How my JSK Fellowship began a journey of personal and professional transformation

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For quite some time, I struggled to find words to describe how drastically my life has changed these past months.

My family and I traveled more than 10,000 miles, from our home in Botswana near the southern end of the African continent to California. It has been an exciting and educational experience for all of us. As a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, I’m exploring ways journalists and computer scientists can work together to create a system that marries strong technology with journalistic prowess, particularly in the investigations of political funding. The question I am exploring is, How might journalists in emerging democracies use technology to promote transparency in political funding?

Turmoil in African politics can be traced partly to weak oversight institutions and the absence of accountability in political funding. Through my JSK project, I want to help change that.

But that’s a topic for another day.

The thing is, I feel fortunate to have been selected. With hundreds of talented journalism leaders competing every year for around 20 available spots, it’s difficult not to feel that way. More so, since I am the only African in my class — and the first fellow from Botswana since the program began in 1966.

This 10-month fellowship supports journalism leaders from around the world, so that they can contribute and develop ideas that will help solve the most pressing issues in our field.

Coming to America, I had my share of mixed feelings. President Trump’s annoying rhetoric about immigrants was disturbing to my family. But, Trump aside, adjusting to Stanford life has been an exciting and challenging experience for my family and me.

Exciting, because my two boys (I also have an adorable 2-year-old girl) have adapted so quickly, and embraced the learning at their Palo Alto elementary school.

My wife, Rethabile, is excited to be taking classes at the Hasso Plattner School of Design, Stanford’s d.school. For me, I needed more time to adjust. It is the longest time I have been away from the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, the nonprofit journalism outfit I co-founded in 2015 in the Botswana capital, Gaborone.

And I am still trying to get used to the fact that Americans drive on the wrong side of the road…

This fall quarter, I took two classes that are as interesting as they are demanding. They have prompted me to think about the experience at Stanford and how transformational it has been in such a short amount of time.

A public speaking class has helped me address my speaking anxiety, while Exploring Computational Journalism has addressed my interest in understanding the intersection of computer science and journalism, and how we journalists can be more productive. Both classes have been inspirational and are helping me to better adapt to the changing world of journalism, and to extract lessons and best practices from my cohort of fellows and from Stanford students.

Computer scientists help journalists discover and tell stories. (Photo by Enrico Benjamin.)

Stanford exposes you to resources and world-class speakers. You get the time to organize your thoughts, to write and to sit in classes with future Mark Zuckerbergs.

This is extremely useful for me and other fellows as we attempt to push the boundaries of what journalism can achieve in this time of change and growing reliance on technology.

It was a rewarding quarter, as I quickly found people who are pushing the field into new terrain, and I can journey with them along this uncertain path of nonprofit journalism.

I am lucky to share the fellowship with 16 other experienced journalism leaders who have dedicated their lives to holding those in power in check, through different models of storytelling.

Next quarter, I plan to see what else I can learn to help advance my project. I plan to take classes at the d.school and to explore other dimensions of my journalism question. If you have ideas or would like to discuss how journalism and technology can work together for better investigations, please email me at konopo@stanford.edu. I look forward to the conversations.