From Formal Halls to fake news — ten weeks at Wolfson

by Fiona Gilsenan, Wolfson Communications

The 2018 Press Fellows discuss their experience at Cambridge with the President, Jane Clarke, Professor John Naughton and Registrar Michelle Searle.
The 2018 Press Fellows discuss their experience at Cambridge with the President, Jane Clarke, Professor John Naughton and Registrar Michelle Searle.

This week we said a fond goodbye to our five most recent Press Fellows, who have spent the last ten weeks of Easter Term with us. Hailing from Malaysia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, they’ve been the latest participants in a programme that has been in place for nearly four decades, during which we’ve hosted over 300 Press Fellows from 46 countries

Originally founded by Bill Kirkman, a former foreign correspondent and editor, the Wolfson Press Fellowship has been supporting mid-career journalists since 1982. For the last 12 years it has been directed by Professor John Naughton, an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Applicants for the fellowship are selected based on their intellectual and personal qualities, potential for leadership in the media and a project proposal of their own devising.

John Naughton explains, “We tend to focus on a number of broad themes, including the changing role of media in a networked world, improving the reporting of business, the environment, sustainable development, medicine, bio-science and technology, and the role of free media in democratic governance. But candidates are free to suggest other original topics.” John writes a weekly column in the Observer, the Networker, and brings his expertise in the internet and technology, as well as his wide list of contacts in the media, to the programme.

Time — and food—for thought

The fellowship is not a course, but a period during which journalists are able to immerse themselves in the intellectual life of Cambridge University, given time to think, read and reflect, and converse with people from a wide range of disciplines and cultures.

Miriyana Alexander was awarded the fellowship in recognition of the Weekend Herald, under her editorship, winning Weekend Newspaper of the Year and overall Canon Newspaper of the Year at the 2017 New Zealand Media awards.

“Just being in Cambridge has been amazing”, says Miriyana. “One thing I didn’t really appreciate is that I was going to have all this time to stop and breathe and read. It’s been utterly extraordinary to have the chance to really think deeply about our industry and the challenges it faces, to discuss issues in our weekly seminars, and to meet with the other Press Fellows and the Wolfson community.”

When Miriyana returns to Aukland she will take up a new post as Premium Content Editor for the Herald. “We’ve signalled that we’re going to introduce a form of paywall for premium journalism, so it’s about ensuring that we have a really good offering in things that New Zealanders really care about when we go to market.” During her time here, she’s been able to visit most of the major London newsrooms. “I’ve been to the Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and even the Daily Mail. They were really generous in sharing their various methods of charging for content, whether membership, hard paywalls or subscriptions. Although the business model is struggling, the overwhelming message I’m taking away is ‘just do it’.”

Miriyana’s study proposal was entitled “Fake News! How to stay a trusted, credible news source in the era of alternative facts”. She has spent her time at Wolfson exploring how the world’s media, the social media giants, lawmakers and others are dealing with these new threats.

“Fundamentally, the way the program is designed is that we have a set lecture series every Friday. But we’re all doing different projects, so John Naughton suggests to us individually seminars and meetings that might be of interest. For instance, I spent a few days at the London School of Economics listening to talks on fake news and Trump in the media. Another one of the fellows was able to meet with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Others have gone to meet people both in Cambridge and at Oxford University.”

“I’ve already been sharing what I’ve learned with my colleagues back home who are working on our premium project, and I’ll probably do a series of lectures when I get back. I’ve just been able to absorb and understand so much about the current state of journalism and the media that I’m looking forward to bringing that knowlege to our newsroom.”

Media talks

The programme’s Friday seminars feature visiting journalists and other media experts who come to talk to the group about their areas of expertise. This year they have included Roger Harriban, the BBC’s Environment Analyst (and a former Press Fellow), Boni Sones OBE, Paul Mylrea, head of communications at Cambridge University, Richard Danbury, director of De Montford University’s masters programme in investigative journalism and Charles Arthur, author and former technology editor of the Guardian. The content of these seminars range widely over media and technology topics from advertising practice to surveillance capitalism to artificial intelligence. The Press Fellows also attended a public conversation held at the Cambridge Union between John Naughton and David Runciman, head of the Department of Politics and International Studies and author of the recently published How Democracy Ends.

While at Wolfson, the Fellows play a full part in the life of the collegiate community. All relevant University facilities — libraries, lectures, seminars, debates — are available to them. They stay at College and eat every day in the dining hall. During their time at Wolfson, they’ve been able to attend Formal Halls, eat scones at the Orchard Tea Room in Grantchester, enjoy the Annual Garden Party and even join in the revelry at the May Ball.

Christina Chin, chief reporter on the Kuala Lumpur Star, says of her time at Wolfson, “ Being in Cambridge isn’t just about the academics. The entire ecosystem is built upon the foundation of personal growth. Arthouse movies, clean air, greens, silence, amazing exhibitions, free talks. At worst, you leave with just a paper qualification. At best you’ll gain an insight into yourself, your interests and ironically, how little you know.”

The programme has no endowment and relies on sponsorship to fund its participants. In Malaysia, Khazanah Nasional Bhd has sponsored journalists for the past six years. Twenty-six New Zealanders have taken part thanks to sponsorship by the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and Bauer Media Group. Previous sponsors include the Nuffield Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the BBC, the Commonwealth Secretariat and various media companies. To find out more about applying for, or sponsoring, a 2019 Press Fellowship, visit our website.