Meet the tiny nonprofit behind the world's most ambitious journalism
Iona Craig, a prototypical high-wire journalist without much of a safety net, recently found herself in a broken-down car with no phone reception by a riverbed in war-torn Yemen.
The Irish-British freelancer was taking a labyrinthine three-day, 1,000-mile trek to a desolate village that was site of botched and murky raid by Navy SEALS. Given the perils of reporting in Yemen, she didn't have to worry about any international competition if and once she got there, with only one local Yemeni reporter and a Yemeni human rights activist there.
With the help of a public bus, one friend who drove her six hours, another guy who drove her six hours, several potent sheiks and a local activist with a car, she essentially traveled three sides of a rectangle to avoid bandits and Al Qaeda on a more direct and efficient route. She finally made it in a borrowed pickup truck, replete with 30 bullet holes in the windshield from the SEAL raid in the village of al Ghayil, and only after the driver "nearly killed us all as he drove like an absolute maniac up and down rocky gorges for the last hour of the journey" to the village.
When she finally got home safely to Cheltenham, England, she produced an exposé for The Intercept that left scant doubt about the lethal ineptitude shown by the U.S. military. She figures she earned $11,000 for three months work for the Intercept, Harper's and IRIN, a humanitarian aid news service created by the United Nations, including spending about 43 days in Yemen.
"I simply would not have been able to do it without the Pulitzer Center," she said by phone, especially given the $2,000 one-way plane fare just to get back to London.
That's Pulitzer Center, not Pulitzer Prizes. Same family, different generation, different operation. And more practically impactful in the wake of an implosion of journalism business models.
Critically, it supplemented Craig's modest fees from several organizations for which she was doing unrelated Yemen stories before word of the deadly raid got out. Otherwise, she would not have had the money to get to Yemen (even though The Intercept extended her Pulitzer-paid expenses including insurance by a needed two weeks for the unexpected reporting).
But that's part and parcel of what the Washington-based center does. It assists all kinds of journalists: freelancers, which are increasingly relied upon and exploited as many full-service overseas bureaus vanish; and famous organizations, such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and "PBS NewsHour," that need extra resources to do their most ambitious journalism.
The end result has been an impressive, 10-year-legacy in which the Washington-based nonprofit has supported 715 separate projects, a total of 6,168 stories in various outlets and dealt with 571 publication partners.
"The Pulitzer Center has become a cornerstone of American journalism," said Nick Schifrin, special correspondent with "PBS NewsHour" who's benefited from their support of his own serious labors in Kenya, Eastern Europe, Mexico and Cuba.
"At a time when fewer and fewer media outlets have the interest or income to launch in-depth international projects, the Pulitzer Center facilitates some of the world's most important stories," Schifrin said.
They've been "a terrific partner," said Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of The New Yorker.
"We do not have endless sums of money," she said. "We have a tight budget. And we rarely assign somebody who is not a staff writer, especially abroad, and especially to a conflict area."
But that's what happened with Pulitzer's financial help — "this was a flyer for them," Wickenden concedes — as young prodigy Ben Taub wound up going to conflict-ridden Syria and proving to be a fearless and terrific reporter who dug up evidence of the Assad regime's ties to mass torture. The result was "The Assad Files."
The journalism universe doesn't get much diverse than Craig, an often modestly compensated freelancer, albeit with a sophisticated understanding of and eclectic contacts in Yemen, and The New Yorker, a bastion of erudition and creativity located in spacious confines of One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.
But just consider how the Pulitzer Center helped to subsidize 118 reporting projects last year, resulting in more than 600 stories in more than 150 media outlets. It's a reminder that there is a news universe beyond the American media's understandable obsessions with Donald Trump or other domestic concerns, be they low, middle- or high-brow.
— An entire advertising-less issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted to a single, 42,000-word article, "Fractured Lands," on the debacle of the Middle East reported by Scott Anderson and photographed by Paolo Pellegrin. There was a virtual-reality video on the retaking of Fallujah and no shortage of resulting symposia and coverage of the story.
— Grantee Taub's New Yorker effort on the atrocities of the Assad regime. Read it in conjunction with ongoing reports by the independent United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria and there can be no doubt that ISIS met its odious match in the Assad regime.
— A Financial Times multimedia effort, "The Great Land Rush," on how global land grabs undermine societies as they inspire deadly conflicts. Reporters Tom Burgis, Michael Peel and Pilita Clark report from Myanmar, Ethiopia and Indonesia, along the way winning the 2016 European Newspaper Award for Concept and Innovation Online.
—"PBS NewsHour" ran a four-part series based on growing frictions between Russia and Europe, with correspondent Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin trekking from Estonia to Ukraine. The same duo did a two-part series on U.S.-Mexico relations after Trump's election; a three-part series on terrorism and corruption in Kenya; and a segment in Havana on Fidel Castro's passing.
— The New Yorker published the handiwork of other Pulitzer grantees as Katherine Zoepf detailed the tribulations of female attorneys in Saudi Arabia; George Black examined life along the Ganges River tied to the government desire to clean up the heavily polluted, if sacred body of water; and Luke Mogelson went to the battlefield to inspect the war against ISIS.
— In one of several collaborations with The Guardian, Pulitzer grantee Christopher de Bellaigue crafted a report on a controversial plan to “de-radicalize” potential jihadists in the French prison system.
— Grantee Robin Shulman explored both Canada's matter-of-fact acceptance of Syrian refugees for The Washington Post Magazine and a Syrian family living in Des Moines for Time magazine.
— With new nuclear-armed states adding to arsenals, grantee Kit R. Roane revisited the prospect of “nuclear winter” in a “Retro Report” documentary for The New York Times.
— An Erik Vance wrote National Geographic cover story, which was based on his book "Suggestible You," that dissected the science underlying the placebo effect.
By one measure, awards, it was also a banner year, with more than two dozen in print, multimedia, photography and film given for Pulitzer-assisted reporting. Those included a joint investigative effort on Australian mining in Africa with The Center for Public Integrity and The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, photojournalist Daniella Zalcman exploring the legacy of Canada's Indian Residential Schools and a film by Karim Chrobog’s two-part non-broadcast documentary on food waste, "Wasted: USA & South Korea."
So far in 2017, it's backed 20 projects and 104 stories, including several by Craig.
Its partners this year include Time (on four refugee mothers and babies seeking asylum in Europe), The Atlantic (Saudi efforts to export Salafism to Indonesia), NPR, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (the impact of nuclear power on climate change), The Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek (the "migrant trail" to smuggle people to Europe from Africa by reporter Michael Scott Moore, who himself was held hostage by Somali pirates for three years), Science Magazine, Scientific American, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (diseases transferred from animals to humans) and Undark, among others.
The process is not especially complicated, as the tale of Jon Cohen and "PBS NewsHour" demonstrated.
Cohen, a veteran reporter at Science Magazine and an AIDS expert, pitched Pulitzer five different stories about a recurring epidemic people had lost track of, including in U.S. cities such as New York, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Cohen, correspondent-editor William Brangham and producer Jason Kane reported from Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and across the U.S. for what proved to be a six-part series with pieces of far greater length (eight-, nine- and 10-minutes) than you'd typically likely see on traditional network newscast.
"It was not driven by the news cycle. Nobody was clamoring to hear about it," said Brangham, making the point that Pulitzer backed an effort on AIDS that was simply deemed important. Its ultimate backing exceeded $70,000.
"For years we have all seen changes in the industry and challenges of covering foreign or conflict zones news due to the expense," said "PBS NewsHour" executive producer Sara Just. "Fewer organizations have overseas staff."
"But our commitment to telling important stories in important parts of the world has not changed. So the challenge is now how to do it in an effective, cost-conscious way. You can't tell those from Washington," where "PBS NewsHour" is based.
What she ultimately finds most "remarkable" about Pulitzer is it is "really story-driven. They want to do great journalism. It's not just underwriting organizations and saying we trust you, which would be nice, too. They actually want to talk about these stories and be a partner."
Yochi Dreazen, foreign editor at Vox, came to know Pulitzer while at The National Journal (he was previously at The Wall Street Journal).
"The resources weren't there at National Journal, so we looked for ways to fund trips. They funded one to Afghanistan." They also funded (to the tune of about $17,000) Dreazen reporting that resulted in an 11,000-word piece on in the war in northern Bali for The Atlantic, as well as a trek to Israel for The New Republic.
Having really met them as a writer, he now deals with them as an editor. They've partnered on several gambits, including a photo essay on climate change in Iran and on domestic workers kept as slaves in Hong Kong.
"As a reporter, they were a way to fund trips. Now, as an editor, it's a way for me to work with freelancers I wouldn't otherwise know," namely those who first pitch Pulitzer, which will then look to marry writer and a media outlet.
This all stems from a critical relationship between Jon Sawyer, who runs the foundation, and the Pulitzer family.
From the start more than ten years ago, there's been the role of Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the founding chair of Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis and widow of Joseph Pulitzer III, a grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper kingpin after whom the prizes are name.
The grandson was long-time editor and publisher at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the long-time chair of the Pulitzer Prizes board, and the person who hired Sawyer on the paper's editorial right out of Yale in 1974. So he's worked with them his whole career, 31 years with the Post-Dispatch (25 of them in DC) and now 11 years at the Pulitzer Center. We met during his tenure as Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau chief, a post he held from 1993-2005.
Emily Pulitzer gave him the seed money to start the Pulitzer Center in 2005, along with David and Katherine Moore. David was also a Joseph Pulitzer grandson and, after his death, Katherine replaced him on our board. Her son, Richard Moore, is now on it, as well, as are Joel Motley, a past co-chair of Human Rights Watch; David Rohde, a reporter at Thomson Reuters; and Linda Winslow, former longtime executive producer of "PBS NewsHour."
Going back to 2005, Sawyer has raised about $31.6 million to support the Pulitzer Center's journalism and a large variety of education programs.
The outreach is impressive. It's got 31 members of a Campus Consortium, which range liberal arts institutions such as University of Chicago and The College of William & Mary to graduate journalism schools, including Northwestern's Medill and American University, to more specialized partnership, such as public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and climate change at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
In addition, it works with elementary and secondary schools St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as others in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston, along with a NewsArts initiative (exploring the intersection of news and arts) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. All of that and more are detailed on the education page of its site.
Financially, the $31.6 million figure does not include $1.5 million toward the establishment of an endowment, which the center raised with the help of a matching grant from the Kendeda Fund or Emmy Pulitzer's own challenge grant last year to match up to $12 million in contributions toward an endowment.
The biggest recent donors have been the Foundation for a Just Society — a two-year $500,000 grant to back work on gender issues, including a Gender Lens conference June 3-4 at the National Press Club — and the MacArthur Foundation, which gave us a five year $2.5 million general-support grant last year and has also given us $250,000 per year for our Catalyst Fund, which creates strategic partnerships with big media outlets with an emphasis on innovative multimedia projects.
That was the source of funding "Fractured Lands" at the New York Times Magazine, as was the six-part "PBS NewsHour series on AIDS, which included a companion piece in Science and a feature in BuzzFeed. The latter is just one of many newer entrants into the media marketplace with which Pulitzer has partnered, with others including Huffington Post Highline, Undark, The Intercept, City Lab, Rewire, Roads and Kingdoms, Caravan and Medium.
When it comes to the nitty gritty of approving journalism, about 70 percent of the grants result from pitches from journalists themselves. Most, but not all, comes from freelancers, but a few also from folks on the fulltime staff of 18. They include Tom Hundley, a former longtime Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, who is senior editor, and Nathalie Applewhite, the managing director. Hundley does the initial review of grant applications and also reviews the status of those every few weeks with Applewhite and Sawyer.
But there are also the regular communications with major media partners in which it pitches story idea that originated with freelancers without any real ties to those partners. And, by now, the center has a pretty sophisticated take on what might appeal to whom.
Sawyer puts it pithily when it comes to Pulitzer's place in a much larger journalism universe.
"We are in the broccoli space, not cocktails and desserts space. The fact that we have created this model, and raised the money we have, should be reassuring to anybody trying to be in that space."
It should be. Yes, it constitutes occasional and splashy triples and home runs in a business that could use far more singles and doubles on a daily basis. Rather than the sort of once-every-five-years series on foster care disasters that a local newspaper now might opt for — replete with a contest-driven, "look-what-we-discovered! air — consumers might benefit far more by the once routine coverage of state departments of children and family services that would make irrelevant the irregular spasm of newsroom interest via a briefly deployed investigative team.
But such a turning back of the clock may be naïve in a world in which so much routine coverage of overseas events is also disbanded. It explains the gratitude for Pulitzer's handiwork by Liz Sly, a superior Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post and formerly a long Chicago Tribune overseas mainstay.
From personal experience, she knows both the fragility of being an overseas freelancer and the greater emotional, psychological and financial security in working full-time for a big and profitable organization. You need not fret over whether you can handle a $100 hotel room.
"These days, far fewer news organizations have staff correspondents overseas than used to be the case, and the ones they do have are often too stretched keeping up with the news to break away in order to focus more deeply on the issues behind the news," Sly said.
"Even the news organizations that do maintain an interest in foreign news tend to have smaller budgets for freelancers than was the case when I was starting out in the 1980s."
And that's why, even amid the hand wringing over journalism's current imploding business models, one should laud Pulitzer for shedding light on a lot of places, including some that are very dark.
It offers what Sly calls an "invaluable opportunity for freelancing who might not otherwise be able to afford to go out into the field, not only to get the funds to pursue their ideas but also the exposure that can be so elusive."