40 years of the Thomson Reuters Foundation Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute

by Caithlin Mercer, Associate Director of Journalist Fellowship Programme, Reuters Institute
Thursday, 7 September 2023 19:22 GMT

RISJ/John Cairns

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The Journalist Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, is one of the world’s leading schemes for practising, mid-career journalists to deepen their skills and enrich their understanding of the news industry. Each year, around 30 Fellows study on fully funded Fellowships that provide the opportunity to undertake research projects on a variety of subjects. Founded in 1983, the scheme has supported a total of 733 Fellows from 95 countries - almost one-third of these were sponsored by the Foundation.

What motivated you to apply for the Journalist Fellowship Programme? Were there any specific challenges you wanted to address, or things you wanted to learn?

I finished high school in South Africa when I was 17, in 1999, and went straight to work in the media. First as an editorial assistant, then as an assistant editor, then as an editor. I rolled from start-ups to NGOs, to Conde Nast, to newspapers in the United Arab Emirates, to digital news at Yahoo, which eventually brought me here, to the UK.

It felt like I blinked, and suddenly it was 2018 and my whole life revolved around chasing the adrenaline of headlines, caffeine, and nicotine. 

I applied to the Fellowship Programme because I was extremely disturbed by the rise of misinformation online; I wanted to know if we could use tech to solve the problem.

But I also applied because I was beyond burnt out. And, as someone who studied via correspondence, I always regretted not having experienced student life. To be honest, the opportunity seemed so completely unattainable that I felt there was no harm in trying and failing.

What were some of your standout experiences during the Programme?

Discovering time, and what happens when someone gives it to you. First, it was the sheer terror of not being busy, but that gave way to the luxury of no constant deadline drama.

All they wanted us to do was read, think and discuss our ideas in a room full of journalism nerds from every corner of the globe. It was heaven.

But when you’ve been running at full speed for 19 years and suddenly stop… Let me put it this way: not everyone in a newsroom works hard because they’re trying to outrun their feelings, but I was. It took me a couple more years to put that puzzle together, but the time and validation the fellowship gave me was absolutely the first step to healing.

How did the Programme impact you as a journalist and what learnings did you go on to apply throughout your career?

I went back to the office with a presentation deck for the Head of International Media and said, “Right, these are the five next big things happening in news media.” She said, “OK, pick one”. I said “audio”, and two years later we had eight new podcasts that were driving millions of listens and winning awards. That was all inspired by the Fellowship Programme: by honest conversations about what we had tried, how we had failed, and what we would do differently.  

I also went back to work invigorated and with a hope for the future of news that I had been missing.

As for my fellowship project, the success was in figuring out how absolutely wrong my proposal was. I went back with a clearer-eyed view on misinformation, and a more nuanced outlook on what should be done about it and by whom. (Hint: it should not be done by an algorithm that gives news stories a truth weighting.)

Each Programme welcomes a global cohort of journalists – how valuable was it connecting and learning from your peers?

Absolutely nothing about the University of Oxford or the Reuters Institute will ever surpass the value of the people you meet here (and I say this as the current Associate Director of the programme, with no shame whatsoever!). I’ve stayed connected with my cohort since 2018 and count them among my nearest and dearest friends. When one of us is in trouble, we all rally to help. The networks the fellowship create are priceless.

You’re now the Associate Director of the Programme. How has the journalism industry, and the challenges it is facing, changed since 2018 when you were a Fellow? How has the Programme evolved in response?

Great question! I arrived at this post in July 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, so it feels like the whole world has changed since then.

But, in journalism, primarily I’d say I’ve noticed a lot less willingness to tolerate dysfunctional newsroom cultures and a lot more interest in a collaborative mindset and workflows. There’s a better understanding of what can be achieved when a team is intentionally and thoughtfully diverse and inclusive. And there’s a lot more interest and awareness from journalists in the business of news: different revenue models, and how we can bring the news values we believe in to the 21st century information environment.

We now receive well over 1,000 applications to the Programme each year, and that’s allowed us to be very strategic in how we think about who we will bring together and what projects we’ll take forward. We’re very focused on projects that will have a notable impact, and on bringing together as many diverse fellows and speakers as we possibly can.

We’ve also opened the doors to all journalists by taking our Wednesday afternoon session, the Global Journalism Seminar, online. We reached 15k people in 2021, 30k in 2022 and 80k this year. But we’re not stopping there, so please spread the word: Wednesdays at 1pm UK time from October to July – a truly global conversation with journalists about good journalism, in a space where we can learn from each other.

The most important evolution has happened in response to climate change – undoubtedly the biggest story of our generation. Former director Meera Selva and former visiting fellow Wolfgang Blau created the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN), which reaches 200 journalists a year with expert training, support and networking opportunities. It’s a real honour for the Fellowship Programme to collaborate every term with OCJN, which is run by Diego Arguedas Ortiz.

What are some of the issues that the current cohort are working on? Has there been any notable impact?

We’ve just bid farewell to the last of the 2022/2023 cohort. A project by Johny Cassidy about accessibility of data visualisations for blind people spawned a whole new task force at the BBC. Vanessa Gruber’s work around climate reporting preparedness at Austria’s top evening news broadcaster has triggered big changes there. I’ve joked with Radheshyam Jadhav that I think his project on a new reporting style might lead to a Nobel Prize (but I’m not really joking). And keep watching this space, because we’re about to publish a project that lets you see the Freedom of Information Act law in every country and then find local journalists to collaborate with on investigations. There’s also a project about transparency in the news that completely changed the way I’ve been thinking about it.

Coming up next year, to name just a few, we have a project examining how the UK reports on missing people of colour, another on managing cross-generational teamwork in newsrooms, a guide to navigating SLAPP suits, and a plan to save local news in Finland.  

The Programme is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. How significant is this milestone, and what are your future plans?

It’s a big one: the ruby anniversary. It’s fun to look back, but we can’t afford to stand still for too long. This will be our second year under Mitali Mukherjee’s excellent stewardship, which means we’ll keep testing, adapting and making improvements. I think the biggest projects this year will be the launch of a new alumni newsletter that will create more collaboration opportunities between different cohorts, and the launch of a podcast version of the Global Journalism Seminar for anyone who misses the livestream. We’ll also be reviving Summer School in September 2024.

Above all, I’m looking forward to meeting a whole new cohort on October 9th and seeing how this Programme will change their worlds. Tiny ripples; oceans of change. 

From left: Hilary Term 2023 fellows Ronson Chan (Hong Kong), Laida Chongo (Zambia), Tanmoy Goswami (India) and Olga Tokariuk (Ukraine) (RISJ/John Cairns)
A Michaelmas Term 2022 seminar in progress (RISJ/John Cairns)

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