Jillian Keenan


Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York with interests in press freedom, Shakespeare, international human rights, theater, and travel. As a 2010 - 2011 Fulbright Scholar in Singapore, Jillian used Shakespearean literature to examine local perspectives on taboo socio-political subjects such as government control and the death penalty. She received her master's degree from Stanford University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she focused on long-form magazine writing and press freedom. For her master's thesis, Jillian travelled to Havana to cover the ongoing conflict between new-media dissident journalists and Cuban government censors. She also received her B.A. in English Literature from Stanford. Jillian speaks English, Spanish, and just enough Omani colloquial Arabic to get into trouble. To learn more, please visit www.jilliannyc.com or find her on Twitter at @jilliankeenan.

5 ways to get a grant that will finance your journalism career

I’ll let you in on a secret: most of my career thus far was built with other people’s money.

I’ve conducted research in Cuba and Oman, lived in Singapore and England, and traveled around the world — all thanks to full or partial support of grants. Without those grants, my resume (and, more significantly, my life) would be pretty boring.

These days, grants are an amazing and invaluable way to boost a journalism career. There are hundreds of grants, and they are incredibly diverse. There are small grants to fund specific short-term reporting projects, and larger grants to fund months or even years of work. There are grants for every beat, interest, region and medium; you just have to know where to find them.

Here are five ways to get grant money:

Be specific in your application

Think of a topic, project or proposal that you are excited about. Then make it more specific. Then make it even more specific.

When I first began to design my Fulbright grant application, I knew right away that I wanted to look at portrayals of Shakespeare in Singapore. As I read samples of past successful applications, though, I realized that idea was still way too broad. So I started to narrow it down.

By the time I submitted my final grant application, I was proposing to examine three specific Shakespeare plays and their relationship to one single aspect of Singaporean culture. It was specific almost to the point of absurdity, but I loved the detail. As it turned out, the Fulbright Commission did, too.

Like a good reporter, do your research

Once you’ve chosen a proposal, seriously investigate the organizations that are most likely to care about your work.

“Really study what the foundation is interested in,” said Derek Willis, who (along with Serdar Tumgoren) won a Knight News Challenge grant for an Open Elections database project. “Tailor your idea and application to those topics, and pitch an idea that fills an existing need.”

Eve Fairbanks, a writer who’s currently working on a book about South Africa, also emphasized the importance of research.

“Instead of flooding the zone by sending the same grant pitch to a lot of organizations, target a few and research the hell out of them and do a really sharp, targeted application for that particular grant,” Fairbanks said via email. “When applying for both my grants, I tracked down and talked to a number of people about the application process and the grant itself — that was invaluable.”

Putting together a grant application takes time, energy and effort — so don’t waste your hard work. If you devote some of that energy toward researching the organization you’d like to receive funding from, your grant proposal is much more likely to succeed.

If a grant is only available to organizations, don’t get discouraged

A huge chunk of grants are designed to support nonprofit organizations but, as it turns out, there is a way for strong individual applicants to take advantage of them anyway.

“If a foundation is interested in giving you a grant, but they only fund organizations, you can go through a fiscal sponsor,” Kira Kay, executive director of the Bureau for International Reporting, said by phone. “They provide you with the administration and legal legitimacy of a nonprofit, so you can harvest foundation grants that aren’t normally available to individuals.”

Here’s how it works: Fiscal sponsors are official 501(c)(3) public charities that are eligible to receive nonprofit grants, but can pass their sponsorship onto individual grant applicants. By going through a fiscal sponsor, individuals can seek grants and solicit tax-deductible donations in the same way that nonprofit organizations can.

Consider grants that aren’t specifically for reporters

Grants that are specifically designed for reporters and writers, such as Alicia Patterson Foundation grants for print journalists, are an obvious first choice. But don’t stop there.

“Look for opportunities that may not be specifically just for reporting, but can get you overseas,” said Kay, who has used grant funding to support her work in Abkhazia, Burma and other places around the world. “They can enable you to base yourself for awhile and do that work while also doing your journalism.”

If you’d like to do an international project, look for grant funding from NGOs, aid organizations, or research foundations that focus on your country, region or topic of interest. For example, the Luce Scholars Program offers grants for projects in Asia, while Inter American Press Association Fellowships fund projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.

If you work in multimedia formats, consider grants for photographers, radio producers and filmmakers, such as the Aaron Siskind Foundation Grant or National Press Photographers Association Grants. Even broad grants that fund general research projects, like the Fulbright, can be great ways to subsidize long-term freelance reporting work.

Demonstrate potential for success

Here’s the best news for young and early-career journalists: I’ve found that if a project proposal is strong enough, many grant organizations don’t care how long you’ve been in the workforce; they just want to see that you can do what you’ve proposed to do.

“Grant organizations want to know that your project will succeed,” said Jina Moore, a freelance journalist who has used grants to fund several international reporting projects. “Sometimes convincing them that you can succeed means showing them that you’ve done it before.”

So for journalists who don’t have a well-established portfolio of clips (or don’t have clips that are relevant to their grant project), examples of self-published work can be just as useful.

“I’m a big believer in producing a project that you believe in that showcases your skills and putting it on your own website,” Moore said by phone. “People who are interested in funding don’t care whether your project has appeared on NPR — they just want to know that you can get a project done.”

If you already have the talent and drive to build a solid journalism career and all you lack is the funding, get busy. Develop a project proposal, send out a few applications and look for grant money to start flowing your way. Read more


5 tips for finding mentors in journalism, even if you don’t work in a newsroom

In 2009, I left journalism school full of vim, vigor, and visions of a working in a newsroom. I imagined myself reporting under a crack team of editors, who would push me to greater heights of professional success by day and regale me with stories from their own careers by night.

It was going to be awesome.

Of course, things didn’t go quite according to plan. Newspaper jobs were scarce, so I decided to freelance on the side while I looked for a full-time job. Before I knew it, I was (barely) making ends meet as a freelancer. I fell in love with the freedom and flexibility of independent journalism, but there was one problem: without long-term editors to supervise my work, it seemed like I’d never find those inspiring mentors I had imagined.

It’s a cruel conundrum. Young freelancers need mentors perhaps more than anyone else, but without a consistent set of colleagues, where can an independent journalist find sources of wisdom and advice? In a desperate attempt to answer that question, I near-stalked every journalist and potential mentor in the greater New York City area for the better part of a year.

Here’s what I found out:

First, join professional associations.

We’ve all heard it before: “It’s about who you know.” As it turns out, that’s true — and one of the best ways to build your personal network is by joining professional associations.

“Professional organizations open the door, but they’re just the first step,” Fara Warner, editorial director of AOL Media, said by phone. “You really have to do your homework on which organizations you want to join. Be clear about who belongs and what they offer.”

Through professional associations, freelancers develop life-long career contacts and connect with potential mentors. There are dozens of organizations that focus on different beats, journalistic mediums and minority groups, so odds are good that you’ll be able to find something to fit your specific background and interests. National organizations are great, but don’t forget to look into local groups too. After all, the best (and most involved) mentors will be the ones who have met you in person.

Don’t be afraid to email people you admire.

You’re a journalist, so you already know how to hunt down an email address. That’s a useful skill — so use it! If you read an article that you especially admire, email the reporter. If there’s a publication you adore, email the editors. After all, what do you have to lose?

For years, I was bizarrely afraid to send unsolicited emails. I had to pace around my old dorm room and listen to energetic songs like “Eye of the Tiger” before I could muster the courage to click “send” on a basic introductory email.

In hindsight, that was insane. It’s true that many editors and reporters just won’t respond to emails from un-established freelancers, but you’ll be surprised by how many do. If you keep that first email lighthearted, specific, and brief, you’ll increase your odds of getting a reply. If you can mention a mutual friend or professional colleague, that’s great. If you share an alma mater, that’s good too.

If the reporter you idolize doesn’t email you back at first, don’t despair. Follow-up a few months later. Then follow up a few months after that. In our field, persistence is a positive trait, so be persistent but polite. One long-suffering editor endured at least a dozen emails from me before he finally wrote back and agreed to meet up for coffee. Once I broke through that barrier, one of my most rewarding professional relationships was off to a great start.

Find out what you have to offer, and then offer it.

The best advice I heard all year came from Cathryn Ramin, an author and journalist whom I first met through (you guessed it) a professional organization and subsequent coffee date. She told me that I was approaching potential mentors backwards — that instead of asking for their advice, I should offer a service of my own.

“In the working world, people are primarily interested in what you can do for them, rather than the other way around,” Ramin told me once via email. “Tell the person what you have to offer, and how good you are at it. Perhaps this person needs a researcher? A statistics whiz? Someone willing to track down people who are hard to find?”

At first, I was skeptical. I didn’t think that I had anything worthwhile to offer an intimidating, successful journalist with years of experience. As it turns out, I was dead wrong. The first two times I offered research assistance to journalists I admire, they took me up on it — with spectacularly good results. I had an opportunity to showcase my research skills, demonstrate my willingness to help, and — best of all — develop relationships.

Attend lectures and seminars in your field — & find ways to stand out.

It goes without saying that lectures and seminars are fantastic ways to stay abreast of new journalistic trends and issues. But the lesser-discussed benefit of these seminars is that they usually have question-and-answer sessions after the main event. Take notes as audience members ask their questions; they’ll usually mention their names and places of employment.

If you hear a name or organization that interests you, quietly pull out your smart phone and do a Google search. Find one thing, such as a recent article, to mention when you approach the person after the seminar. Then choke down those butterflies and say hello.

The first time I did this, I was at a documentary showing about female journalists in war zones. While a respected female foreign correspondent managed the post-screening question-and-answer session, I discreetly read her most recent article on my iPhone. After the movie, I walked up to her, resisted the temptation to nervously throw up on her shoes, and told her how much I had enjoyed her story.

It’s easy to ignore an email, but it’s much harder to ignore a young freelancer who is standing three feet away. One week later, that foreign correspondent and I had lunch together. We’ve been in touch ever since.

Don’t limit yourself.

As a child of the ’80s, I grew up with a very clear idea of what a “mentor” looks like: Mr. Miyagi, the elderly Japanese karate master from “The Karate Kid.” As it turns out, though, mentors aren’t necessarily always the wise older souls I’d imagined; they can also be colleagues, a popular local blogger, or the intern down the hall.

“Don’t limit your search for mentors to senior managers. Look around and expand who you might learn from: potential mentors can be peers or the college intern,” Alicia Stewart, editor of CNN’s “In America” blog, said via email.  “There is a value in having more than one type of mentor in your life – you don’t have to find just one.”

As it turns out, being a freelancer can actually be a huge advantage in the hunt for mentors. We get to work with dozens of different people, publications and mediums every year, which gives us a very diverse range of colleagues to develop relationships with. If you’re looking for a newsroom job, those relationships might eventually help you land one. But far better than that, mentors can share skills, perspective, experience — and, yes, even the occasional inspiring tale from their own careers.

If you’re sincere and candid about the fact that you’re looking for mentors, you might just be surprised — as I’ve been — by how many incredible people step up to the plate. Read more


How to pitch (stories) like a girl

Hours after yet another study confirmed that male bylines continue to dominate the media, hundreds of women (and a few men) crammed into a standing-room only bar in Brooklyn to discuss ways to close the byline gap.

At “Throw Like A Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories,” which was organized by women’s nonfiction storytelling organization Her Girl Friday, a panel of experienced journalists and editors rejected suggestions that sexism or gender bias is exclusively responsible for the gap. Instead, they emphasized the need for young female journalists to develop the confidence to let rejection roll off their backs.

“You can’t see rejection as a real reflection of your value,” said New York Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan. “Every day, seasoned reporters pitch and get told no. Practicing pitching makes you a better pitcher. Rejection is part of the process.”

New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary, who hosted the discussion, said that as a young reporter she was so afraid of rejection that she would often agonize over her pitches for weeks or even months at a time. Meanwhile, she said, her male counterparts would happily send off pitches they had written in a day.

“I was afraid to take the leap,” said O’Leary. “Early on, I lacked the confidence to pitch as much as I wanted.”

Evan Ratliff, co-founder of Atavist and the only man on the panel, said that male journalists have “a natural sense of entitlement” that propels them to follow-up rejections with even more pitches. But for many female journalists, he said, one initial rejection tends to be the end of the relationship.

“Female writers will pitch us, we’ll say no, and we’ll never hear from them again,” said Ratliff. He admitted that only two of Atavist’s last 15 stories were written by women (a confession that prompted a good-natured round of booing), but emphasized his commitment to correcting that imbalance.

Katherine Lanpher, a freelance journalist and leader with The OpEd Project, an organization that addresses gender disparity in opinion journalism, suggested that the byline imbalance has very little to do with editorial bias. Instead, she said, the difference stems from the fact that many women simply do not feel emboldened to express their opinions to the same degree as men.

“It is a question of who feels entitled to take up the space,” Lanpher said, pointing out that even Wikipedia – which has no editorial gatekeepers – is largely produced by male contributors. “We’re here because those byline counts matter,” she added. “Whoever gets to tell the stories narrates the world.”

Lanpher encouraged the audience to pitch beyond the “Four F’s” of traditional women’s issues – food, furniture, fashion, and family – and move into the fields where female voices have been historically underrepresented.

“Security. The economy. Syria,” she said. “They’re all women’s issues.”

Although the majority of the discussion focused on confidence, the panelists also reviewed basic pitching guidelines: Spell the editor’s name correctly. Be familiar with the target publication. Explain why you are the best person to write the piece.  Keep pitches short. Always ask, “So what? Why me? Why now?”

Jessica Pressler, a contributing editor with New York magazine, added that it is very important for freelancers to reach a certain level of trust with their editors. Sometimes trust needs to be established through experience and in-person interaction, the panelists agreed, while other times it’s enough to simply mention past publications or a shared colleague in an email.

While the speakers disagreed on some minor details – Lanpher encouraged journalists to paste their pitches into the body of an email, for example, while Ratliff said that he prefers an introductory paragraph with an attachment – they emphatically agreed on the fundamental importance of pitching stories rather than broad topics.

“You have to find the characters,” said Ratliff. “If you can’t make people care about the characters, you don’t have the tension to pull your readers along.”

Her Girl Friday was founded in 2011 by Juliet Linderman, Talisa Chang, and Diana Diroy. The three women met under serendipitous circumstances, when college friends Linderman and Chang stuck up a conversation with Diroy at a bar. They quickly recognized their shared interest in journalism and envisioned a group that could foster supportive relationships between female journalists.

“Women tend to be competitive rather than collaborative,” said Linderman, 25. “We just really wanted to have a space to collaborate with other female journalists.”

The group developed such an enthusiastic following that almost 500 people registered for Tuesday’s event on its Facebook page, and organizers had to set up audio for the attendees who spilled into a second room. Most of the guests described themselves as print journalists, but there were a fair number of documentary filmmakers and photographers in the room, too. Throughout the evening, the crowd was friendly, convivial, and supportive – exactly the kind of atmosphere that Her Girl Friday organizers hoped to build.

“There’s not a lot of support for women in this industry,” said Ally Millar, 31, an early member of the group. “We thought it would be great to have this event to help women connect. If we band together, maybe we can move forward together.” Read more


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