New Knight-Bagehot director Narisetti talks about its changes
Longtime business journalist Raju Narisetti became director of the Knight-Bagehot program for business journalists at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism this summer.
The Bagehot program for business journalists was started in 1975 by Steve Shepard, who went on to become editor of BusinessWeek magazine and the founding dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
In the program, journalists take a year off work and enroll in classes across campus, including the business school.
He initially joined The Journal in April 1994 as a reporter in Pittsburgh, covering consumer goods and then technology. After working on the national desk, he rose quickly to be a deputy managing editor and editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.
Narisetti spoke by email on Monday with Talking Biz News about changes he’s making to the Knight-Bagehot program and the future of business journalism. What follows is an edited transcript.
What attracted you to running the Knight-Bagehot program and teaching business journalism after a long professional career?
I have increasingly thought that the still valuable but somewhat ossified version of Church and State in journalism has also led to the many young idealists coming out of journalism schools in the US, with great multimedia skills reporting and story-telling skills, but quite often unaware of the business of journalism and its growing impact on the texture and practice of journalism.
This has often meant those who are creating the critical product — journalism — aren’t quite equipped to help the business side in developing more engaging, and hopefully more sustainable, news and information offerings to our growing audiences. And causes way more friction than needs to exist inside news organizations for reasons that have often little to do with the sanctity of journalism.
The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, with its unique location at the heart of America’s media ecosystem, is about as relevant a platform to try and help journalists, both students and those already in the profession, better understand the many forces shaping the prospects of the industry they are going into or are already practicing their craft within. And the Knight-Bagehot Program, now in its 43rd year, is a crown-jewel of the School’s ambitions — today and in coming years — for both business journalism and the business of journalism.
Also Chris, I am not looking at this as getting into teaching “after” a long professional career. To be a relevant and contemporary journalism educator, especially about the fast changing business of journalism, it is vital to be very much involved with the industry in problem-solving consulting projects, board and other advisory roles, something I very much intend to do, given my now nearly three decades in journalism and the business of journalism, across three continents.
What had been your impression of Knight-Bagehot graduates?
I have had the privilege of already working with, and having, several Knight-Bagehot alums in newsrooms I have run. David Wessel, David Cho, Neil Irwin, Renae Merle, Julia Angwin, James Grimaldi, Jon Hilsenrath, Carlos Lozada, just to name a few, in many ways exemplify how Knight-Bagehot alum continue to contribute at the highest levels in business journalism.
The Knight-Bagehot Fellowship remains the most academically rigorous journalism fellowships in the world—if not the most challenging, in terms of course-work formally required of the Fellows. And while the competition to become a Fellow is fierce and thus attracts very talented journalists in the first place, the academic year at Columbia significantly enhances their ability to better understand — and, therefore, tell better stories for years to come. I am working with my very first batch of Fellows and am quite envious of the opportunities they have at Columbia this year, especially thanks to Columbia Business School which lets the Bagehots be part of their annual MBA cohort for all the courses.
What are some of the changes you’ve made to the application process?
The biggest change is the requirement from previous years is that, starting with 2019 Fellowship, applicants are now asked to submit a plan, in 500 words or less, on how they intend to use their year at Columbia. As in, tell us how getting this Fellowship opportunity will make them better in the art and craft of their practice of journalism. This plan, or study proposal, replaces an essay on a business topic they were asked to previously submit, since, for me, their body of journalistic work is a better proxy for their reporting, writing and analytical skills.
I also want to better understand the career motivations of applicants so that the central mission and purpose of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowships — deepening the analytical and storytelling skills of business journalists — is achieved in who we invite to be Fellows in 2019 and beyond.
The application deadline window is also shortened, to the end of January, in keeping with deadlines for other, relevant journalism fellowships. We have kept everything else, including the application fee of $100, the same as in prior years.
What role will the new selection advisory committee make?
The Fellowship has traditionally attracted business reporters and writers from newspapers, television, radio and digital. For the first time this year, we have a graphics editor as a Fellow and I am eager to continue to broaden this diversity to include data, visual and other multiplatform skills that are increasingly vital to business journalism as they are to other forms of journalism. In addition, it is critical that we broaden on the Fellowship’s gender, race, geographic and economic diversity.
The 2019 Selection Advisory Committee is comprised of current and former journalists, several with strong business journalism chops, but also with some of the most talented people in American journalism when it comes to data and technology-centric storytelling. The Committee will weigh in on the Finalists and help me in choosing a 2019 cohort that is truly reflective of both the audiences that business journalism needs to reach, as well as full range of diversity of business journalists globally.
About how many applicants does the program get each year, and how difficult is it to whittle those down to less than a dozen?
The Knight-Bagehot Fellowship is a lot harder to land than getting to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, which is not the easiest journalism school to get admitted to in the first place. I am hoping to have a problem of plenty, come application deadline time. My sense from looking over past applicants is that it is not atypical for someone to get in on their second or sometimes even their third attempt. In 2019, we intend to take 10 Fellows who will get a full tuition waiver, $60,000 in a living stipend, health care and assistance in finding university-affiliated housing.
What are the changes you’re making to the seminar classes that the students take?
The biggest change in the Fall Semester is that the Tuesday/Thursday seminars are primarily focused on broadening their understanding of the journalism ecosystem, writ large. The Fellows have a significant opportunity to enhance their understanding and knowledge of business, economics, finance and technology in classes that they take at Columbia’s graduate schools of business, law and international affairs.
The Journalism Seminars are now aimed at helping them think, via active conversations with guest speakers, about the rapidly evolving journalism and business of journalism landscape. They are participating in highly curated seminars offered by media, corporate, communications and tech practitioners, and also meet weekly with media CEOs, top editors, journalism entrepreneurs for off-the-record dinners, taking advantage of Columbia’s access to New York’s media, business and tech ecosystem.
Some of the guest seminar speakers this semester include Matt Murray, editor-in-chief, The Wall Street Journal; Shailesh Prakash, chief technology officer, The Washington Post; Craig Newmark; Tony Haile of Scroll.com and Chartbeat; Lydia Polgreen of HuffingtonPost, Aedhmar Hynes of Text100; Carroll Bogert of The Marshall Project; Vivian Schiller of Civil; Joanna Geary of Twitter; Rafat Ali of Skift; Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, to name a few.
Are there any changes to the non-journalism classes that the students take?
The Fellows have full access to most courses across Columbia University, though many of them take deep, foundational courses at the business school in the Fall before broadening their course-work in Spring. By nature, these courses tend to vary semester to semester based on the faculty coming up with varied offerings each semester.
What do you see as the benefits of having the program be just one year?
Thanks to the Knight Foundation’s legacy generosity, mid-career journalists have several nine- to 10-month fellowship options in the U.S., between JSK at Stanford, Nieman at Harvard University, Wallace at the University of Michigan and KSJ at MIT, as well the Knight-Bagehot program, with each having a distinct appeal and focus. The Bagehots are unique in that they fulfill a requirement that all Fellows need to take and pass a full Columbia University academic year course-load.
While it is an extremely demanding and stimulating year, it is also important to remember that the Fellowship is aimed at helping mid-career journalists learn, unlearn and be better practitioners of their craft than turn them into long-term students. Nine months is also a long commitment for news organizations to make, and I am glad many do, year after year, and send fellows from their newsrooms.
Do you see an increased demand for the program as business and economics topics have become more important in daily news?
The Knight-Bagehot Fellowships remain unique in having a broad definition of business, economics and finance journalism, which increasingly impacts any journalism that you want to do well. Some of the most impactful stories of 2018, including those out of Washington, be it about Paul Manafort, the EPA, the FCC, NAFTA, trade disputes with China, Facebook privacy, Elon Musk’s SEC woes have had strong business, finance and economics implications and prisms.
And business journalism continues to scramble to add well-rounded journalists, especially women and people of color, to its still growing ranks. So am glad that the Bagehots are in demand, both from journalists wanting to get better at what they do, and from news organizations needing more sophisticated, global business journalism.
What other changes are you thinking about?
Global business is being fundamentally altered by use of data, algorithms and emerging technology. It is vital for business journalists to have a better and deeper understanding of these topics. I would love to figure out funding for the Knight Bagehot Fellows to also go through an immersive book-end data journalism program, such as The Lede Program. This is an intensive, certification program from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and department of computer science, designed to equip journalists and storytellers of all kinds with the computational skills needed to turn data into narrative, perform in-depth investigations, harness APIs, explain complex subjects through data-driven stories and better understand algorithms and derive insights.
But doing this would require raising additional funding as the Knight-Bagehot Fellowships, while endowed, do need to raise funds annually to support the 10 fully-funded scholarships we give to mid-career journalists.
Incidentally, our 43rd annual event is on Oct. 25 in New York with the journalistic centerpiece being an on-stage conversation between A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, and Recode co-founder and tech columnist Kara Swisher. It should be a terrific event and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the Bagehot Fellowships. And, we are also going to announce an exciting new annual award for business journalism at the event. Stay tuned.