In Depth

Programs See Increase in Freelancer Applications

 By Dinah Eng

With the media industry in transition, some journalism award programs and fellowships are seeing fewer applicants, while others are getting an increase in submissions, particularly from freelance journalists.

As industry layoffs have cut resources devoted to specialty beats — eliminating science and heath, the environment, education and other types of niche reporting — related awards programs have felt

the pinch in participation. 

“We’re all hurting for qualified people who are going to affect change in the newsroom,” said Arlene Morgan, associate dean of prizes and continuing education at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who oversees the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting. 

“Everybody’s making the cuts and doing short-term thinking. Nobody at newspapers is letting people go off on leave. This year, our winners are two former Newsweek writers and the former education reporter for The Sun in New York, which went out of business.”

Judges looked at 40 to 50 applications, mostly from freelancers, for the fellowships, which offer a $75,000 stipend and up to $10,000 in travel and expenses for three education journalists a year to study at Columbia and work on a reporting project about the American education system.

In response to industry changes, beginning with the 2009-2010 fellowship year, the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University has changed its emphasis to focus on journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.

“Before, people worked to improve their own journalism and themselves, which they’ll still do, but now we’re looking for people to come and work on solving a journalism challenge that we’ll then publish on our Web site,” said Jim Bettinger, director of the Knight Fellowships, responding to the need to foster high quality journalism during a period of industry transformation.

Bettinger said that over the years the number of U.S. applicants has inversely reflected whatever is happening in the economy. When the economy is good, the number of applications goes down, and when the economy is bad, applications rise. Knight fellowships are also offered for international journalists.

 “Our applications were up quite a bit this year, from 88 to 166 from the U.S. applicants,” Bettinger said. “We’re looking for outstanding people who can make contributions for several years, who are more entrepreneurial, with more or less experience than previous fellows, who have good ideas to work on.”

One of the competitions with a large monetary prize is The Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment, which gives a $75,000 annual award for exemplary nonfiction in all media, and three $5,000 Awards of Special Merit to runners-up.

Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island in Narragansett, said the number of entries for the award has remained steady, but she expects that to change as the media industry changes.

“We continue to get entries from newspapers ranging from The New York Times to small, local papers,” Menezes said. “We get broadcast entries, a lot of magazines; and Web-based journals and nonprofits like ProPublica are entering. We’re definitely seeing the effects of the economy, though. Last year, there were many who said they weren’t sure their news organization would pay the $40 entry fee.”

She notes that less than 100 entries were submitted, with the prize going to USA Today for a series that resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency starting a new program to monitor air quality outside of schools.

She said jurors look for how an entry relates to the norm for its medium, and the impact it has on an issue. Book entries are also encouraged.

“We’re trying to recognize exceptional reporting that goes beyond the norm for its medium,” Menezes said. “One of the factors that the jurors have found to be very important is the degree to which the story has multimedia components. The jurors don’t expect a story out of a weekly paper to have the same components as a national daily, but the multimedia tie-ins are great. 

“The funders decided to make it a large cash prize to send the message that this is really important work. We want to give the stories a leg up to get a broader audience. The Metcalf Institute (metcalfinstitute.org) also does science training for journalists.” 

One of the longest running science journalism award programs is the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which was initially established in 1945 with the Westinghouse Foundation. The program is now in its first year under a new endowment from the Kavli Foundation, which has allowed AAAS to create two new awards in the television broadcast category for spot news feature and in-depth reporting.

“I’m concerned about the newspaper categories, because there’s a real stress on print reporting,” said Earl Lane, AAAS senior communications officer and contest administrator. “We had 60 entries in the large newspaper category last year, and 34 this year, so there’s no question that’s gone down. At the same time, those still doing science writing are doing high quality work.”

Lane said there were 33 total television entries this year, fewer than last year’s 58, which was a record high. Online entries from outlets such as ScientificAmerican.com, NationalGeographic.com and ArsTechnica.com continue to rise, reflecting an industry trend toward posting material online, and helping to make this year’s 382 total entries more than last year’s total of 331 entries.

One indication of the drop in specialized reporting in the media industry is illustrated with the Max Karant Journalism Awards for excellence in aviation coverage, given annually by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

“There were no Karant Awards given this year, but that was because we did not find any worthy candidates, not because of any financial issues,” said Chris Dancy, media relations director for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, adding reassuringly, “The Karant Awards still exist.”