Want To Land A Knight Fellowship?

Calling all journalists, documentary filmmakers, freelancers, and media makers of color!

And hey Racialicious crew! It’s been a while. I know I have a million and one things to write about. I still have to write my “Coming to Stanford” post, a post about Argo, finish the Octavia Butler book club, and some hanging posts about fandom, film, and Afro-Asiatic allegories.  And I won’t even tell you my Knight to-do list because it is starting to give me hives.  But if you are even thinking of maybe applying to this awesome fellowship, please join us on a call Tuesday.  The details (that I conveniently snatched from the NABJ Digital blog):

Join the NABJ’s Digital Journalism Task Force, along with the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Hispanic Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association for a conference call on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time to discuss the application process for the 2013-14 class of John S. Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford University.  The program is actively seeking a more diverse talent pool and is reaching out to journalists of color.  The call will feature one current and two past Knight fellows:

Knight Fellowships director Jim Bettinger will give an overview of the program and introduce the fellows. The fellows will discuss their application process, the work they did during their 10 months at Stanford and offer tips for those who may consider applying.  We’ll then open it up to questions.
The call will be recorded for those who can’t make the live call. You can also tweet your questions to @NABJDigital or email questions to auntbenet AT Gmail DOT com.Dial-in Number: 1-213-226-0400
Conference code: 878554

Application link: http://knight.stanford.edu/news-notes/2012/be-a-knight-fellow-applications-now-open/

I also want to point out that The John S. Knight Fellowships is currently kicking ass on diversity, as reported by Richard Prince:

Less than a week after the Knight journalism fellowships program at Stanford University chose a fellowship class comprising more than half journalists of color, the Nieman fellowships at Harvard University announced an incoming class that appears to be devoid of African Americans. [...] In the current Nieman class, Jonathan Blakley, an African American foreign desk producer at NPR, is the only U.S. journalist of color.

But it could always be better. So please, come hang on the call.  And if you are worried that you aren’t quite right for this fellowship, I encourage you to reconsider.   I’ve put my journalistic bio under the jump, the one I actually submitted. And my fellow Fellows include filmmakers, comic artists, bloggers, and one awesome person who was basically running “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” for famous Arabs. Your idea is the most important thing here. So go check it out.  And if you have questions, jump on the call.  

The essay:

I never intentionally set out to become a journalist.

Outside of a brief flirtation with the student newspaper in middle school, journalism was an idea that veered far off the paths I knew. My image of a journalist was someone who spent the long nights hunched over a typewriter, smoked cigarettes, and stalked City Hall.  Think Clark Gable in It Happened One Night or Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.  The only people who disrupted that paradigm were Sway, Suchin Pak, and Gideon Yago, back in the time when MTV covered both news and entertainment.  Despite their relative coolness, journalism didn’t carry any more cachet to me than that.

I spent my youth playing video games, downloading anime, reading glossy magazines and listening to pop music.  Occasionally, I explored space and science, and read a lot of books about social justice, sociology, and advertising.  I found my voice as a fiction writer and an activist before finding my future career in an online community dedicated to anti-racism.  But even through all of those changes, I didn’t really consider journalism as a career path.

A writer? Sure.  But journalists were something else. My whole identity up to that point had been decidedly anti-establishment.  How could I claim to be part of the media when the media routinely got things so wrong?  I spent most of my time critiquing racial representations in the media, specifically analyzing how news articles perpetuated stereotypes about people of color.  I wrote long articles about diversifying the press corps and how journalists advance neo-colonialist narratives, never thinking I’d join those ranks one day.

My critiques caught the attention of the Poynter Institute, and I was asked to become one of their Sense-Making Fellows. I carved out a comfortable niche – being the person outside of the journalism world that discussed the goings-on of the media machine.  Still, despite surrounding myself with the folks who created news, I did not see myself as a journalist.

Then, The American Prospect asked me to do a reported piece, outside of my usual 800 word opinion pieces.  The topic interested me: Are farmer’s markets a viable substitute for food infrastructure in urban areas?  I went, reported the piece, and came back with a new skill set. More reporting gigs poured in, some cultural items and some breaking news.  After a year of steadily increasing work and more and more bylines, I realized that while I still may consider myself outside of the realm of journalism, the pieces I produce for Raw Story, Slate, and Spin tell a slightly different story.

Still, I rebelled at adopting the title. I’ve spent my life as an activist, so ,of course, I chafed at all the restrictions placed upon journalists.  Is life worth living if you have to shroud your opinion is some deference to some imagined idea of objectivity? If media bias exists, why can’t we admit that and start looking at a new standard?

I never found a good answer to that question. But I found myself developing the same problems that journalists, particularly journalists of color, face over the course of their careers.

Walking into new newsrooms still fills me with trepidation.  Even when I’m invited, I still feel ill at ease, as if someone rubbed salt into my skin before setting it back on my body.  I never feel pedigreed enough, old enough, white enough. After six years working in media, I still feel like I’m playing an elaborate game of dress-up.

Using the online space as an intermediary allows for people like me to make space for ourselves.  And I came into the media world at a perfect time–the onset of new media broke down all kinds of walls and barriers, while throwing the very idea of who gets to claim the title of “journalist’ into flux.    While I often look at my patchwork resume as a disadvantage, unconventional backgrounds aren’t as much of a hindrance as I believed.

I am sure I missed some great stuff in journalism school.  But I learned tons about interviewing and tough subjects working the red carpet for a national tabloid.  From a dignity perspective, my old job cutting subs at Blimpies was better than working the red carpet for no byline and a couple hundred dollars.  I came away with a few celebrity-based party stories–and learned how to be both fearless and tactful.  After asking Nick Cannon when he and Mariah Carey were going to have a child in front of a hundred other people, sitting on the other side of The Stream’s Orange Couch from the Bahrani Finance minister and asking him tough questions about the misdeeds of the government was a breeze.  (For one thing, a dis by the Minister of Finance wouldn’t get picked up on TMZ.)

Also, I learned quite a bit being outside of the normal path to journalism with regards to what gets covered and why.  Think of all the little stories that fall through the cracks.  It’s very easy to start producing stories according to a certain worldview.  Even when journalists are reporting on something that seems counterintuitive, many times, we are still following that same script.   It’s one of the most difficult challenges I’ve faced at the helm of Racialicious.  While I like to think of the site as a decentralized collective, the team looks to me to be the public voice as to what decisions we make, editorially.

Over time, our work migrated from being an internet space about pop culture, to inhabiting a no man’s land between between activism, journalism, and counter-narrative creation.  This was drilled home when we started reporting on the London Riots, last year.  We received a total of four first person narratives about what was happening on the streets–but the first one filed was a conservative take on the event.  Readers expressed their disappointment in the comments, noting that while they appreciated us covering what happened from a variety of angles, they didn’t want to read the same kind of conservative perspectives found in the mass media.  We believe we have a responsibility to showing varied sides to world events, but that was sobering.

We’ve also had to contend with multiple ideas of truth–and find a way to get the community on the same page about topics like Israel/Palestine.  To top it all off, we are feeling the industry-wide pressure on around funding and sustainability.  We’ve carved out our space in the conversation – but can we keep doing what we do with a balsa-wood-and-bubble-gum business model?

Whatever problems I had with institutions, my years in the field brought me to  believe that journalism–the unimpeded flow of quality, fact-checked, and truthful information – is critical for democracy.  And if it is critical for democracy, it should not be a luxury stashed away behind paywalls. It should be out in the open, where the public can use it to hold people in their communities accountable and to be informed about the goings on in other nations and other galaxies.

If I believed all that, I could not continue to pretend I was just a writer that did reporting on occasion.  I cared about who has access to this information and how the stratification of access and news information impacts society. I concluded journalism goes hand-in-hand with social justice.

And so, in spite of myself, I became a journalist.