On Friday, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships’ class of 2009 arrived for orientation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the program’s home base. Leading the pack is a new director, Philip Hilts, author of six books and former prize-winning health and science reporter for both The New York Times and The Washington Post. He is only the third director since the program was founded in 1983. The fully subsidized nine-month fellowships allow mid-career science journalists from around the world (with a minimum of three years experience) to take classes at MIT and Harvard and participate in more than forty private seminars. The program also offers a number of multi-day or weeklong “boot camps” for other, non-fellow journalists. Despite some indication that applications for specialized reporting fellowships have declined, Hilts says that the Knight program is “really stable, running well, and the finances are good.” CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked to him about what’s happening and how he plans to put his own mark on the 25-year-old institution.
Curtis Brainard: What’s new with the fellowships, besides your directorship of course?
Phil Hilts: When these programs were built in the early 1980s, science journalism was doing great, I mean probably the best in history. Newspapers across America were hiring science reporters and, in fact, creating new science and health sections. It was really booming, and the idea was, let’s bring some of these mid-career folks in and give them another year in the university to pick up more science, or more specific science, to recharge their careers. It was a moment when things were going very well and the idea behind the program that it was a way to keep that going.
Now, that’s changed. Journalism is sinking and many science journalists are now being bought out or laid off. So what you have to do here, is think, all right, now what do they need? The program has to be the same on the standards - we have to be a place to go to look for the best standards and the best ideas about standards; that won’t change. But before, when the fellows came in, we never really worried about their skills - they were all professional journalists. Now, we have to say, all right, they need to get blogging; they need to get podcasting. So we’re making sure that our fellows will be taught that, if they want it. Also, many more of the fellows are freelancers, partly because staffs are shrinking; so we have to be ready to take somebody who is fleeing one organization and trying to set themselves up in another place or as a freelancer. So now the program is a little different that way—we had fewer of those people ten or fifteen years ago—and the fellowship has to be a way for them to help make that transition. For example, if you’ve been doing general science, we can help you learn more about a specific field.
CB: And are you still getting as many applicants as you used to?
PH: I think so. There were sixty-one applications this year, but I’m not sure what the numbers going back are. What’s really on our minds is the number of science journalists who are doing real reporting on science, health and environment, and is that number changing? We don’t know. We’d like to believe that the number is still substantial and that people are just moving rather than disappearing into other professions. It’s important to keep that core number the same. It’s also important to find out whether those reporters are still doing real reporting as opposed to aggregating. That’s a serious problem; if a New York Times reporter goes over to Discover TV and does a blog and he’s just aggregating what’s going on around the world, we’ve essentially lost him as a reporter. So it’s important to try to keep track of that and make sure that the reporters have the ability to come here, learn to do the blogging and podcasting, and go back and continue to do reporting.
CB: Do you have those numbers yet?