The Future of Science Journalism Fellowships

CJR chats with new Knight, MIT director Phil Hilts

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?

PH: No. That accounting has never happened before as far as I know. So what we’ve done is started to talk to academic researchers, like Sharon Dunwoody at the University of Wisconsin, and ask them: All right, now if we wanted to find out who’s doing what and whether just moving, or what they’re doing, can you help us do the research. So we’re starting to do research so that at some point we’ll be able to say to the young journalists, hey, it’s not so bad, there are jobs out there, they’re just in different places—or give them the bad news that actually, in fact, you better go do something else. I don’t know which is the case. You think about The New York Times—they’re losing bodies on the newspaper staff, but gaining bodies on the online side, and pretty soon those reporters are going to start looking the same. There’s going to be no distinction between whether you’re an online Times person or a newspaper Times person - I think many staffs are going that way. But is there a net gain or net loss? We have to find out.

CB: Is this how will you put your own stamp on the fellowships program?

PH: The assessment will be part of it. What it will actually be making sure that the fellowships keep up with the new media. We’re also going to have our Web presence grow and make our site destination. For example, at MIT, all of the 1,800 courses here are online. If you want to take a course in physics you go to the open courseware and you find the physics professor on video, teaching, and all his course materials there. On our end, we have to do the same thing. Our Medical Evidence Boot Camp is in about its eighth year, and now we’ve taken the person who does the statistics lecture, the basic stuff on epidemiology — how does this work, what do you have to look out for as a journalists, what numbers to you have to pay attention to — she is now on video, online there, if you want to learn epidemiology for journalists. We also had this Future of Science Journalism conference in February, so now all those audio talks are up and online. We’re going to have more blogs. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker will be gradually built up so that it’s worldwide. You’ll be able to look every week and see, in the Spanish-speaking world for example, what’s being covered in science journalism.

CB: What do you hear specifically from fellows in terms of what they want to learn?

PH: Each fellow is a little different. Some of them come in blogging already, and others say “Hey, I want to learn that.” We’re going to try to make sure that we have teachers available for them for whatever they want to learn so that when their employers say “You need to do a blog or you need to do a podcast,” they can do it. But the main thing, still, is that they take any classes they want at Harvard and MIT. That’s what they spend most of their time doing—going to classes, finding scientists, talking to them, getting sources, getting their stories.

That’s still the core. Then we have forty-five seminars a year of own, which happen twice a week, where we bring in people. For example, this year, alternative energy is crucially important, so we’re going to have to have several seminars on the new energy technologies. And of course at Harvard and MIT there are all these folks doing it—solar, nuclear, wind, geothermal. We have to keep journalists up to speed on all of that. But we do a full range of seminars—from exo-planets, to stem cells, to new nuclear plants—and try to cover all the topics, but the topics change. A few years ago, we had no nanotechnology—that’s here now. And the cognitive sciences have exploded because of the imaging techniques that are possible, so there are more seminars on cognitive science than there were ten years ago. We’re basically trying to shape ourselves to the science. That is to say, the more new stuff in an area, the more we’re going to go find it. It’s what you’d expect of reporters—they want to find out what’s the newest stuff and how does it work.

CB: And you try to bring in international fellows so that this is all global in scope?

PH:Yes. In the early days, it was American reporters, but gradually it developed to be more international or for the past seven or eight years, it’s been about 50/50—half American fellows, half from abroad. And we’d like to keep it there. It’s such a great thing to have people from different countries sitting in the same room talking about journalism. Standards really are international, and we have the same problems with them as everybody else. We need to have a world community of science journalists and the existence of the World Federation of Science Journalists really helps.

Journalism is really flourishing in the rest of the world even though it’s crashing here. They’re building up more newspapers, more readers, more literacy, and more money. We’ll be at the world federation’s meeting in June 2009, where we’ll have at least one presentation. We’ll bring in bloggers from Africa, China, India and Latin America and hear about what’s going on in their areas. For example, in China blogging is taking off very fast and is a pretty serious form of science communication. That may be very important for them because of the structure of journalism in China—there are certain topics you can’t easily do or get away with, but with blogs you may be able to. In Africa, there are many fewer people with computers, so the question is, are we going to use cell phones more than computers to convey science information? Each region has its own issues.

CB: And you were at the Unity conference in Chicago last month, shooting for a similar kind of diversity with American minorities, right?

PH: Exactly. I was there to recruit African Americans, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. So we had a booth there and collected about a hundred names from people who were interested in the program. A lot of them were students, so they’re young, really, but we talk to them early and try to make sure that we’re open, that folks in the minority communities know we’re here.

CB: So, as the new director, you must be pretty busy?

PH: Yes. Constantly. I have to read more. I had areas of my own carved out that I cared about and worked on—global health, you know, and I can offer some of that to the fellows. But I’m definitely starting to read more and more and more. You have to be soaking it up, you have to start listening, you have to wander around campus and talk to people. It’s an education for me, or reeducation—there’s just a massive amount of stuff out there. And my job is really reporting, except that what I’m doing is finding the topics and finding the speakers, but not actually writing about them. It’s a big challenge, but I must say, I really like doing this.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.