Network effect: Scholarships can help journalists change whole communities of practice
by Ryan Pitts
It’s no secret that at OpenNews we’re fans of getting together in person to talk about journalism. We organize events of all sizes throughout the year, and we love attending other conferences and convenings as participants, too. When we listen to people who care about the same problems but approach them differently, it helps us imagine new ways to work.
That’s why we make it a priority to help journalists attend events. OpenNews has given out 123 ticket & travel scholarships in just the past three years because we know that when people encounter new tools, new techniques, or engagement strategies that really work, it transforms their practice as journalists.
Our first round of 2019 scholarships will help 17 people in journalism all over the country, and in all types of organizations: local newsrooms in places like Missouri, Vermont, Florida, and Oregon; in schools and as freelancers in places like Texas and Illinois; nonprofits in California; larger organizations in New York and DC. They’ll be attending eight different events over the next few months—it’s exciting to support so many different experiences, and that’s something we’re really prioritizing this year.
We also learn a lot each time we offer scholarships. We received nearly 90 applications for this round, and the ideas and goals that people shared with us help us understand what this community cares most deeply about.
Key themes we’re seeing in 2019
Journalists know the value of building relationships outside their own organizations. That might be the thing our scholarship applicants crave the most—when asked why they wanted to attend this event this year, 28 literally name-checked “networking,” and even more used different words to describe the same thing. Plenty of journalists can’t look around their newsroom and find a colleague on the same beat, fluent in the same tools, or interested in the same techniques. At the very least it can be hard to find someone who just thinks differently about the work. So meeting someone new to compare notes with, to sharpen ideas, to share what works well and what falls flat, those can be career-changing relationships.
It can be particularly difficult to make those connections from smaller, local newsrooms—places where even a few new supporters can have an outsized impact. We want to see people invest in their networks because we’ve seen how it invigorates their journalism and sustains them as human beings doing hard, hard work. It helps keep people in the careers they found so meaningful in the first place.
Helping one journalist get to an event can help many journalists do better work. Most of our scholarship applicants are already part of smaller networks right where they live, whether that’s within their own organization, a local meetup, or a group of newsrooms with a sharing agreement or common goals. It was exciting to see so many of people, unprompted, talk about their plans to bring knowledge home from the events they wanted to attend. Not just to plug those ideas into their own work, but to share, and to raise the level of local journalism for a whole community. As we’ve seen in our research, knowledge sharing between colleagues is one of the key ways this community builds expertise and capacity.
People know what they need, sometimes they can just use help with access at key moments. Some of the people who applied for scholarships this round are early in their newsroom careers, recent grads or transitioning from fields like law or computer science. Others are experienced journalists, excited to feel like students again and bring new disciplines into their work. Across all those levels of experience, they described hitting an inflection point in their journalism careers where the program and network at a particular event could broaden their understanding of the field, reorient their career path, or even help them land that first job. A lot of our work is in connecting people with the resources they need, and we know that even a little bit of support can go a long way when it comes at just the right time.
A few more things that jumped out at us
- There are so many cool journalism events, scattered all throughout the calendar. We heard about 24 different conferences in this round alone.
- Freelancers are a growing part of this community, and many don’t have any kind of institutional support to continue building skills and networks.
- Applications for travel support came from all types of organizations: nonprofit and for-profit; traditional, civic tech, and startup; small, regional, and even large and well-established. But we also know organizations in each of these categories that do provide funding for professional development. Size and business model don’t limit the places where this can be a priority.
What’s next for scholarships
We’ll be opening two more rounds of scholarship applications this year—one in April, prioritizing events through the summer and early fall, and then again in September to catch events at the end of the year, some of which might not even be on the calendar yet. There are a lot of great events throughout the year, and we want to help people find just the right thing at just the right time, whenever that is.
We’re being intentional about spreading out scholarship funding throughout 2019, and we’ll continue to prioritize underrepresented communities in journalism and organizations without much access to training. Our first group of 17 scholarships this year includes 12 women and 10 journalists of color; 14 work with smaller or regional organizations. In two more rounds this year, we’ll have a chance to support even more folks make journalism more representative of the communities they cover, and rooted in the needs of the people who live there.
These scholarships are made possible by grants from the Democracy Fund and News Integrity Initiative, and getting to share that support with journalists who need it has become one of my favorite OpenNews programs to be a part of. I spent years working in a regional newsroom where travel funding was hard to come by, and I know just how meaningful it is to finally put a face to a name, or to be in the room for a workshop that takes on exactly the problem you’ve been struggling with. And we aren’t the only ones investing in this community’s access to events! ProPublica is helping 20 students attend journalism conferences this year. The Center for Cooperative Media and Lenfest are both offering regionally focused scholarships to support underrepresented communities in journalism. We’re so excited to be part of this growing network of support. (If your organization is offering scholarships too, let us know so we can help you spread the word!)
If you’re working in journalism and tech and you’re think 2019 would be a great year to build your own support network, we hope you’ll keep in touch. Maybe you already have your eye on an upcoming event, but if you’re still trying to figure out what’s out there, we can help! One of the best things about being part of this community is getting to know the people in it and figuring out how we can support you. Please reach out, and let’s talk.