Making Change While Retaining Our Core Mission: Curators Have Expanded the Program through the Years 'To Confront the Challenges Brought about by Societal and Technological Changes That Affect Journalism.'

By Giles, Bob | Nieman Reports, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Making Change While Retaining Our Core Mission: Curators Have Expanded the Program through the Years 'To Confront the Challenges Brought about by Societal and Technological Changes That Affect Journalism.'


Giles, Bob, Nieman Reports


Sorting through boxes and folders of Nieman history has occupied us this summer as we prepare for the foundation s 70th Anniversary Convocation this fall. It is a fascinating exercise, rediscovering long-forgotten anecdotes, reviewing critical moments in the life of the program, and getting a fresh perspective of what it has been like to be a Nieman Fellow through the years.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the spring of 1989, the foundation prepared to celebrate its 50th birthday, and Howard Simons, the curator, wrote in Nieman Reports that he "was struck by the fact that the core program has not changed in 50 years.... It is a tribute to belief in the bromide, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

Curators have been mindful of the imperative to continue the fellowship program as hundreds of fellows have experienced it--and about which they often speak with great affection. But they also have recognized that promoting and elevating the standards of journalism--the foundation's mission--has meant expanding its role from time to time to confront the challenges brought about by societal and technological changes that affect journalism.

The first significant expansion of the foundation's role came in the founding of Nieman Reports in 1947. The report of the Hutchins Commission on A Free and Responsible Press, published that year, deplored the absence of a forum for regular and serious criticism of the press. This inspired Louis M. Lyons, the curator, and the class to establish Nieman Reports "as a medium for discussion, appraisal and criticism of professional newspapering." Today, under Editor Melissa Ludtke, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, its content speaks to topics far broader than its original mandate.

International fellowships were the next enlargement of the program in 1951. Lyons was eager to bring a global perspective to the program and wanted to support international journalists in strengthening their independent voices as a result of their Harvard experience.

Writing has been a subject of keen interest to Nieman Fellows since the very early years of the program, when they found an outlet in an English seminar taught by Theodore Morrison. After Morrison retired, the foundation began to offer writing instruction with Diana Thomson, the wife of Curator Jim Thomson. In more recent years, Nieman Fellows have studied and practiced the literary form under the tutelage of Anne Bernays and Rose Moss. In 1999, in response to increasing interest from fellows, the foundation expanded its writing program to include narrative nonfiction, taught first by Robert Vare, a 1997 Nieman Fellow, and then Mark Kramer. …

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