How to Win a Journalism Fellowship: Insider Tips from Knight Fellow Patrick Butler

Nov 19, 2012

Today the International Journalists Network (IJNET) facilitated a Live Chat with Patrick Butler on “How to get accepted for fellowships and training.” Patrick is an award-winning former journalist who serves as Vice President for Programs for the International Center for Journalists. In 1999, he spent five months in Nicaragua on a Knight International Journalism Fellowship. He has reviewed thousands of fellowship applications and today answered questions from aspiring fellows on what it takes to earn a competitive journalism fellowship. Some highlights from his chat:

Question: Many fellowships ask for a proposal, and my area of coverage has gotten quite popular. What’s the best way to stand out from the crowd in your application letter?

Butler: “Biggest mistake people make in their essays/proposals: a general explanation of why they want to be in the US — it’s the focal point for freedom of the press, it’s the global leader, etc. That doesn’t make it stand out from others. You should come up with a proposal that is very specific about what you want to accomplish on the fellowship. I like proposals that show the need, explain in a detailed way how you will carry it out, make the case for why it is “doable” and then explain what will be different because of your project.”

Question: How much does being an independent journalist rather than being associated with a big brand count in getting a fellowship?

Butler: “The point is to make sure you understand what the goals of the fellowship are. Independent journalist vs. big brand – I think either can be a good candidate. If you work for a major media, you can make the case that your work reaches many people. But if you are more of an independent journalist or freelancer, you can make the case that you are free from some of the problems big media have – political or economic conflicts of interest, for example. I will say that for freelance journalists, I always look to make sure they have a media organization that is regularly using their work. You don’t want to give a fellowship to someone who is writing for an audience of no one – so show that you do have an audience if you’re a freelancer.”

Question: How big a factor is age — too young or too old?

Butler: “Good question about age. Some fellowships have specific age requirements, such as under 35. If no guidance on that is given, assume that any age is OK. For most of our fellowships, we are looking for “mid-career” people. If you’re just starting out, we may not be sure that you’re going to stick with journalism. Mid-career people have shown a commitment to the field but still have plenty of time to make a difference. But don’t get discouraged if you’re on the older side. We also look for people who have a lot of experience to share – make that case in your proposal.”

Question: For [a] fellowship, is it important to [have] studied in media or journalism? I mean for example if I studied in business administration and worked in a field of art and culture, is it a minus point in my resume?

Butler: “For most US fellowships, it’s not so important whether you studied media or journalism at university. Many of the best journalists did not go to j-school, they majored in business or political science or biology or whatever. Some countries require that you study journalism to be sanctioned as a journalist, but we tend not to believe that in the US, so I would not hold it against someone at all if they studied something else at university. Your journalism work is more important. There are also some journalism fellowships that are specifically for people who did not study journalism – they are intended to give journalism skills to people who didn’t study that.”

Question: With regard to your Knight Fellowship from a while back … Did you have contact with the foundation before you applied? How important is that? I’ve won several grants over the years and every single time I was able to get advice from the granting organization, before applying, about how best to craft my specific application. Should I be trying to do that with Knight, Nieman, etc.? Or is it really a roll of the dice … send the application cold approach is best?

Butler: “Good question. In my case, I talked more to people who had already been Knight International Fellows to get their advice, rather than to people working at ICFJ. There’s no harm in contacting people at the foundation/NGO, but they may feel that it would be a conflict of interest for them to give you very specific advice. You can ask to talk to people who have been fellows before, and then get their advice. I am always happy to put applicants in touch with people who have already been through the program. When people ask me, I am willing to give the kind of general advice I’m giving now in terms of what we’re looking for in applications, but if someone is applying for something at ICFJ, I would draw the line at reading their application and critiquing it. But again, I’m happy to suggest former fellows/participants who could do that.”

Question: Can you give example of what a specific vs. broad proposal might be? In other words, how specific is specific?

Butler: “A broad proposal would be that you want to educate people about the importance of environmental journalism. A specific proposal would be that you want to create a data map showing environmental threats in your country. And then tell me how you would do that. Show me that you have the skills to accomplish it. Show me that you have a media organization that is willing to partner with you on it. Give me a quote from someone important that says how this will make a difference.”

Question: I’m one of those who studied something else, worked in another field, and am now starting a M.A. in journalism. What is the value of looking for a fellowship rather than a full-time job (or freelancing)?

Butler: “A fellowship would be great for your resume and can help lead you to a full time job. In some cases, the fellowship offerers might be looking for someone who has been working as a journalist, so if you’re just starting your journalism career you may not be eligible. But it sounds like you have other valuable experience that could make you attractive for certain kinds of fellowships (such as for a business reporting fellowship if your previous experience was in business).”

Question: I am writing from Cameroon. What major aspects should one include in the motivation letter in applying for a fellowship or training program?

Butler: “I would be specific in your essay or letter about what you plan to get out of the program and how you plan to use it when you go back. As I mentioned earlier, don’t just say that you have always wanted to go to the US because of its long history of free press (I see that a lot). Instead, tell me what skills you hope to gain from the program that will help you be a better journalist in your country – such as investigative reporting, radio production, social media, whatever. Show me that if I make an investment in you, it will be multiplied when you return to your country. Also, tell me how you’ll share what you have learned when you go home. Will you become a trainer in your newsroom? Will you speak to journalism students at the university? Will you become a “thought leader” on your journalism blog in Cameroon?”

Question: What advice would you give someone who was accepted for training or a fellowship?

Butler: “I suggest that you prepare as much ahead of time as you can. If you’re not a native English speaker and you’re going to the US, start practicing with a native speaker. If you’ve proposed a project that you’ll pursue, get as much done on it as you can ahead of time. You will probably have an opportunity to meet others who will be in your fellowship “class.” Get to know them on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Share ideas. Make sure you’ve prepared your bosses and colleagues. They may be resentful that you’ll be away and will perceive it as a “vacation.” Tell them about what you’ll be doing on the fellowship and how it will help the new organization when you return. Meet your deadlines. If there’s an online component to the course or fellowship, participate. Show everyone how serious you are even before the fellowship or training begins.”

Other key insights from Patrick Butler:

“Another thing we look for is people who haven’t had a lot of similar opportunities. If you’ve been on many fellowships before, you may get points knocked off in favor of someone who hasn’t had the chance yet.”

“Another question I get a lot from non native English speakers is whether someone should edit the essay to make the English perfect. My answer to that is that it is good to have someone read it to correct grammar and spelling, but not to change your voice so that you sound like an English professor. If your essay is absolutely perfect, and then we talk by phone/Skype and it is obvious that your English is not that good, I may think that you didn’t write it. So don’t be worried if your phrasing isn’t exactly the way a native speaker would write.”

“Another piece of advice is about the people you put as references. If you can give me someone as a reference whom I know and trust, that makes a big difference. It’s not required, of course, but I feel more confident choosing someone for a program if they get a glowing recommendation from someone I know and trust.”

© Victoria Johnson 2012, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “How to Win a Journalism Fellowship: Insider Tips from Knight Fellow Patrick Butler”

  1. Thanks@Butler. Your tips on writing a good proposal for the fellowship were much helpful for me.

Comments are closed.