bureau chief in Havana, reporters from small papers in Roanoke, Va., and Framingham, Mass., and four freelance reporters.

Certainly the list has been trending toward more diversification and away from newspapers, but this year's list is a seismic change. My Nieman class (1967-68) had no broadcast journalists, and certainly no freelancers. All of us were newspaper reporters or editors, and all but two were from big-name publications. Half of the group worked in Washington or New York.

Only in recent years has the fellowship been broadened, first to broadcasters and photographers, then to more specialized publications. The Web came late to the table and freelancers have only recently been considered.

Doubtless this is a more representative group of 2009 journalism than any group picked only from newspapers. It also says something about finances within the industry, for in the past employers generally chipped in to help pay expenses for reporters on the fellowship — although the Nieman Foundation has always paid tuition and a living stipend that is quite generous in journalistic terms.

Journalism publications, including Nieman Reports, are dominated these days by talk and proposals for the journalistic future. It is a future that Agnes Wahl Nieman, who established the foundation in 1938 in honor of her late husband, publisher of The Milwaukee Journal, could not have imagined. Nor, for that matter, could the ink-stained wretches of my day.

But it has come with the speed of cyberspace within the last generation of journalists. My guess is that the wonderful bull sessions that make the fellowship special are more spirited, more probing and even more relevant than they were 41 years ago.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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