In Depth

Programs Backed by Nonprofits Take a Big Hit

By Dinah Eng

A number of journalism award programs and fellowships have been affected by the recession, forcing some to cut back in order to continue and others to cancel their programs entirely.
Particularly hard hit have been awards given by nonprofit groups that use the awards to spotlight reporting on issues of importance to them.

For example, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) canceled its Cushing Niles Dolbeare Media Awards, which recognized print journalists for exemplary reporting on low-income housing issues in the United States with a $2,500 prize, because of funding issues.

“A lot of nonprofits that would be offering awards like this rely on funders and memberships, and both are down across the board,” said Taylor Materio, communications associate for NLIHC. “In the last year, journalism has drastically changed. There’s a push toward online, and daily newspapers nationwide are hurting. In-depth stories are harder and harder to come across. Lack of material is contributing to the decline of awards like this.”

Materio said NLIHC believes it’s important to highlight good reporting on affordable housing issues, so while the competitive aspect of the awards will end, staff will monitor coverage in daily newspapers and select outstanding work for recognition at its annual conference in Washington next April.

“We’ll be looking at stories and using the judging criteria from past awards programs,” Materio said. “We just can’t make the monetary award this year because of our budget cuts.”

The Death Penalty Information Center two years ago ended its Thurgood Marshall Journalism Awards, honoring writers and producers for outstanding coverage of the issues associated with capital punishment. Winners had received $3,000 awards in three different categories.

“For us, it was not an economic question,” said Richard Dieter, executive director for the organization. “Many journalists were concerned about accepting an award from our group for covering the issue. We decided to discontinue the award toward the end of 2007, and are trying to figure out another way to encourage investigative journalism.”

David Maddux, editor of the E&P Journalism Awards & Fellowships Directory, said he’s noticed four times as many cancellations and suspensions of journalism awards this year as compared with last year.

“Naturally, it’s not clear how many of these awards may be revived in another year or two,” Maddux said. “I haven’t detected any pattern regarding what sort of awards have been canceled, nor to the type of organization that offered them.

“One interesting development — many of the schools that offer journalism fellowships and scholarships have asked that specific amounts of cash awarded be deleted, with some specifying lower cash amounts.”

The Nieman Fellowships at Harvard University continues to offer $60,000 stipends to fellows over a 10-month period, along with tuition, and allowances for housing, child care and health insurance, but the budget was cut elsewhere.

Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Fellowships, said that 80 percent of the program is funded by an endowment, which has lost value in the recession, and 20 percent by grants. To compensate for fewer resources, the number of fellows for 2009 was reduced to 24, one of whom dropped out for medical reasons, and a major conference on narrative journalism was suspended.

“The impact of the change in the newspaper industry and the economy has been felt,” Giles said. “This past year, attendance at the conference declined substantially. It cost us, and we decided to suspend it for review until after the economy gets better.”

Like others, the Scripps Howard Foundation’s investments are down this year, and cuts in the operating budget were made to maintain the same level of prize money given out with its National Journalism Awards, which recognizes excellence across multiple media platforms in 18 categories.
“Seventeen of the prizes continue to offer $10,000 in cash awards, and the Farfel Prize for Investigative Reporting has been reduced from $25,000 to $15,000 for the new competition year,” said Sue Porter, vice president of programs for the Scripps Howard Foundation. ”The reduction of the Farfel Prize, which is funded through an endowment in partnership with Ohio University and the Farfels, is the direct result of the economy.”

The cash prizes for the American Academy of Religion Awards for Best In-Depth Reporting on Religion, which recognize well researched news writing and opinion pieces on religion, also remain unaffected. However, the organization received about a third fewer entries this year than last year, according to Susan Snider, associate director of external relations for the American Academy of Religion.

“That seems most likely, to us, to be the result of the continuing economic problems of the news industry, and the downsizing and reassignment of religion beat reporters,” Snider said. “We reduced our advertising budget for the 2010 contests about 40 percent, due to the economy, but the $1,000 prize amount for first-place winners — in effect since 2005 — remains the same for 2010.”