Rarely does a job opportunity circulate on Twitter with such enthusiasm. Called a “dream job” and a “really amazing opportunity,” or just introduced with “ooh” or “wow,” the new Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship competition clearly appealed to professionals and dreamers alike.
The program represents a unique collaboration between a major media organization and the State Department that both say will advance their shared goal of increasing international understanding. The partnership will offer five U.S. citizens funding, mentorship from editorial staff, and a place within National Geographic’s digital platforms to publish their stories.
Building a Storytelling Partnership
Since 1946, the Fulbright program has offered U.S. citizens a range of options for international research and education. Meghann Curtis, the deputy assistant secretary for academic programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the State Department, said that the new fellowship will help participants share their international experiences with larger audiences.
“There are so many wonderful media outlets. Wouldn’t it be great, instead of just asking people to run their own private blogs, to partner with a media organization to build in a media platform for the program?” Curtis said. “With digital storytelling, there are so many readily accessible ways to get their stories out there.”
Curtis’ office developed the concept for a “Fulbright-slash-partner” fellowship program that would involve a media organization and that would support participants in developing an in-depth project. National Geographic emerged as a likely collaborator.
“The mission of National Geographic is uniquely complementary to that of the State Department. Our greatest interest is trying to break down these barriers, to cross borders, to develop understanding of what’s going on in the world around us,” Curtis said.
David Braun, vice president and editor-in-chief for digital media at National Geographic, said his colleagues thought the partnership was a “great idea.”
“For us, it’s an opportunity because we’re visual storytellers. We’re multimedia storytellers now, and we’re looking for content in social networks,” he said. “We hope this is an opportunity to work with Fulbright fellows who have a curiosity and a desire to tell stories about the world.”
Digital Stories on Planetary Issues
Applicants have to fulfill specific requirements and will submit a detailed proposal for a digital storytelling project. Five fellows will be selected to create projects exploring at least one of eight themes — biodiversity, cities, climate change, cultures, energy, food, oceans, and water — in up to three eligible countries.
During the nine-month fellowship, fellows can “compare and contrast how global phenomena are experienced from perspectives within these different countries,” Curtis said.
National Geographic developed the list of eight topics, which was approved by the Fulbright program, according to Braun.
“We focused on the core topics … These are the big issues facing our planet today, and this expands our coverage of these stories. It will focus on how communities and countries are dealing with these issues today,” Braun said.
Both National Geographic and Fulbright appear to be open to all types of digital storytelling on these topics.
“We tried not to be too prescriptive,” said Curtis. “Some [fellows] may come at this from some investigative perspective. Others may be folklorists … When we say who’s eligible, we say it’s anyone who has demonstrated a talent. We’re publicizing this with journalism schools, media outlets, and professional organizations, but also with various MFA programs, for writers, filmmakers, digital artists. There are a lot of different ways that people can tell a compelling story.”
Braun says that at a minimum, each of the five fellows will blog once or twice weekly at National Geographic’s News Watch. Other work that’s “more experiential, life out in the field,” may be used elsewhere on National Geographic’s digital platforms.
“We do hope there will be digital tools, beyond writing online — video, audio, some type of interactive graphics, data, depending on [fellows’] expertise,” Braun said.
National Geographic staff will train fellows in a variety of digital media before the storytellers leave the U.S. to begin their projects, and editors will continue to guide fellows’ work throughout the program as mentors. As the fellows demonstrate “an aptitude for storytelling,” Braun said they could also receive assignments from the site’s news director.
Fulbright will provide a stipend; funds for travel to, within and among the chosen countries and back to the U.S.; a housing allowance; and a small stipend for equipment, Curtis said.
Foreign Policy and Funding
The eight topics for the inaugural round of fellowship projects reflect U.S. foreign policy concerns, according to Curtis.
“These are very relevant and important issues vis-à-vis foreign policy. The Fulbright program is a State Department program. We think that the work and the stories that get told … [are] important in advancing our public diplomacy goals, and also in advancing the dialogue on a lot of these fairly complicated and politically charged issues,” she said. “Arriving at diplomatic solutions requires us to understand how different countries and cultures experience these issues.”
Asked whether National Geographic was concerned about fellows’ potential self-censorship or limitations on their reporting as essentially U.S. government-funded storytellers, Braun emphasized the importance of transparency and the rigorous editing process and mentorship that National Geographic would provide.
“We did discuss that with the State Department, and that’s why they’re Fulbright fellows first,” Braun said. “We will have the journalistic oversight and help with our own discretion. There could easily be instances — one has to be very transparent. An individual journalist always has their issues involved … From the grantee’s perspective, in the field, they have to be as transparent as we are about what’s happening.”
Applicants may propose projects only in countries with existing Fulbright programs. Braun suggested that this limitation will help ensure fellows’ access to sources and the journalistic integrity of their work, stating that the eligible countries are likely to have “a tradition of fair, free access and storytelling.” However, some countries eligible for the program also have less-than-stellar records of press protection, meaning fellows might face some greater challenges in working freely within them.
Though the fellows will contend with difficulties like all reporters, Braun sees the partnership with Fulbright as “a way to spread knowledge and discussion among different types of storytellers” on National Geographic’s digital platforms.
“The Fulbright digital storytelling fellows will fit nicely into that network,” he said.
To learn more about upcoming media and journalism fellowships, check out MediaShift’s new fellowships page.
Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. She teaches media theory, writing, and editing, and does research on magazines, social media, and political communication.