For journalists, a fellowship can provide unmatched mid-career professional development and opportunities for meaningful personal growth. Having completed fellowships with the RIAS Berlin Commission and the East-West Center, I was recently invited to share my own experiences in a panel discussion at RTDNA/SPJ’s annual ‘Excellence in Journalism’ conference.
These international reporting experiences required a significant amount of time, planning and research. But the return on investment has far exceeded my expectations and continues to clearly demonstrate its value within our news content.
If you’re considering whether a similar experience might be right for you, here are some of the tips I shared with fellow journalists at EIJ in San Antonio.
FIND THE RIGHT FELLOWSHIP
Ask your network of peers about fellowship opportunity, search Google, or, if you’re really a go-getter, create your own. Research fellowships carefully, as many have stringent requirements to consider (years of employment, age, costs, languages, length of fellowship, minorities, expected research, specific medium). Some are for a few days, some a few weeks, and others last more than a year. Timing is something to consider when researching the length of an opportunity. Your contract or work situation may restrict you to certain fellowships. Others can be timed to fall between career moves. This must be a mutual benefit. Also, research any costs associated with the fellowship. Many are all-inclusive, but others may require you to cover the costs of visas, certain travel, some meals, etc.
PREPARE YOUR APPLICATION
Many NGOs, universities, and organizations require essays, position papers, resumes, and detailed applications. Treat this as a job interview. Your objective should be to stand out among a crowd of candidates. Follow instructions to a “T,” but it’s very important to demonstrate that you have a legitimate interest in the subject matter and the organization. Line-up credible references and brief them on the opportunity. Do your research before submitting your application. Many require a phone or digital interviews and will quickly call a bluff if you’re not seriously invested. Contact past fellows for candid perspective on the experience. They can tell you what to expect and how to avoid mistakes in the process.
SELL THE FELLOWSHIP TO YOUR BOSS
Will it cost your station anything? Will you use PTO or will your employer give you the time-off? You may also be responsible for filing stories for your station. Think of every possible question they could ask and have answers ready for your initial meeting. Put the proposal on paper and work on your ‘elevator speech,’ similar to a story pitch. Sell them on this idea and how the fellowship will not only advance your personal and career development, but also explain the benefit for the entire newsroom. Make it evident that you have mapped-out this fellowship from start to finish, so that their only decision should be telling you “yes” or “no.” For long-term planning, you may also be able to negotiate this into a future contract or renewal. If your fellowship has a cost and it’s not something your station can cover, consider whether this could potentially be sponsored through your sales department.
PLANNING FOR COVERAGE
Once you’ve received approval from your employer and are awarded a fellowship, get to work on research! Many reporting fellowships will have a central theme or topic — often an ongoing issue or key event. Some organizations will provide you with ‘suggested’ reading, while others leave you to your own preparation.
Understanding background, key players, historical perspective will not only help you have a more fulfilling experience, it is essential to your reporting. For example, my fellowship in Germany focuses on the federal parliamentary elections, so I spent considerable time studying their election process and major political parties, as well as the country’s membership in the European Union.
My fellowship in China focused on the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies as it was beginning to ramp up. This required a great deal of research in economics, international trade, and the history of China’s ‘opening up.’
I used Google Docs to take notes and keep links to helpful articles and sources. This may come in handy once your reporting begins. Once you have a baseline knowledge established, start brainstorming ideas for reports during your fellowship. Obviously travel and connectivity constraints may dictate when and how you file reports, but you can certainly draft background portions of your story body to save time.
If an itinerary is provided, begin researching organizations and sources related to your appointments. Consult with your colleagues and personal sources to find local ties or angles to your fellowship topic. Search your station’s archives for possible follow ups to previous stories. Use the itinerary to map out time to file stories and when. You may be able to shoot local video or conduct interviews prior to departure.
Obviously, there will be many opportunities for stories you cannot prepare for in advance. Consider scheduling social media posts (accounting for any time change).
PLANNING FOR TRAVEL
Immediately secure any necessary visas or immunizations for international travel. Also, take time to consider your personal health while abroad — securing travel insurance (medical), prioritizing adequate sleep amid intense schedules and jet lag, exercise, nutrition, as well as packing prescription and over-the-counter meds. Personal safety should be top-of-mind, no matter the location. Be aware of your surroundings and research security concerns in your destinations.
On fellowships that feature multiple cities or countries, packing light will be essential. Make this a priority. I often start by packing one suitcase with everything I think I will need on a trip. Then, force yourself to remove half of everything inside. Don’t forget to pack a backpack or use it as your hand-luggage.
If you’re reading this and you don’t have a passport — apply now! This is rarely a quick process. If you do have one, make sure its expiration is valid for six months after your planned trip.
These are some of the tools, devices, and apps in my ‘toolkit’ for international travel: Google Drive, Google Translate, local currency, burner phone, local SIM card or international data plan, myFi hotspot, power bank, pens/pencils, notepads (many government buildings or embassies do not permit electronic devices), external hard drive, laptop/tablet, gimbal, camera equipment, VPN/ internal network access/ remote desktop. Don’t forget to pack press credentials and business cards (never miss an opportunity to network).
Checklists will ensure you don’t forget anything as you tie up loose ends in the days prior to departure.
Also, be sure to research relevant cultural differences and business etiquette. You don’t want to stand out in public or offend sources.
While this isn’t an exhaustive how-to, I hope this blog post offers some best practices from my own experiences. If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments section below, or connect with me here to start a one-on-one conversation.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Gray Television. They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2019 Lane Luckie