Tomorrow is the deadline to apply for the 2015 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellowships. Almost exactly two years ago, I was sitting in my friend’s living room in Queens, hemming and hawing about whether I should bother applying. I sent my application in a few hours before the deadline, which was nowhere near the record for cutting it close. Brian Abelson, my brilliant co-fellow who was placed at the New York Times, famously got his application in with eleven seconds to spare. If you’re interested in the intersection of code, journalism, and community, you should apply. It’s not too late.
I’ve written elsewhere about my own fellowship (See: 1, 2, 3, 4). Many others have written eloquently on what makes developing in the newsroom so great. But let me summarize some of the things that make the fellowship such a once-in-a-lifetime experience:
You’ll have a cohort of six incredible co-fellows to learn from and collaborate with. The magic of the OpenNews program is that the team takes care to select a diverse group of newsroom partners and a diverse group of fellows, so everyone brings something special to the table. You’ll be one of seven people with totally different backgrounds and expertise and that combination makes for beautiful, unexpected things. In my class we had Manuel, who, before he became a fellow, was launching fucking satellites into fucking outer space. We had Friedrich, the Harry Houdini of web scraping, who seems to know everything about open data and opening data there is to know. We had Stijn, who in addition to being obsessed with news analytics, also happens to play a mean gypsy jazz guitar. The list goes on.
You’ll get to travel the world meeting other amazing people. When you’re a fellow, flying to Buenos Aires to hack on projects with a thousand rogue technologists is in your job description. Hard to believe, right? OpenNews gives you the resources, financial and otherwise, to explore the entire universe of news nerds and civic technologists. By the end of the year you’ll have discovered so many intriguing organizations and people your head will be spinning.
You’ll have an unreasonable amount of freedom to pursue things you’re interested in. The OpenNews fellowship is a lot less structured than other programs, by design. You’re let loose in a newsroom to discover the things that you’re passionate about and the projects where your time is best spent. Some of us came in with projects in mind at the start, some didn’t, but all of us found our fellowships taking us in great unexpected directions. The OpenNews team, Mozilla, et al. are there to support you in the ways you need and then get the hell out of the way and trust your instincts.
People will suddenly take you strangely seriously. Before I became a fellow, I was a complete outsider to this world. I had never worked in a newsroom. I didn’t know what NICAR was. There was no reason for anyone to give me the time of day. And yet they did. I was overwhelmed with how warm and welcoming everyone was throughout my fellowship year and how much people cared about what I had to say. The OpenNews imprimatur carries a tremendous amount of weight in the news nerd community.
And by the way, they’ll pay you fairly. A lot of fellowship stipends are so meager they turn you back into a starving student for the duration of your fellowship. OpenNews pays better than most, and is generous with things like relocation costs, housing supplements, equipment, and travel costs (details).
There are two hesitations I often hear from people who are considering applying for the fellowship.
"I don’t think I really fit the profile, [I’m not a developer/I’ve never worked in news/etc.]"
This was me, two years ago. I almost didn’t apply because of this worry. But here’s the thing: there is no profile. Fellows come from all walks of life. Some of them have worked in news before, some haven’t. Some are master coders, some less so. Most of them didn’t study computer science. The roster of ex-fellows includes statisticians, artists, chemists, activists, engineers, academics, and even a medical doctor. The fellowship is less about what you’ve done and more about what you’ll be able to do given 10 months, a bunch of smart collaborators, and a lot of freedom. The one thing the fellows all have in common is that we all thought we didn’t fit the profile when we applied. Don’t let self-consciousness about your resume stop you from applying.
"But what comes AFTER the fellowship?"
This was me, one year ago. Remember what I said above about how by the end of the year, you’ll have encountered so many intriguing new things your head will be spinning? This is the real problem with the fellowship. It lights up all kinds of synapses you didn’t know you had and introduces you to jobs and technologies and organizations you didn’t know existed. By the end of the year you won’t be worried about having something to do next. Your problem will be that you’ll have a thousand things you want to do next. And this is pretty much the textbook definition of a “good problem to have.” Like the question of “what makes a good fellow?” there’s no one particular answer to what people do afterwards. Some of us have stayed in newsrooms, others have gone to tech companies or academia or something else entirely. Mark Boas is living in a house on a hill in Tuscany and I imagine that his life basically looks like A Walk in the Clouds. If you’re chosen, I promise that life-after-fellowship will be the least of your worries.