When Siri Carpenter, who runs The Open Notebook (TON), and Kristin Lewis, who runs the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship (MMF), first met, they immediately wanted to collaborate: TON provides advice, tools, and resources for science journalists, and the MMF places science students or recent graduates in newsrooms for 10 weeks. However, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the MMF program online that they saw a chance to make this happen.
Going virtual freed up travel funds, while also limiting the interactions fellows would have with editors and journalists. So they decided to add a six-month mentorship program onto the end of the summer fellowship. It’s now in its second year, and by all accounts has been a resounding success. In its first year, all but a few of the MMF cohort participated in the mentorship program, and this year, all of them have.
“Many of our fellows leave the program excited for what comes next, but they don’t always have a clear sense of how to get there. The mentorship program provides our fellows with someone who’s been in their shoes to help guide them through the next six months,” Lewis said.
Carpenter and Lewis recruited paid mentors from the MMF and TON fellowship alumni. Mentees were able to virtually meet a number of the mentors and request who to be paired with. The program asks them to meet with each other approximately once a week for the six-month program. They also offer -- to both mentors and mentees -- various professional development webinars and a Slack channel, which in the second year, they are using more proactively by posting conversation prompts, to good response.
Carpenter points out that because of the pandemic, there is “a more widespread sense that relationships carried out virtually are still real relationships, and there is a lot of really valuable learning and relationship-building that can take place through these virtual channels.”
One of last year’s mentor-mentee pairs was featured on the podcast Temperature Check (transcript and recording available here on grist.org), in an episode on mentorship. Earyn McGee said she knew after meeting Tien Nguyen at a virtual MMF mentor-mentee networking event that she wanted Tien to be her mentor. In the podcast, she said she has felt up to this point like she had mostly been trying to figure things out by herself. “I wanted a real mentor.” The two developed a strong bond, and in the podcast they note the value of someone who really knows you and can be honest in their feedback at this pivotal phase in many mentees’ lives. McGee said there was a “job application I was going to put into that you were like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ [since it didn’t seem to be aligned with my interests and goals]… Whereas everybody else was like, ‘Yeah, you should apply.’”
Another of last year’s mentees, Gina Mantica, also had a great experience with her mentor, who had been at the same news organization during his time as a MMF. So signing up to be a mentor this year was a no-brainer for her. She says her mentor “helped me realize that what I wanted and needed were important and valid.” Having someone to help her with cover letters and to ask questions of in the middle of a pandemic was extremely helpful.
“The Mass Media Fellowship truly changed the trajectory of my life,” says Mantica. “I know a lot of people say that, but, I had this vision of my life, and what I’m doing now is nothing like that -- and I'm happy about that.”
Another aspect of the new mentorship program is the opportunity to pitch a story to The Open Notebook and be paid for it. Last year’s stories include “Who is an Expert? Broadening the Definition Strengthens Journalism,” by Attabey Rodriguez Benítez, and “Please Don’t Ignore Me: Requesting Interviews with Scientists” by Karen Kwon.
The Mass Media Fellowship recently finished its application cycle and will be announcing the 2022 cohort in April 2022. Applications for the 2023 cohort open in October 2022. Applicants should be enrolled as STEM students (upper-level undergraduate or graduate), be a postdoctoral trainee, or apply within one year of the completion of one of these degrees.
Carpenter, who was herself a Mass Media Fellow, notes that it “was absolutely incredibly formative in my life and career... I entered it thinking maybe I wanted to be science writer. I left it exhilarated that yes, this is something that I can do... I'm very grateful to the program and extremely thrilled to be able to be involved with the program in this way 20 years on.