For years, journalism fellowships have afforded young and mid-career journalists the opportunity to hone their craft, pick up new skills and learn more about their beats. These paid programs last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a full year, and often require journalists to take time off from the newsroom. The resource site JournalismJobs.com lists more than 40 programs on its fellowship page.

Traditional wisdom has held that journalists who applied for and were awarded fellowships were among the most ambitious in the industry. But they weren’t the only people who benefited from the experience. Armed with fresh knowledge, he or she could then share these insights with colleagues, thus enriching the newsroom operation.

However, the current tumult in the industry (almost 15,000 job cuts at U.S. newspapers last year), has caused editors and publishers to ask whether it’s worth losing reporters, even on a temporary basis, to fellowships.

“News executives have been posting unusual obstacles in the paths of journalists who want to seek a fellowship year,” said Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation’s fellowships at Harvard. “Some papers no longer will support long-term fellowships, others tell aspiring candidates that if they win a fellowship, they will have to resign and apply for their jobs when the fellowship year is over.”

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After noticing similar trends, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) temporarily ended its fellowship program in favor of focusing on a sustained health policy news effort, Kaiser Health News. These changes are outlined in a column by KFF president and CEO Drew Altman. (Disclosure: I am a web reporter for Kaiser Health News, a KFF program.)

New Pool Of Applicants

The problems facing American journalism have also caused a change in the type of journalists applying for fellowships.

“Over the years, journalists from daily newspapers traditionally have dominated the applicant pool and Nieman classes,” Giles said. “But those numbers changed for the 2010 selection cycle. For the class of 2009, 68 newspaper candidates made up half of the candidate pool. For the class of 2010, 45 fellowship aspirants were from newspapers, less than one third of the applicants.”

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Giles noted that 64 applicants self-identified as “freelance journalists,” an increase from the 26 freelance journalist applicants for the 2009 fellowship. Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists, which offers a range of fellowships, reported a similar trend. Barnathan said “many recently laid off” journalists apply for ICFJ’s programs, and the center is seeing applications from a higher number of freelance journalists.

Faced with this new landscape, fellowship programs are making adjustments. Giles said Nieman added multimedia classes and several new websites that aim to “serve our fellows as well as the larger world of journalism.” But, he said, “the core mission continues to be the intellectual and personal growth that comes from the Harvard experience.”

Barnathan says ICFJ fellowships still focus on “the basics of our profession: good reporting, impeccable ethics, strong editing and production.” But they are also adding new programs geared towards helping journalists master new digital tools.

“There is a huge demand for training in new technology — finding digital or mobile solutions for enhancing coverage and for distributing news to a wider audience around the world,” she said. “How we do use the cell phone to get out health news alerts in Africa? Or create digital platforms so that small Latin American radio stations can share content? Or get traditional journalists to work with citizen journalists, who [once trained] can provide quality information? These are the issues we are aggressively tackling.”

Fellowships Adapting to Digital World

Although the fellows I talked to have overwhelming praise for their fellowships, it’s appropriate to question whether these programs should continue to train journalists at a time when employment opportunities dwindle by the day.

The John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University reconfigured the entire program to address this issue. In a blog post, Jim Bettinger, director of the Knight fellowship, wrote that it was “disheartening” to read applications from unemployed journalist after unemployed journalist.

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“This was especially striking in the realm of foreign correspondence, where so many news organizations have drastically reduced or eliminated outright their foreign bureaus,” Bettinger wrote. “This included some very good journalists who have done outstanding work in the past and have lots of good work ahead of them, if they can find a place to publish or broadcast it. Very tough, and a reminder that there are huge impacts on individual journalists and the quality of journalism.”

Last year, the program implemented changes aimed at focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship. Though Bettinger said it’s too soon to know whether the changes are working, he believes the adjustments “make us more valuable to the cause, if you will, of journalism: not necessarily to the journalism industry (although that is possible), but the goal of providing quality information to the public.”

Back in October, Columbia Journalism Review announced its Encore fellowship to “provide downsized professionals with a writing position as well as support to help them choose how best to use their experience in the years ahead,” according to a press release.

The Pultizer Center on Crisis Reporting has a different approach. Established in 2006, the fellowship aims to support “the independent international journalism that U.S. media organizations are increasingly less able to undertake,” according to its mission statement. (For an example of how some news organizations are using the fellowship, read this piece by the Valley News’ Jeffrey Good).

So, programs are adapting — surely some faster than others. Will these changes help prepare journalists — and journalism itself — to thrive in the new world of news? Perhaps someone should create a meta-fellowship where fellows study and develop expertise on the question of their own future.

A writer, reporter and media consultant, Jaclyn Schiff is up at the crack of dawn to tackle the headlines of the day for her job at the non-profit Kaiser Health News. When she should be catching up on sleep, she can usually be found updating her Twitter feed or Tumblr blog, MEDIA Schiff (pun intended). Schiff covers non-profit news for MediaShift.

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