Making the most of a journalism fellowship

By on October 2, 2017

This is one in a series of blog posts from the MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 selected each year who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. 

For an early-career journalist, few experiences can be as rewarding as winning a prestigious fellowship. I was given two such incredible opportunities last year when I was selected as a Thomson Reuters Foundation “Uncovering Security: Emerging Threats” fellow and as one of the three MJ Bear fellows.

At first, I thought that getting the fellowships was the hard part. But it turns out that making the most of the fellowships themselves has been both the most taxing, as well as rewarding, experience of my career so far. Here are four of my key lessons for future fellowship recipients.

Be prepared to adapt

While I had a very clear idea about what exactly I wanted my story to be when I submitted my proposal to Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), my focus soon blurred as I started conducting fieldwork, talking to an increasing number of people and getting dissenting views on what I thought was true. As my thesis became increasingly muddled, I grudgingly admitted that I needed to change my original idea. I was initially worried to tell my fellowship providers that I was planning to digress from my initial proposal, but they were incredibly cooperative and helped me adapt my original pitch to the changed circumstances. As a result, I was able to come up with more story ideas than I had initially conceived and publish on multiple platforms.

Approach academics like you’re one of them

As a young journalist, I had the naïve opinion that showing up to the doors of professors and researchers would automatically prompt them to walk me through their research, and that expressing interest in their work was enough to elicit information. I was wrong on both accounts. I got stumped on my very first encounter with a renowned academic when he said he would only provide an answer when I had a very specific question, which I didn’t at that point. I was still reeling from the sorrow of my initial story idea falling apart, and was hoping I could come up with new story ideas simply by chatting with him. Suffice to say given my generic line of questioning, the interview didn’t last long. But I learned one important lesson: approach experts when you have a query worth their time.

Build connections in the field

A great thing about fellowships is the freedom they provide to spend time in the field — often in uncharted territories — and make new connections, as I did during my fieldwork in the remote Chittagong hill tracts region of Bangladesh. This not only provides the leeway to pursue the originally intended story, but can also lead to new story ideas, angles and discoveries that can significantly enrich a journalist’s experience. To make the most of fieldwork, it is important to go with a game plan. Start communicating with potential contacts weeks, if not months in advance to set up meetings and conduct relevant research (and remember to hone your questions). Once in the field, aim to network with local journalists, activists and organizations, because they can be an incredible source of information and story ideas for years to come.

Venture beyond your comfort zone

One of the best perks of the MJ Bear fellowship was the all-expenses-paid trip to Online News Association’s annual conference in Denver last year. As someone coming from a non-technical background, the plethora of sessions at the conference on virtual reality, coding and technological developments in journalism seemed daunting. However, I pushed myself to attend as many of these “alien” topics’ sessions as possible. As a result, I got to learn from the best and brightest in these fields, and saw how developing proficiency in these areas can create new avenues for storytelling. I am now teaching myself to code!

Sohara Mehroze Shachi

Sohara Mehroze Shachi

Sohara is a 2016 MJ Bear Fellow. She and her team have developed an app called Newstant that allows users to download news content to a smartphone and then read or listen to it offline. She explained that this is important in Bangladesh because, while a large number of users have Android smartphones, wi-fi connectivity is sparse. Newstant categorizes news and allows users to customize it based on their preference and prior browsing habits. It also can convert text to speech so that users can listen to it hands free while driving or working, and it has an incident map to keep track of area specific information. In addition to her work as co-founder of Newstant, Sohara writes freelance for various national and international outlets including the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Dhaka Tribune where she previously worked as a sub editor and feature writer. She also works for the climate change team at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Bangladesh. Sohara is serving as the Vice Curator of the Dhaka Hub of Global Shapers Community, a network of hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievements and their drive to make a contribution to their communities. She also leads the South Asia hub of Climate Tracker, providing support to youth journalists and climate activists. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Yale University. While she was a student, she also studied Southeast Asian Urban Development at the National University of Singapore and Foreign Policy Analysis at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Sohara recently was awarded the South Asia Media Fellowship by the Asia Pacific Network (APN) to report on climate change and food security, and last year she was awarded the Climate Tracker Youth Fellowship to cover COP 21, the UN Climate Change conference.