HuffPost's Ferguson Fellow: 'This is huge for me'
Mariah Stewart hasn't always been sure about her future in journalism. She remembers calling her mom in tears on her way to a feature writing class late last year, unsure if she'd be able to finish journalism school. She was having trouble finding a beat she was passionate about, and it was making her anxious.
That changed when she began reporting on the shooting of Michael Brown. Stewart, a 23-year-old freelance journalist who graduated from Lindenwood University in May, started covering Brown's shooting days after it occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, without any financial backing because "it was news," she said.
This week, the story suddenly turned into a yearlong assignment for Stewart after she was named the recipient of The Huffington Post's Ferguson Fellowship. The program, a partnership with crowdfunding platform Beacon Reader, aims to crowdfund $40,000 to finance reporting on the turbulent suburb for a year.
Now, she juggles her day job — she works as a bra fitter at an area mall — and reporting on a national story that she intends to follow long after other media organizations have departed.
“They need me at my job, but they understand that this is huge for me, covering Ferguson,” Stewart said.
The balance has been difficult. During her first week covering the story, Stewart says she lost 10 pounds because she was constantly busy, had no time to visit the gym and frequently forgot to eat. She also misses stories while she's at work and spends her breaks trying to stay updated.
Stewart began covering the story two weeks ago, when she moved in with her sister in the St. Louis suburb Florissant, about 15 minutes from Ferguson. The day after she arrived, Brown was killed. Two days later, she decided to go to Ferguson with a friend from journalism school because they knew the story was important.
On Aug. 12, she heard that Beacon Reader was looking for freelancers reporting from Ferguson, so she contacted them and received funding for a week of reporting. She began publishing stories on Beacon Reader — she's written five since Aug. 13 — and appeared on the BBC to give her account of fleeing from police tear gas while covering a protest.
“By the time I made it to my car, I was coughing, choking, I threw up, tears were running down my face,” Stewart said.
Then, this past Tuesday, she got a call from Beacon Reader cofounders Dan Fletcher and Adrian Sanders, who offered her the fellowship. So far, $10,000 of the $40,000 goal has been raised. That number is encouraging for crowdfunding campaigns, which are characterized by spurts of donations at the beginning and end of the fundraising period, Fletcher said.
During the fellowship, Stewart will work with Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly to investigate how St. Louis County police purchased its military-grade equipment and report on efforts to reform the police department, according to Beacon Reader. Stewart says she also wants to see whether the unity that has brought the Ferguson community together in the wake of Brown's shooting will last.
HuffPost has endured some sniping from journalists who say the company should finance the fellowship itself, rather than rely on reader support. Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim responded to the criticism on HuffPost Live Friday, saying the company couldn't spare a reporter for a year to report on the developing situation. Asked about the criticism, Fletcher told Poynter, "I don’t think anyone has a good answer to that. And I think the snark at the Huffington Post isn’t helping the journalism industry as a whole.”
Stewart says she intends to keep her day job for now — crowdfunding isn't paying all of her bills yet — while she continues to report and write from Ferguson. Although working two jobs is a struggle, it has its perks. Less than a year after wondering whether she could finish journalism school, she was invited back to Lindenwood University this week to speak to a class about her burgeoning career.