The day after the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl, when many newspapers nationwide had the image of a smiling John Elway splashed across their front pages, the Philadelphia Inquirer showed a photograph of a Chinese peasant riding a bicycle over a dry riverbed.
The caption stated that the Yellow River, the nation's second largest waterway, has dried up in five of the last six years and is imperiling millions of acres of farmland. The accompanying article told the story of a decade-long drought, which, compounded by industrialization and poor management, had reduced the once proud Yellow River into a dwindling stream, thus threatening the lives of those who lived in the river's basin.
Rena Singer, who wrote the story, was no stranger to China. She had lived there for two years, teaching English at a college and hospital in Kunming. During her stay there, she also filed stories as a foreign correspondent and had acquired a taste for that type of journalism. When she moved back to the States to write for the Inquirer, however, she realized that the paper's budget for international stories was limited. In her efforts to get back to China, Singer learned of the Pew Fellowships in International Journalism, a four-month program offered at the School of Advanced International Studies. The selective program, which accepts seven or eight fellows each semester, began in fall 1998.
Familiar with northern China's drought and related hardships, Singer decided that would be her topic for study when she applied to the program. Singer says she viewed the fellowship as an opportunity to return to China, hone her skills as a foreign correspondent and also broaden her world view.
"The more you know about other countries, the more you know about your own," Singer says. "We can look at other countries and see how they are dealing with some of the same issues we face here."
John Schidlovsky, director of the Pew Fellowships in International Journalism, couldn't agree more. Having Singer's story appear on the front page on a day dominated by sports coverage, he adds, was a bit of a coup for the program.
"That is exactly the kind of play we were looking for," says Schidlovsky, a longtime international journalist, who headed The Sun's bureaus in Beijing and New Delhi.
The Pew Fellowships, funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, are designed to educate early-career journalists to international issues and to increase the quality and quantity of foreign news coverage in the United States.
The program comes at a time when the amount of international news coverage has greatly diminished over the years, Schidlovsky says.
While larger newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal still maintain many foreign bureaus and spend millions on gathering news worldwide, small and medium-sized news organizations have drastically reduced the amount of resources and number of people that they send overseas.
Schidlovsky says one reason for this decline is simple economics; it is expensive to send and maintain foreign correspondents abroad. Two other reasons he gives are that the United States' involvement in the world is seemingly less urgent since the end of the Cold War, and, in recent years, domestic issues like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the O.J. Simpson trial have eaten up editorial space and air time.
"The result is less international news," Schidlovsky says. "We feel there are still a lot of journalists who are interested in foreign news, but they just don't have the opportunities that they used to have to go overseas and be posted by these news organizations."
During the four-month Pew program, the fellows spend the first nine weeks at SAIS, where they attend seminars on world issues and prepare for their trips by lining up contacts and sources for their stories. They are given a $2,000 monthly stipend and office space in the Rome Building and are allowed to audit any SAIS course they wish.
Schidlovsky says many of the fellows opt to take a foreign language to brush up on their communication skills. The Pew fellows then travel to the country or region of their choice for five weeks to report on a single news story or a series. They have to arrange for their own overseas accommodations but are given a round-trip airline ticket and $2,500 to cover expenses during their stay.
This opportunity to go anywhere in the world is what makes the program unique, Schidlovsky says.
"There are not any other journalistic fellowship programs that are dedicated exclusively to international issues. The program is truly globally oriented," Schidlovsky says. "We take on the whole world. It's kind of ambitious--and fun at the same time."
The program does try to keep the fellows out of harm's way. "We certainly don't want to have people in danger. We try to advise them of this, and we do talk to them if their project involves a dangerous situation," Schidlovsky says, adding the program wouldn't send anyone into a war zone without looking at the situation very carefully.
The current group of eight fellows studying at SAIS includes a man who will be going to Colombia to pursue stories about the international drug cartel.
"Clearly we are making sure he is taking sensible precautions and is not going to do anything risky," Schidlovsky says.
The program, offered in the spring and fall semesters, is open to journalists from all media, whether they are staff or freelancers. The program has accepted people from organizations that range in size from ABC News to the Juneau Empire, a 10,000-circulation newspaper in Alaska's capital. The first group of fellows included a television anchor/reporter from Butte, Mont.; a freelance journalist from New York who covered the conflict in Kosovo for Time magazine; and a reporter for the Dallas Morning News.
Carol Pastan, an associate producer at Dateline NBC News in New York and one of the current group of fellows, will be heading to Guatemala to report on the living and working conditions of coffee bean pickers. For her, the program provided an opportunity to combine journalism and her love for travel.
"I read about the fellowships and thought, What a great way to put it all together. At work I pitch lots of international stories, but, unfortunately, a lot of them are not done," Pastan says. "This is a terrific opportunity to be in charge of your own story."
When the fellows return from their trips, they will have two weeks to begin to prepare and write their stories, which, in most cases, will be run by their own news organizations.
On April 27, three of the current fellows will give 10-minute reports on their travels and findings. The event, held at SAIS, will be open to the public.
The first group of fellows, Schidlovsky says, returned from their trips with a new-found confidence both in themselves and as journalists.
"Working overseas takes a lot of initiative and self-starting ability because you are truly on your own," Schidlovsky says. "When they return, they view themselves as peers of other foreign correspondents, and some have decided they want to do more work overseas. We have changed some lives."