To say it is difficult to win a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most prestigious award, would be an understatement. Each year, judges sift through more than 2,500 entries in 14 categories to award 21 prizes.
But winning a Pulitzer is even harder if you’re a freelancer.
This year, two freelance reporters did just that. Nadja Drost and Mitchell S. Jackson — writing for California Sunday Magazine and Runner’s World, respectively — both won prizes in Feature Writing.
Drost, a Canadian journalist based in New York City, spent five days inside the Darién Gap, an undeveloped section of rainforest and marshland at the Columbia-Panama border. There, she interviewed migrants crossing the dangerous region to reach the United States and followed one group across the border. The Pulitzer Board described her story “When can we really rest?” as “brave and gripping.”
“It’s easy to forget how people’s lives are being affected by policies and the extraordinary challenges and vulnerabilities that people are having in trying to seek refuge in the U.S.,” Drost said. “I would hope that readers can read this piece and see some of the people in the piece as multi-dimensional characters who had lives before they started their migration journey and gave up those lives, or were forced out of those lives.”
Jackson, a freelance writer, won his Pulitzer for the essay “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” which blends his personal experiences as a Black runner with reporting on the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Last year, Arbery, a Black man, was pursued and fatally shot by armed white men while he was jogging in Glynn County, Georgia.
Two other journalists were finalists for prizes in Editorial Cartoons and Breaking News Photography. The Pulitzer board recognized Marty Two Bulls Sr. for “innovative and insightful” cartoons that comment on news events from a Native American perspective and Joshua Irwandi for a photograph of an Indonesian coronavirus victim that was published in National Geographic.
Freelancers are eligible to win Pulitzers as long as their work is distributed by a news organization. Still, it is relatively rare for an independent writer to become a finalist, much less a winner. Most of the freelancers who have been named as finalists or winners in the past few years have been photographers or editorial cartoonists.
From 2017 to 2020, only six freelancers won Pulitzers — reporters Emily Green and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, editorial writer Jake Halpern, cartoonist Michael Sloan and photographer Daniel Berehulak. An additional 12 were named finalists.
Prior to 2014, freelance winners were even rarer. In 2013, Javier Manzano became the first freelance photographer to win a Pulitzer in 17 years. He was preceded by Stephanie Welsh and Charles Porter IV, who won Pulitzers in 1996 for Feature Photography and Spot Photography, respectively.
The vast majority of journalists who are up for a prize are employed by a professional news organization. One reason for this is that these institutions can fund larger teams capable of more ambitious work. Simply submitting a piece of work for consideration costs $75.
“It’s just so incredibly hard to find funding to do ambitious reporting and reporting that takes time, and news outlets just don’t have that kind of money for freelancers,” Drost said. “To give a freelancer with whom maybe they don’t have a sustained relationship, to trust them to do really big, ambitious projects, just doesn’t tend to happen.”
To fund her projects, Drost has had to apply for grants and fellowships. Her Darién Gap reporting, which led to the California Sunday Magazine piece and a PBS NewsHour documentary, was funded by the Pulitzer Center (which is not affiliated with Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prizes).
While staff journalists are often given more latitude to take their time on a big reporting project, freelancers are often juggling multiple assignments for multiple outlets. In addition to writing and reporting, they have to spend time pitching, preparing invoices and chasing after paychecks — essentially running their own business. Many also work part-time jobs to supplement their income.
“I know how hard it is as a freelancer, to be pitching and chasing checks, so to be acknowledged in this way certainly feels good,” Jackson said, adding that it also felt good as a fiction writer to win a journalism award.
The pandemic has made things even harder for freelancers. More than 70 newsrooms have closed over the past year, and even more are no longer taking pitches from freelancers after cutting their budgets. Closing borders imperiled the work of independent journalists who work overseas.
“It’s been a very tough, dry year,” Drost said. “Up until the pandemic, all of my work has been internationally based, and flights ground to a halt. So all of a sudden, I couldn’t do the kind of work that I was accustomed to doing.”
So when Drost and Jackson won their Pulitzers Friday, some independent journalists took to Twitter to celebrate.
“Congratulations to everyone who won a Pulitzer today, && I wanted to amplify this story by the brilliant @nadjadrost,” tweeted freelance journalist Wudan Yan. “I am so inspired by her work — and the reminder that even though Pulitzers are often won by staff reporters, that it’s possible to achieve as a freelancer.”
As of Friday evening, Drost had not had much time to celebrate herself. She had an application for a documentary film grant due at midnight.
“I just had two dear friends from journalism school, who started this journey with me, come over for dinner,” Drost said at 7 p.m., five hours before her deadline. “So I think we’re going to pop open some champagne, have dinner, and then before midnight, I have to finish this application.”
Poynter reporter Amaris Castillo contributed reporting.
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