Good news, science writers: Editorial budgets may be contracting, but foundations and other organizations continue to dole out money to journalists with important stories to tell.
Grants and fellowships have long been important funding sources, providing writers time and money to dig deeper into a story or subject area than they otherwise could. These sources of outside support range from small travel grants of a few hundred dollars to in-residence fellowships that last as long as a year and provide stipends of $50,000 or more to support academic studies or career-development goals. Some funders require a clear story plan ahead of time, with a target publication lined up, and many (but not all) require substantial experience.
As newspapers and magazines have cut staff and support for in-depth projects in recent years, competition for grants and fellowships has increased. Margaret Engel, executive director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which just awarded eight fellowships of either $20,000 (for six months) or $40,000 (for a full year), says applications for the fellowships have been rising steadily since about 2006, as more staff writers have turned to freelancing. “They’re all scrambling for ways to continue doing journalism so it doesn’t become a hobby,” Engel says. Applications to other foundations are also at an all-time high.
But persevering to snag one of these coveted sources of support can be well worth it: The end product is often among a writer’s best—and most impactful—work. A project about ocean acidification by writer Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, won awards from the Scripps Howard Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences. Stories supported by grants and fellowships also often appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and other anthologies.
What Do You Need?
The first step in pursuing grant or fellowship funding is figuring out exactly what you need. Are you just looking for travel support, or do you need living expenses to be covered too? Do you want to focus on a specific reporting project or explore a wider subject? Carefully read application materials to understand what different organizations will fund. Some organizations, including the Alicia Patterson Foundation, provide support for both reporting costs and living expenses. Others fund only “hard costs” associated with reporting a story, such as airfare, lodging, and transportation; they expect writers to be paid by publications that publish the stories that come out of their grants. “We don’t pay the grantees, as a rule,” says Tom Hundley, a senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which allocates over $1 million a year to projects covering health, environmental, economic, and conflict crises.
If you have ambitions that extend beyond one story—for example, if you want to do an in-depth multimedia project, explore a new area of science outside your realm of expertise, or focus on career development—your best bet is a long-term fellowship such as the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, which provides $65,000 plus housing and health insurance costs for 20 journalists to collaborate and take classes for ten months; the Nieman Foundation fellowship, which allows fellows to spend an academic year studying at Harvard and allocates a $65,000 stipend plus housing and other costs; or the Santa Fe Institute’s Journalism Fellowship, which offers a monthly-equivalent stipend of $7,000 and is aimed at helping journalists understand the science of complex systems.
After you’ve homed in on a grant or fellowship that fits your project or career goals, how do you make sure your proposal has a fighting chance amid the sea of applications? First, keep in mind that the people reading your application want to be reassured that the project you’re proposing is worth investing in. Those that fund specific reporting projects are looking for stories that haven’t been told before or novel approaches to established stories. And just as you would in a story, you’ll need to establish why your project matters, says Engel. Tell the judges, up top and clearly, “why this affects their lives and why they should know about it,” she says.
Proposals should also convey a sense of urgency, say both Engel and Jeanne Scanlon, who administers the grants program at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which spends about $25,000 per year to support environmental reporting projects. Applicants should explain why their stories should be covered now and why they need and deserve support from that particular grant or fellowship. Spend some time on the grant-making or fellowship organization’s web site to learn what kinds of stories it supports.
Organizations also want assurances that your story will be read. In general, they prefer that you’ve lined up a publication for the piece—or at least a potential home for it. “If you have some good place that’s made a commitment, everything flows from there,” says Daniel Grossman, a 2008 Alicia Patterson fellow. A letter from an editor showing interest goes a long way, agrees SEJ’s Scanlon.
The interest doesn’t necessarily have to be from a major publication. For instance, in his 2013 Pulitzer Center grant proposal, freelance science journalist Chris Berdik proposed a story on the ecological system of Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia to run in the Virginia Quarterly Review. The Pulitzer Center then helped place versions of the story in The New York Times and with PBS NewsHour.
Showing that you can meet your project’s demands is also key. “If you’re proposing an investigative feature, you should aim to have about 25 percent of the reporting done before you pitch it,” writes Madison Kahn, managing editor at Matter, in an email about the publication’s International Reporting Fellowship. “Editors can often tell if you’ve done due diligence on a story.”
If you want to go to a remote location to report, you should have a clear grasp not only of the nuances of your story but of the logistics required to carry out the project, says Engel. In considering environmental writer Jeff Fleischer’s 2008 proposal about the remote island nation of Tuvalu, which is threatened by sea-level rise, she says, “the judges had to have confidence in him that he had the ability to even get there.”
Engel points to two recent Alicia Patterson Foundation applications as models. One standout was an application from Theo Emery, who successfully proposed a piece about the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. Created during World War I, the service was responsible for developing the flamethrower and helping deploy the herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam. “Historical lookbacks have a tougher row to hoe,” says Engel, because it’s harder to demonstrate a sense of urgency for such stories. But Emery’s application connected history with implications for the present day, including governance, ethics, and wartime morality.
Another exemplary proposal, she says, came from 2015 fellow Russ Juskalian, who reported on rhinoceros conservation. “We always get a lot of environmental and conservation proposals,” Engel says. That means applications in that area must clear a high bar. While the foundation receives many environmental- and conservation-focused proposals, she says, these are often aimed at convincing readers about the urgency of the situation in question. “What elevated this one was that it was really solution-based, not just a recitation of the problem,” she says.
A Note of Caution
Berdik sounds a note of caution about grants that only cover hard costs, such as those from the Pulitzer Center. He says the Pulitzer funding he received to go to Cambodia for his story on Lake Tonle Sap was “invaluable.” The project took him about five months to complete, and he worked on little else. But despite placing stories with the Virginia Quarterly Review and The New York Times, his take-home pay was “not a living wage,” he says. That’s why “you have to choose a project that you’re passionate about, because even if you do get the funding, you’re not going to make money on these kinds of projects,” he adds. “The story came first.”
As commercial journalism revenues have decreased (the Pew Research Center estimated that in 2014, there was about $64 billion supporting American journalism, down a third from around $95 billion in 2006, in inflation-adjusted dollars), competition for grants and foundations has grown. That means good applications have to be turned down simply because there isn’t enough money to go around. But Grossman, who won an Alicia Patterson fellowship in 2008, urges would-be applicants not to be discouraged. He was a finalist for the fellowship in 2007, but didn’t get one that year. In his rejection letter, the foundation encouraged him to reapply, and his persistence was rewarded.
Geoffrey Giller is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He is a freelance writer and photographer and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, where he studied frogs and water contamination. He has written for Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications. A lover of all amphibians, Geoffrey especially adores salamanders and hopes one day to meet a hellbender in the wild. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoffreyGiller and see some of his photography at his website.