Friday, 18 July 2014

How to win a Journalism Fellowship: Tips & Warnings before applying

Media Fellowships are the journalism industry's equivalent of rock bands winning big recording contracts with major labels. It is an incentive professional journalists covet; it makes your record of credentials and achievements heavyweight. Two dimensions of engagement define why fellowships are highly valuable:
  • The entire objective of fellowships appeals to engaging an exceptional set of industrially relevant skills. Meaning, only the best skills get to take down a fellowship.
  • Fellowships appeal to accomplishing goals that are otherwise esoteric and specialized, at least in terms of engagement. Experience is one thing; specialization is another. Normally, fellows possess both hard heuristic knowledge and experiential skills.

At the time of writing this blog, the Inclusive Media-UNDP Fellowships (2014) for Journalists was accepting applications from Indian professionals in the media. I can imagine the degree of competition. Beat Reporters from across India are applying for it.

Range of grants & monetary awards

The grants that come with being a fellow are generous. In India, they range from Rs. 50, 000 to Rs. 2.50 lakhs per fellowship. The median is Rs. 1.50 Lakhs. The United States and Europe – every, where the ultimate journalism experience is, offer significantly bigger grants. US grants fall in the range of $ 6, 000 (approximately Rs. 3, 61, 529) to $ 25,000 (approximately Rs.15, 06,374).

Having stated that, the personal rewards from winning (and accomplishing) fellowships are even bigger: your expertise and capability receive exposure before the eyes of the industry, you learn new skills and insights, and your niche and industry quotient climbs even higher. 

No wonder that fellowships are only for news professionals that have what it takes to make it.   
That is the reason why experienced journalists are meticulous and focused when preparing their applications. There has to be something about a fellowship that has only 10 journalists winning, out of 500 that applied. Yes, there has to be something. That ‘something’ is preparation.

The first ever Media Fellowship I received was the Panos Asia award in 2009, which, unfortunately, saw limited publication for various logistical and interpersonal reasons.

In 2010, I was fortunate in winning another. This time, it was the All-India Journalists’ Inclusive Media Award from the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Only 10 journalists from across India made the All-India Journalists’ Inclusive Media Fellowship. Being one among the ten, and the only journalist from the North East Region, remains an honor for me.  Since then I have picked up a few more, and missed several.  Here are a few tips, suggestions, and insights if you are seeking your first fellowship to declare it in your Resume.


As stated, there has to be something that puts you ahead of the pack. That ‘something’ is preparation. Preparation is a goal unto itself. The task encompasses time management, research, backup, design, and prioritization of goals. Somebody said, ‘well begun is half-done.’ 

I know journalists who had incredible project ideas but failed to translate them into projects, thereby missing the opportunity. Start planning; gather the required materials; seek the advice of seasoned journalists especially those with experience in undertaking fellowships; schedule your time for designing projects; research topics and find the one that suits your capability and experience, and your time and logistics. Preparation, do not forget. 


‘Assessing the terrain’ will help you develop a realistic project; it will force creation of news-gathering strategies that are both novel and industrious. Above all, it puts you in a position that speaks in favor of your capability to accomplishing it.

Do not propose a high-sounding project you would not be able to handle later. Impressing selection boards with your proposal is one thing, accomplishing it entirely another. Before you design a project, assess the pros and cons of your scheme:
  • How conversant am I with this topic? 
  • Are sources and information pertinent to my project accessible?
  • How much travelling would it entail? Where? 
  • What are the logistics that my project would demand?
  • Would I be able to prioritize my news-writing schedule with travel and on-spot investigations?

A hundred and one variables could go wrong and compromise your work later. I suggest that you prioritize and design a project you would be able to handle, complete, and accomplish – accomplish with excellence worthy of a professional journalist.  

Get Fussy

Make sure that you fulfill every directive, condition, and rule. Read, reread, read and read again the ToS, and rules and regulations. Why? With media fellowships being so competitive, do you not think it’s natural for selection boards to need only one itsy-bitsy excuse to cut down the number of applications to accommodate the best?  

Reduce the selectors' chances of discarding your meticulously designed application just because you missed out a point from ToS even though your project was tremendous.  I am told that about 200 applications have already come in for the UNDP fellowship since the announcement. That is competition. Focus.

Speak ‘loud’ and fast

State only what is important, and make it concise while at it. If they asked you to confine your project proposal or cover letter to 500 words, then you must keep it at 500 words. When you have hundreds of journalists with their hefty packages each fighting to capture the attention of selectors, do not expect the board to spend their lives reading your 2, 000-word letter. Be concise; state only the most important parts of your project.

Weight your mettle

What is the commonest mistake journalists make when applying for fellowships? Setting goals they cannot accomplish. Do not offer something this is beyond your capability. Plan stories that you can write. Explore perspective and story angles that are very specific to your project and what you want to accomplish within your scope of experience and understanding. 

Forget grandiose projects; selectors are not stupid: They see your capability by just reading the cover letter and CV, leave alone your project. Chose a project that fits your capability, scope of experience, and a subject you are conversant with at both heuristic and experiential level.

Specific, more specific, most specific

What is a project proposal? It is the synopsis, an outline. What is a project breakup? It is the elaboration of the project proposal. Normally fellowship regulators ask for a broad proposal, and a breakup (specific proposal).

1. Example of a broad proposal:               

    You will highlight economic tensions caused by illegal immigrants in California.

2. Example of a break-up (or specific) proposal:

You will investigate why the border policy is not working, who is responsible for that      deficiency, and what problem that irresponsibility is inflicting on the economy of California.   Then, you will publish 2 news features, 5 hard news stories, and 2 op-ed commentaries in the   Washington Post.

Be specific about what you want to achieve, and what strategies you will be employing to accomplish them. Be specific with your objectives. Selectors look for that angle.

Big brand employers Vs Small timers?

Do journalists working with ‘big’ organizations have bigger chances at winning fellowships than do professionals with lesser-known media groups? What are the chances here for freelance journalists (also sometimes called ‘independent journalists’)? Knight International Journalism Fellow Patrick Butler has the best answer to both:

“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.”

I would be glad to assist you in setting up your project proposals and news pitches. In case you wish to, please use the contact form on the blog to get in touch with me (No, I will not charge you anything! I just want to encourage journalists, especially entry-level-to-mid career reporters, mark a notch). You have my best wishes.