How we launched a fellowship in less than 2 weeks

Christiana Lilly
Nov 23, 2020 · 11 min read

By: Matthew Gladly, James Hoyt and Christiana Lilly

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A handful of the 39 Election SOS Fellows

As we predicted, the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election did not come swiftly, extending the already stressful and whirlwind election cycle for newsrooms — especially for those in swing states.

To help them out, 39 student journalists and recent graduates across the country have been cranking out copy, monitoring social media, creating voter guides, and researching local candidates and laws. They’re a part of the Election SOS fellowship, a critically important support program that Election SOS created in less than two weeks.

From the insights we’ve gathered so far from fellows and their partner newsrooms, the program has been a tremendous success. We know the need for additional support for newsrooms as well as opportunities for early career journalists to cut their teeth is constant and urgent. So we wanted to share our insights and approach with others, in case it’s useful for you in spinning up this kind of support quickly, effectively and on a budget.

Setting the foundation

Thanks to generous funding from Democracy Fund and other civic-minded donors, Election SOS was able to think big and to listen to what we were hearing from journalists and newsrooms: they needed more people.

A quick note about the main players of Election SOS: it’s an initiative managed by the consultancy Hearken with the support of Trusting News, and it’s fiscally sponsored by the American Press Institute. All three of these groups do work to support newsrooms and the publics they serve.

Who we are

The three of us (Christiana, James, Matthew) were hired by Hearken in mid-September to dream up, launch, manage and execute the fellowships program. In our first week on the job, we drafted applications for both potential fellows and newsrooms. The application launched on a Tuesday morning, and by the time we closed submissions the following Monday we’d received applications from nearly 500 young journalists and dozens of newsrooms across the country. A great problem to have!

How we sourced fellowship applicants

  • Utilized a college media guide created by the Society of Professional Journalists, which allowed us to contact journalism and communications professors at every university, college and community college in namely swing states. We also notified historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) of the opportunity regardless of the state they were in.
  • Spread the word to professional journalism organizations at the national and state level through email, social media and The Hearkening and Election SOS Newsletters.
  • Beat our initial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) goals of 50% BIPOC, 64% Women and 13% LGBTQIA+.
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A handful of the 39 Election SOS Fellows

How we sourced newsroom applicants

  • Reached out directly to newsrooms in battleground states via email
  • Spread the word to professional journalism organizations at the national and state level through email, social media and The Hearkening and Election SOS Newsletters.
  • Social media posts aimed at newsrooms and journalists

A few key points about the applications

  • For newsrooms, we provided a handful of distinct fellowship roles ranging from social media monitoring to data entry support to reporting and allowed them to rank their needs. Fellows likewise got to choose which roles they were most interested in doing.
  • Why: this enabled fellows and newsrooms to have some guardrails around the “jobs to be done” and eliminate anxiety and unknowns. It also enabled us to design a targeted training program for each role so fellows felt equipped to make a difference right away.
  • We made sure newsrooms would also have a point person to support the fellows.
  • Why: because working remotely makes it difficult to onboard and manage new staff and we wanted fellows to have a designated person responsible for helping them direct their work.
  • Newsrooms also had to read and consent to a code of conduct in order to apply.

Why: we wanted to ensure that newsrooms understood their role in making the fellowship successful, and set expectations for how fellows should be treated. This is many of their first experiences with newsrooms and we wanted it to be as positive and productive as possible.

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  • We enabled newsrooms and fellows to determine if work would be done remotely, in-person or some combination.

Why: because everyone has a different level of vulnerability and risks in being around other people during COVID, we wanted them to each have permission to exercise their agency and for fellows to not feel pressured to work in-person if they were not comfortable or able to. This also enabled us to match fellows who were not in close proximity to their partner newsroom.

  • We asked fellows to share their pronouns and gender identity, and check multiple boxes for their ethnic identity.

Why: newsrooms are multi-generational, and many folks have not yet had the opportunity to work with people who identify in a variety of ways. We wanted to be sure fellows felt welcomed to show up as who they are, and for newsrooms to be prepared to greet their fellows appropriately.

  • We looked for applicants that not only had a passion for journalism, but some proven commitment to the field. We asked applicants to share their relevant experience, whether it be internships, classes, student media or working in a professional newsroom. We also asked which news outlets they turned to for news.

Why: given such a short time to get up and running in newsrooms, we needed to source fellows who were not starting from scratch in their reporting education or experience. They did not need to have a major in journalism or even have taken classes — we looked to their experience.

  • Finally, fellows also had the opportunity to share their biggest concerns regarding the election.

Why: we don’t know what we don’t know! This open field yielded a wide array of answers, enabling us to prepare for adding support we had not yet considered. For instance, this was the first time working in a newsroom for many fellows and they had lots of questions about what it would be like. This prompted us to make a required training called Newsroom Etiquette 101 which described the pressures that newsrooms, editors, journalists and others were under, and how to best approach and work productively alongside their new colleagues.

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We anticipated perhaps 150 applicants, but received nearly 500. Reviewing applications, it was clear that journalism has no shortage of emerging talent from around the country. More than 40 newsrooms also applied. We were surprised and also intimidated by the process that lay before us. After hours of deliberation including scrolling through resumes, online portfolios, short answers and weighing their strengths with the roles newsrooms needed, we chose 39 fellows who would work in 20 newsrooms.

During the process, we kept in mind:

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion. Newsrooms are notoriously lacking in diversity, which only hurts the communities they cover.
  • The fellowship was meant to be an educational opportunity, so we focused on students and recent graduates (this was left open-ended, but generally within five years of graduation).
  • The strengths of each candidate, what they were hoping to achieve in their careers, and why they wanted to be a part of this fellowship.
  • The location of each candidate and whether they would be supporting a newsroom in their region, and a place they likely had some pre-existing knowledge of (trying to avoid parachute-style support).
  • What the newsrooms top picks for “jobs to be done” and matching those with applicant preferences.

Within a few days of receiving all of the applications and matching them, we emailed the selected fellows and newsroom leaders to notify them that they had been accepted, with training to begin the following Monday. Two fellows informed us that they could no longer participate in the fellowship, so we quickly went back to the application pool for alternates (we had no shortage!).

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A handful of the 39 Election SOS Fellows

Fellows Snapshot

We ended up hiring 39 fellows, which represented the following identities: 59% BIPOC, 69% women, and 32% LGBTQIA+. During the selection process, we most heavily leaned into the regional location of fellows in respect to potential newsroom pairings. Because of the short-term nature of the program, having that perspective coming in was invaluable for the content they’d be producing. In some cases, the fellows got paired with a newsroom they’d been following since their youth — an exciting experience to see play out.

Training Fellows

The training program was also quickly organized — we reached out to our network of journalists and media professionals at American Press Institute, Trollbusters, First Draft News, Common Cause, The Markup, Vox, SPJ Florida and more to lead sessions on online monitoring, analyzing polls, newsroom etiquette, discerning fake news, and more. We also shared these training sessions in our resources page and our more general 101 sessions on our fellowships page.

Supporting fellows

We positioned Election SOS and the team as helpers and guides for both the fellows and the newsrooms. Communication channels and feedback loops were a key part of our design. We designed for a variety of closed and open channels so fellows and newsrooms had various paths to ask questions or raise concerns. Once the fellowship began, we:

  • Created a Slack workplace just for fellows where they’ve shared their work, asked questions, networked, and shared resources they came across. They even created channels to watch and comment on the debates together. Private BIPOC and LGBTQ+ channels were made, too.
  • Sent newsrooms a guide on best practices for working with their fellows as well as resources on covering different communities. They also had access to videos of the training sessions their fellows attended.
  • Sent a survey to fellows and newsrooms during the second week of the fellowship to get a pulse on how the fellowship was starting out. This was an opportunity to solve problems or help with miscommunication, which is easy to happen when working remotely.
  • Did one-on-one Zoom or phone calls with fellows who asked for extra help.
  • Sent end-of-week emails to fellows and newsrooms every Friday with news and updates.

Fellows’ contributions to newsrooms

Fellows hit the ground running. Within just a month of the program’s launch, they contributed more than 90 bylines (and counting). That doesn’t include the graphics, research, audience and online monitoring that fellows did that have been used in news reports.

On Election Day itself, many were answering reader questions, verifying rumors and myths, updating voter guides, and out in the field gauging activity at precincts. One even voiced a primetime TV hit on Election Night.

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A handful of the 39 Election SOS Fellows

Initial Feedback from Newsrooms

We’ve received positive feedback from newsrooms large and small on their fellows’ contributions. One editor of a small newspaper covering a mid-size metro in a contentious Southeastern state said his fellows’ work was “critical.” Another news director of a TV station covering a Western metro area rocked by unrest this year said his fellows’ fact-checking efforts were “extremely helpful,” and was hopeful that they would take valuable lessons away from the experience.

What We’ve Learned … So Far

Needless to say, this quick-start experiment of a fellowship has been quite a success. We were able to extend fellowships for newsrooms and fellows who were able to continue through Dec. 20 thanks to additional funding. We were also able to extend paid hours for several fellows working at newsrooms in swing states. Although the election is over (for the most part), there is still much to report on as we near Inauguration Day.

Part of the intent of the fellowship is to not only make it replicable for elections down the road, but to make its blueprint accessible for others in the field. Below we’ll outline some other steps we took that made this work and some things we overlooked that we’d change next time around.

Cost of the fellowship and structure

The total cost of paying the 39 fellows from October 5 — December 18 is: $225,000

(This does not include the cost of our time, plus some additional support from the Election SOS team.)

We were able to draw on funding from Election SOS to get the fellowship launched, and then as we showed success, attracted follow-on grants to keep the fellowship going.

As many of the fellows are also students and have other obligations, we did not expect they could contribute 40 hours per week to their newsroom. We gave them 3 tiers to choose from to support newsrooms: 8 hours / week, 16 hours / week, 30 hours / week. We paid all fellows a rate of $25 / hour + a $100 flat fee for the training sessions they participated in.

We also hypothesized that both newsrooms and fellows would benefit from having fellows work in pairs. For nearly all of the newsrooms chosen, they received 2 paid fellows. This not only enabled Election SOS to maximize increase the efficacy of the program for newsrooms, but also provided fellows with a “buddy” they could go to for support, questions, encouragement and to work alongside. We’ve heard from fellows that being in pairs made the experience more inviting and from what we can tell in our Slack channel, many are becoming friends.

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During one of our many Zoom lunches

Things we’d do differently next time around

  • Time was not on our side, but in an ideal world, we would have liked to extend the application period another week. Fellows didn’t have trouble meeting the deadline, but many newsrooms were stuck waiting for approval from their legal and HR departments.
  • Again, in an ideal world, having an extra week for application reviews and utilizing a predetermined scoring rubric would have helped.
  • For many fellows, this was their first contract job. In the future, we would host an optional Zoom session on how to fill out their employment forms, banking information, and creating an invoice. This would not only be beneficial for them, but also helping our administrative coordinator with fielding questions from dozens of people!

As some fellows are extending their fellowship and others are in their final days, we are in awe of the work they have produced and their service to the newsrooms. (We’ll be sharing out a roundup in the coming months once we’ve collected all of the links). We can’t help but wonder which of these stories and acts of service journalism would have never seen the light of day had this fellowship not been funded.

What surprised and delighted us

As newsrooms struggle in this pandemic and as we adapt to the changing landscape of journalism, this fellowship proved to us one thing we already knew: there is absolutely no shortage of talent. Fellows were introduced to newsrooms by Zoom, and without the benefit of being able to walk over to an editor for help, learned how to find new ways of communication and sharing what they had to offer. Newsrooms were pleased with what an extra set of hands could do for them.

Fellows who told us they didn’t think they could get this fellowship now have multiple bylines added to their portfolios, including covering Trump rallies, meeting voters at precincts, and walking the streets of their city when their state was called.

As is the tagline for this year, “these are uncertain times,” but for us, the future is looking bright.

If you would like to support Election SOS or the fellowship program or have additional questions, please reach out:

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…

Christiana Lilly

Written by

Christiana is the Election SOS fellowship coordinator at Hearken and a freelance journalist in South Florida

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Christiana Lilly

Written by

Christiana is the Election SOS fellowship coordinator at Hearken and a freelance journalist in South Florida

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

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