Change and the future at Harvard and the Nieman Foundation

The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University is living a defining moment. The current curator, Bob Giles, will retire in June 2011 after 10 years leading the most prestigious journalism fellowship in the United States.

The selection of the next curator, now under way, takes place amidst a technology-driven revolution in the media industry that is changing the very nature of journalism and how it is produced, distributed and paid for.

What kind of leader does the Nieman Foundation need for this exciting but challenging future?

I was a Nieman Fellow in 1994 and have served on the Nieman Advisory Board for the last three years so I have been thinking hard about this important transition for the Foundation.

In November, I met Harvard President Drew Faust in London and heard her speak about her vision for Harvard’s future. There was much about her words that resonated for the Nieman Foundation as well. It inspired me to think and write about how the two are tied together. The result is below.

Breaking down walls, leading important conversations

The Nieman Foundation should “… promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate persons deemed especially qualified for journalism.” Agnes Wahl Nieman, the Nieman Foundation directive, 1937.

“One of the changing aspects of Harvard University today is breaking down boundaries, breaking down walls …. What we are seeking is extraordinary distributed excellence.” Drew Faust, Harvard UK Alumni Club address, London, November 22, 2010.

Seventy-three years apart two extraordinary women lobbied for change that has the potential to profoundly affect the quality of information free societies use to govern themselves.

Agnes Wahl Nieman lived in a time when journalism in the United States was mostly practiced by white men with journeyman educations and freedom of the press belonged mostly to those who could afford to own one. Inspired by her husband, Milwaukee Journal publisher Lucius Nieman, she left in her will $1 million for the betterment of the news industry in the United States.

In the Nieman Foundation directive, she imagined a future in which the journalism industry, in partnership with America’s premier university, would be elevated from within by removing the barriers for the best journalism practitioners to get access to the best university education.

At the time, Harvard president James Bryant Conan called it “a very dubious experiment.” Mrs. Nieman, however, in bequeathing the grant to Harvard made a connection that others missed. She saw that breaking down barriers to high quality education for tradesmen journalists could have a positive influence on the quality of our government, society and lives.

The program has been an extraordinary success. Six decades of Nieman fellows carry with them the knowledge, inspiration, wisdom, personal connections and dedication to an informed citizenry they gained or refined during their year at Harvard. Many former fellows lead major news organizations. Others have important positions in industry, commerce and government. One fellow, Juan Manuel Santos, NF ’88, of Colombia, was recently elected president of his country.

Though mostly led by newspapermen, the Nieman mission has never been about newspapers themselves. It is about improving the process by which citizens are fully empowered with the information they need to effectively government themselves.

In the last decade, however, a technological revolution more profound than any the world has seen since the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible has changed everything, including the role and mission of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.

The tools of publication, once limited to wealthy individuals and businesses, are now cheap or free and in the hands of millions of newly-empowered citizen story-tellers. The barriers to freedom of the press are obliterated, as today anyone with a mobile phone and a Twitter or Facebook account has the potential ability to reach millions with information.

This revolution affects every area of modern life: media, education, science, commerce, politics, government and the law. It is at once exhilarating and frightening. It is an important opportunity for leadership.

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first woman president, spoke in London in November to a gathering of Harvard alumni. Change was on her mind. Like Mrs. Nieman, President Faust said her focus for Harvard is on breaking down walls. “Knowledge, talent and innovation have no borders. How can we expand and excel in providing access to information and knowledge?” she said.

She targeted three specific areas for change, where opening doors and breaking down walls will make a difference. All three directly relate to the impending change of leadership at the Nieman Foundation.

1.Boundaries of access

The challenge, Faust said, is to attract and support the very best and brightest students. For Harvard undergrads, she targeted barriers to access of financial aid.

The Nieman Foundation has its own crisis of access. It is much more complex than just money.

The traditional newspaper industry is collapsing. Newspaper and broadcast journalists can’t afford to take a year off or their struggling companies won’t let them. A new news environment is rising in its place but the emerging digital practitioners have their own barriers to participating in a fellowship. This new environment incubates individual reporter/writer/bloggers. Its practitioners operate small community online sites or web-only niche publications on everything from health to transportation infrastructure. They are geeks who crunch government data and clean it up for other to analyze and report. They are a new tribe of video story-tellers who post their work on YouTube under Creative Commons license and encourage others to use and share it.

Some of the most innovative, exciting work in journalism today is happening in pockets around the country and the world in what NYU professor Jay Rosen calls “acts of journalism” and in small entrepreneurial operations. These are some of the people who would benefit most from a year at Harvard, and would do much to enrich and diversify the Nieman program.

But there are barriers for these new digital journalists to win a fellowship, or even apply. Most can’t afford to take time off, many have never heard of the Nieman Foundation because they are outside traditional journalism, and some would struggle to define themselves as fulltime journalists.

Just as Agnes Wahl Nieman won access to Harvard for the tradesmen journalists of the 1930s and 40s, today we must work to “expand access to information and knowledge” to a new generation of journalists and others committing acts of journalism for the public good.

2. Boundaries between Harvard schools and fields:

Citing the changing nature of knowledge, President Faust told UK Harvard alumni it makes sense to develop joint degrees, such as educational leadership, with the schools of education, business school, or global health in combination with government and policy at the Kennedy School.

Nieman Fellows can study at any school they wish. But there is also potential for fruitful, stronger bonds between the Nieman Foundation and the Law School, MIT, the Business School and the School of Public Health, for example.

As traditional economic models for news fade, new models are emerging. They include non-profit funding, targeted search advertising, brand sponsorships, and paid content. Journalism schools are incorporating entrepreneurship courses to help the new generation of digital journalists find innovative ways of funding their work.

The Nieman Foundation is not a trade school. Fellows enjoy what is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake across a variety of disciplines.

But we live in a world where proficiency in the use of new digital tools and social media platforms define the journalist’s ability to make his/her stories heard.

We must break down the walls that limit the opportunity for fellows to learn new skills during their Nieman year.

3.Boundaries between the university and the world:

“Knowledge, talent and innovation have no borders. Any educated person must have international experience,” Drew Gilpin Faust told UK Harvard alumni in London. Harvard, she said, must continue to grow its role in the world community in part through ensuring all students have international experience.

The Nieman Foundation has long integrated leading international journalists into the program.

But the Foundation has little or no voice or profile outside of the United States.

Meanwhile, each year in Davos, Switzerland the world’s elite thinkers gather at the World Economic Forum to discuss change and the future. Leaders who have had the most profound impact on journalism are always there. They include Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and Apple CEO Steven Jobs, creator of the iPhone and iPad. The work that these people have done has changed the media industry in extraordinary and still unforeseeable ways.

The Davos forum is hugely influential. It attracts the biggest players and panels are covered by legions of traditional and non-traditional journalists. But its real impact lies in its focus on creating a digital community and conversation that extends the work being done face-to-face in Davos. Seminars are live-streamed on the web. Citizens from anywhere in the world can follow the conversation and participate by asking questions on Twitter.

These same kinds of discussions with equally important people happen all the time at Lippmann House. But the world doesn’t hear. And there is no larger digital community to join the discussion.

Chris Anderson started his career as a journalist and print magazine publisher. Today he is the curator of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), a series of conferences he defines as “ideas worth spreading” in “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” These talks are video recorded, webcast live and archived online. And they are part of an ongoing digital conversation by participants and viewers.

TED viewers get to rate the speakers they watch. TED has created a community around its brand. Chris Anderson curates, shaping the discussion but not getting in its way. The conversation is focused on people, and augmented by technology.

The Nieman Foundation is very strong on people, knowledge and expertise, but needs to take a big step forward to embrace the technology that will allow it to become a voice in the global conversation.

The Future

Inspired by President Faust’s words to UK Harvard alumni, I compiled what might be called a Nieman Foundation manifesto for the future.

  • The Nieman Fellows, current and past, are the heart, soul and voice of the institution.  Strengthening the Fellows community and voice must be a key goal.
  • Clarify the role of the curator in the digital age. Journalism today is a conversation. It involves surfacing of data and facts, followed by an ongoing analysis, revision and exploration of the data and facts by a community that includes professionally trained journalists and topic experts. The Nieman Foundation curator must lead that conversation and provide context for it, through the fellows and the resources available at Harvard.
  • Openness and transparency and inclusiveness. The Nieman Foundation can grow in influence if it opens up more to the world. Fellows should have the opportunity to participate in Foundation activities, like the Nieman Reports and the Nieman Lab. The Advisory Board should be given greater voice and responsibility. Decision-making should become more transparent.
  • Build new, non-traditional partnerships inside and outside of Harvard.
  • Find ways to include new kinds of journalism practitioners.

I applaud Harvard and Bob Giles for great transparency and inclusiveness in the search for the next Nieman leader. The names of the search committee were made public (listed below) and anyone who is interested is invited to nominate a worthy candidate by emailing

This is the criteria I think is the most important.

The new curator is a former Nieman Fellow. This is a guarantee of excellence in the practice of journalism, a built-in understanding of the Foundation’s history and dedication to the program.

The new curator has a detailed plan to ensure the Nieman Foundation can lead the global conversation about the practice and future of journalism.

The new curator has expertise in digital publishing and deep knowledge of its impact on traditional news organizations.

The new curator has experience and credibility as a traditional journalist who can bridge the gap between traditional and digital practitioners.

The new curator will ensure the Nieman Fellows and alumni are the heart and soul of the program and help guide and lead the foundation in its mission and goals.

The new curator is an experienced, dynamic and inclusive leader and communicator.

The new curator has a strong understanding and experience of the economics of media and publishing, especially the impact of changing economic models on the industry today.

The new curator has experience with academia, charitable foundations and non-profit administration.

The new curator has global experience and connections.

This is one of the most exciting times to be a journalist in modern history. But the challenges are daunting. What happens next at the Nieman Foundation matters as journalists around the world grapple with the change.

The Nieman Foundation curator search committee

  • Steven Hyman – Provost; Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School
  • Caroline Elkins, Professor of History; Chair of the Standing Committee on African Studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • David Gergen – Professor of Public Service, Director of the Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Gwen Ifill – Moderator, Washington Week in Review and Senior Correspondent, The PBS NewsHour
  • Louis Menand  – Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • William O. Wheatley, Jr. – Retired Executive Vice President, NBC News; President of the Nieman Advisory Board.

About Katie King

Literary Translator, Journalist, Media Professional, Professor. Currently working toward PhD in Hispanic Studies at the University of Washington.
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2 Responses to Change and the future at Harvard and the Nieman Foundation

  1. Katie: Quite a lot to digest, so thanks for linking these two women, institutions (Harvard and Nieman) and their inspirations. The criteria you describe certainly illuminates the breadth of experience and knowledge that the foundation’s future curator should possess. I’d offer only this slight correction, and it has to do with the part of the foundation I know the most about—Nieman Reports. The Nieman Fellows are engaged with the magazine—not on a daily basis, but there is a constant flow of conversation about topics we have covered or plan to cover. Of course, not all of the fellows want to be engaged with it to the same extent, but every year a number of them do write pieces for Nieman Reports (and many more write for NR when they are alums). The fellows are also instrumental in working with me to develop the content for entire issues or large sections of the magazine; this is happening with our Spring 2011 in which four of the fellows are writing pieces for it and two of them were instrumental in helping me to find and connect with virtually all of the international journalists who will be writing for us.

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