April 28, 2022

Freelance journalist Ryan Christopher Jones was at his family’s home in Clovis, California, on Jan. 3 when he received an email from the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, California. The foundation’s director of communications wanted to talk to Jones about his work.

The message didn’t feel out of the blue to Jones, a Mexican-American photojournalist and anthropologist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, ProPublica and The Washington Post. He gets these kinds of emails all the time, and he’s a big proponent of mentoring people and helping people understand what it’s like to be a freelancer.

When they spoke on the phone a few days later, Jones candidly shared with the communications director, Brian Eule, a glimpse into his freelance life and his plans for the future. Toward the end of the call, Eule told him about the Heising-Simons Foundation and how they have a big prize they give out to two freelance journalists every year. And Jones, by the way, was one of the winners.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean? I didn’t enter this thing.’”

He had been secretly nominated for and won the American Mosaic Prize, awarded to freelance journalists for excellence in long-form, narrative or deep reporting about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the American landscape.

Jones said he had known about the American Mosaic Prize, but there was never a chance in his mind that he would have been a winner. When he found out how much the prize was worth, he cried. He would receive $100,000. So would Julian Brave NoiseCat, a journalist and member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, whose work has appeared in outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. The official public announcement came in February.

“I’m still overwhelmed. It’s not very often that freelancers are given the opportunity to really reflect on our work like this financially and monetarily,” Jones said earlier this month. “I feel incredibly gracious for winning. It’s still overwhelming. It’s kind of life-changing money.”

Jones said he was able to pay off credit card debt he accumulated while on freelance assignments.

“It’s an incredible luxury, and I know that a lot of people are not extended the same opportunities,” he said. “I am very thankful for it.”

Married couple Mark Heising and Liz Simons, who comes from a wealthy family, established the foundation in 2007. According to the foundation’s website, some of its work focuses on advancing sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enabling groundbreaking research in science, enhancing youth education and supporting human rights.

The foundation began exploring the idea of the American Mosaic Prize in 2017, when it was creating a small journalism portfolio, according to Eule. “The idea behind the journalism portfolio was that journalism is critical to a healthy democracy, and so what ways could the foundation support that?” he said. “And a big aspect of that portfolio then, and still to this day, is about underrepresented voices and marginalized communities, and underrepresented content in journalism.”

At the time, the foundation supported a few grants to nonprofit organizations, but wanted to also lift up the work being done by individual journalists. The $100,000 prize is unrestricted, the funds of which come directly from the foundation, according to Eule. He said the Heising-Simons family contributes money to the foundation, but that the foundation is its own entity that makes grants every year. There’s no fundraising.

Julian Brave NoiseCat, a journalist and member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, was another recipient of the American Mosaic Prize this year. (Courtesy: Emily Kassie)

Hannah Allam, a national security reporter for The Washington Post, was one of the first judges for the American Mosaic Prize. She was working at BuzzFeed News when she landed on the foundation’s radar.

“The more I heard about it, the more fascinating I found it because there was just nothing like it in terms of the kind of work it honors — underrepresented communities,” Allam said.

The amount of prize money also caught her attention.

“And then that mystery factor … this is work that a lot of these journalists are going to do, whether anyone sees it or not,” Allam said. “And so I love the idea of letting hardworking, dedicated journalists know, ‘We see you. We appreciate your contribution to our understanding of the world. It’s valuable, and here’s one way to honor it.’ I thought that whole concept was incredible.”

In selecting such a large dollar amount for the American Mosaic Prize, Eule said they were hoping to enable these journalists to do important work and give them a lot of freedom, while also shining a spotlight on them and the significance of this kind of journalism. And he added that the reason it’s unrestricted is that it’s not a grant for specific work, but a recognition of the recipients’ work and talent.

“We don’t want it to restrict them in any way,” Eule said. “The idea is, ‘These are amazing leaders. These are people with incredible talent. Give them resources and let them decide what to do with them.’”

Allam said that a renaissance of in-depth and longform storytelling and a partial reckoning in the media on race and journalism created a demand for longform freelance stories. “It’s interesting to see the evolution in the valuing of this kind of work,” she said. “So I think it’s really important that Mosaic is still there to say, ‘Look at this incredible longform freelance journalism that’s being done. You’ve probably never heard of it. You might never have heard of this journalist.’”

There’s this question, Allam said, that with such a huge cash prize, will recipients stop writing for a year, chill out, maybe write a book? The stories judges have heard speak to how vulnerable one can be as a freelancer. Allam noted that some recipients have said they can now get health care. “It’s not just the luxury of writing,” she said. “It’s basic necessity. So I say, anything we can do to support that work and make life easier for those doing it, is worthy.”

Jones plans to pursue his Ph.D. in social anthropology at Harvard University this fall and said he’s indebted to the Heising-Simons Foundation for recognizing his work and giving him the latitude to live a bit more freely.

“I think it’s really noble because we’re on the bottom of the food chain, in a lot of respects, because we don’t have newsroom political power. We’re stringers, and so it puts us in a position to take what we can get,” he said. “So being able to be recognized, to be supported like this, is validating in a really, really huge way.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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