Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

How Knight endowments advance journalism excellence

April 14, 2014, 11:32 a.m., Posted by Eric Newton

Knight Foundation’s journalism and media innovation team gets much well-deserved attention for its media innovation work. Less discussed, but no less important, is the education of thousands of students and professionals each year through $200 million in endowed programs Knight has built over several decades to advance journalism excellence.

There are dozens of Knight-endowed chair and mid-career training programs. Since most of that work occurs at universities, I’ve also added some context—an analysis of 25 years of Knight’s journalism and media grantmaking to universities.

The Knight Chair program – 25 chairs at 22 universities – welcomed a new chair this month and four other new chairs this past year. They are: Dana Priest in national security journalism at the University of Maryland; Bill Adair in computational journalism at Duke University; John Affleck in sports journalism and society at Pennsylvania State University; Aly Colón in journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University; and Eric Freedman in environmental journalism at Michigan State University. There are currently two chair vacancies, one at Florida A&M University and the other at the University of Miami.

The chairs are top journalists. They bridge the newsroom-classroom gap through innovative teaching, experimental outreach projects and their own journalism. Together, we hope they are helping lead the profession to a better future in the 21st century. Every year we post their progress on the Knight website. You can read here, for example, about everything from Michael Pollan’s best-selling books on organic food to his thoughts about social media.

The chairs are overachievers. More examples of recent work: Penny Abernathy, the digital media economics chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a new book, “Saving Community Journalism,” based on a five-year study of local news sites’ finances. Bill Adair and his students at Duke are building a smart phone app that can put headlines on the new Pebble smart watch. International journalism chair Rosental Alves of the University of Texas Austin is producing Massive Open Online Courses that have reached 16,000 participants in 150 countries.

At the annual Knight Chair meeting this year, Media Innovation Associate Marie Gilot reviewed the chair endowments (now valued at $65.7 million). Michael Maness, journalism and media innovation vice president, discussed our Knight Prototype Fund and experiments in journalism education, and I reviewed the foundation’s historic giving to journalism.

We hear a lot from people about our push for digital transformation and higher quality journalism through the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. We believe the initiative project is convincing at least some university presidents and industry leaders that journalism education is improving. That task required partnerships with schools that had visibility. An unintended consequence was the false perception that Knight only funds large programs at large universities.

That may have been true from 2004 to 2008, but it wasn’t true before that and it hasn’t been true since. So if professors or administrators at your college are saying it, you might note that two of Knight’s top five journalism and media innovation grants to universities in recent years include (in partnership with the foundation’s communities program) $5.75 million to the small private school, Queens University of Charlotte, N.C., and $3.8 million to Mercer University in Macon, Ga. Both are pioneers: Queens is taking responsibility for the digital media literacy rate of the entire city and Mercer has created a collaborative newsroom that combines a commercial newspaper, a public broadcaster and students and faculty.

We’re able to more seamlessly focus on new projects today because back in the 1980s and 1990s Knight endowed major and fellowship training programs. Every year those continue to help working journalists. In addition, one of our most successful education projects, the Poynter Institute’s NewsU, not only has more than 250,000 registered users but is making training agreements with major newspaper organizations.

The Knight journalism fellowship programs are, in my opinion, gold mines for working journalists. I’d argue they are the best long-format mid-career training programs anywhere. Among them are fellows focusing on media innovation and leadership, business reporting, science reporting and specialty journalism. They include:

  • Knight Stanford Fellowships: Journalists develop innovative projects during a nine-month fellowship with the resources of Stanford and Silicon Valley. Alumni from recent years include Michelle Holmes, who became vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group to bring new thinking to a legacy news operationPhuong Ly, who created Gateway California, a portal to better reporting California’s diversity, and became executive director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism, host of such projects such as Migrahack; and Djordje Padejski, who developed FOIAMachine.org, an open-source platform that empowers people to easily seek public records, winning a Knight prototype grant with the Center for Investigative Reporting and using a Kickstarter campaign to fund a public version to be hosted beginning in June by Investigative Reporters and Editors.
  • Knight-Wallace Fellowships: Offers an academic year of study, reflection and growth at the University of Michigan. Alumni do major journalism projects, write books, get high-level jobs, start companies and more. Examples:  “Windfall” by McKenzie Funk, which examines those who see global warming as a market opportunity, was named as a “best book” by the New Yorker; Lynette Clemetson became senior supervising editor of NPR’s “Morning Edition”; Justin Maiman was named to the newly created position of executive producer of video at Business Insider; Hayes Ferguson co-founded Legacy.com, the leading national obit service; Christopher Carey founded Sharesleuth.com, the financial investigative site; David Crum and Kyle Poplin play the same roles, respectively, at Readthespirit.com, a religious news and publishing organization, and The Ann, a newly profitable magazine startup in Ann Arbor, Mich.
  • Knight/MIT – Offers nine-month fellowships and weeklong workshops to journalists to increase their understanding of science, technology, engineering, medicine and the environment. The program also tracks and offers commentary every day on science and health stories. It also offers a project fellowship designed to produce publishable work. Alumni include: Jason Spingarn Kopf, who was hired to be commissioning editor for opinion video at The New York Times, and started the series of short videos called Op Docs, which won an Emmy; and his Times colleague Justin Gillis, chief correspondent on climate change.
  • Knight-Bagehot: In scope and depth, the most comprehensive business journalism fellowship, an academic year at Columbia University. Alumni from the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism work at print publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post; for television networks, including NBC, Fox and BBC; and news services such as Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the Associated Press.

These are just the larger projects. There are many others, including the Knight Law and Media Program at Yale University. They are different but have a singular purpose. They address the shortage of what Harvard’s Tom Patterson calls “knowledge journalism.” In his book “Informing the News,” Patterson writes that journalists cannot meet democracy’s needs unless they become “knowledge professionals” with a greater understanding of the topics and issues they cover.

The notion of knowing what you report on is not new. In a way it’s just common sense. People have been calling for more intelligent journalism since the first story. Still, Patterson makes a good case that the digital disruption of traditional media economics has affected not only quantity but quality. I agree, of course, and hope an understanding of our mid-career and endowed chair programs will help people think about quality reporting as well as digital media when they hear the radio tag line, “Knight Foundation helps advance journalism excellence in the digital age.”

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation