A Journalism Golden Age? Not Just Yet: Behind a Funder's Critical Support for Freelancers

 photo:  F8 studio/shutterstoc

photo:  F8 studio/shutterstoc

Given the spate of new initiatives, fundraising success stories, and impressive gifts flowing to journalism outlets in the wake of Donald Trump's election, you might reasonably conclude that we're living in a kind of golden age for nonprofit journalism. 

Try telling that to freelance journalists.

Job security, by definition, is nonexistent. Social benefits like health insurance are tenuous at best. And it isn't exactly most lucrative gig in the world. How can the brave new world of philanthropy-backed journalism possibly be considered a thriving success if freelancers remain overworked, underpaid, and perpetually stressed out?  

This is why the new American Mosaic Journalism Prize is so, well, newsworthy. Created by the Heising-Simons Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting on stories about "underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape." Qualifying stories appeared in print, digital, audio, or TV mass media between July 2016 and August 2017.

The two inaugural winners, Jaeah Lee of San Francisco and Valeria Fernandez of Arizona, netted $100,000 apiece. This is a lot of money in a journalism field where freelancers who were once paid $1 a word are now often working for far less than that. 

Lee spent 17 months with a mother whose son was killed in a police shooting. Fernandez, meanwhile, has covered immigration issues in Arizona for more than 15 years. Her recent work included a story about the mental health struggles of a new immigrant.

Of course, the plight of the freelance journalist has never been a bed of roses. But as traditional and regional news outlets continue to contract, and as significant layoffs hit digital media sites like Mic and Vox, things keep getting worse. More unemployed or underemployed writers are now chasing the same gigs. 

We addressed this topic in light of a Project Word survey of freelance public interest journalists which found that 81 percent of respondents said they abandoned "otherwise viable and important public-interest reports" in the last five years due to lack of funding.

Forty-four percent said that they were being paid less today than for comparable pieces five years ago. And 92 percent of respondents experience financial anxiety on at least a monthly basis, and nearly half are more than $5,000 in debt.

None of this comes as a surprise to the Heising-Simons Foundation. 

"In today's journalism, freelancers are both vulnerable and valuable," it said in a statement. "With trimming of newsroom staff, many journalists are working without the support of an institution and with limited resources. And yet, some of the most important works of journalism come from these freelance journalists who commit long periods of time to their stories."

Launched in 2013, the foundation was founded by Mark Heising, a computer chip designer who holds several U.S. patents, and Liz Simons, a Spanish-bilingual teacher who founded an early childhood education program. (Liz is the daughter of mathematician, hedge fund manager, and philanthropist Jim Simons, whose net worth stands at $18 billion.)

The foundation's supports "media organizations working on issues related to our program areas," which include climate change, education, and science. We follow Heising-Simons super-closely because it's still evolving, making some interesting moves—including its recent push into media. 

Last year, the foundation announced support for five journalism outlets: ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Future Media Group, and Northeastern University.

At the time, I noted that "Heising-Simons is one of the more important new foundations to keep an eye on. There's a lot of money here, along with a lot of energy and ambition." 

In a journalism space whose success increasingly hinges on the work of freelance journalists, the foundation's abnormally generous prize checks off all three boxes.