What's The Biggest Impediment to Journalistic Innovation In the Digital Age?

Any fans of The Twilight Zone out there? You know, the old sci-fi television series from the 50s?

My favorite episode was "Time Enough At Last," which first aired in 1959. It tells the story of Henry Bemis, who loves books, yet is surrounded by distractions and commitments that prevent him from actually reading them. He subsequently survives a nuclear blast, stumbles upon a preserved library, and with great relief, sits down to read his treasured books, peacefully alone. Then, tragically, his reading glasses fall and shatter, leaving him effectively blind. In the last shot we see him moaning to the heavens, "But there was time!"

Poor Henry.

Henry's predicament sounds familiar to most of us. We lack the time to do the things we want to do. And it's a challenge that lies at the heart of the James L. Knight Foundation's latest foray into boosting journalistic innovation.

To help news innovators advance quality journalism by incorporating new practices and technology into their work, the foundation announced $223,000 in support to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard for a new program, the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowships.

The program will bring journalists, technologists, academics and other news innovators to Harvard to develop projects to advance journalism. Each year, Nieman will select a minimum of five fellows. Lessons learned from the projects, developed during short, intense stays lasting no longer than 12 weeks, will be widely shared.

Like most fellowships, Knight aims to give journalists the one intangible asset they need the most: time. It's an obvious realization, but with all the talk about "innovation," "creative disruption," and "journalism in the digital age," we tend to forget. Journalists remain effectively handicapped if they spend most of their waking hours putting out fires and simply doing their jobs.

Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation, summarizes this challenge, noting, "It’s hard for people in newsrooms to get time to work on projects. This fellowship offers the time and space for people to enhance journalism in meaningful ways."

What's more, as previously noted, fellows won't be holed up in monastic isolation, Henry Bemis-style. They'll work alongside traditional Nieman Fellows who spend the entire academic year at Harvard. Coming from the United States and abroad, fellows will have access to the extensive intellectual resources at Harvard and MIT, and throughout Cambridge, including local scholars, research centers and libraries.

And there you have it. Time and collaboration. A simple, two-ingredient recipe for journalistic innovation in the digital age.