In January 2005, I enrolled in my first journalism course: a community college night class attended by tired people. In an attempt to unearth our enthusiasm for the subject, our professor started an e-mail discussion by asking why we wanted to be journalists.
The debate was lively and hilarious. My favorite response: “So I can ask drug dealers and members of the PLO nosy questions.” I was more or less swimming in the mainstream when I wrote that I had some “leftover romantic notions of investigative journalism from decades past.”
Central to my concept of the profession at the time were surreptitious entries into dark buildings, forcing presidents to resign and winning awards. I’m still pretty much there on every point save the last. On the last point, I’ve had a bit of a re-awakening.
I used to think of awards as the pinnacle of a career. In fact, I never had any idea you could even enter to win one. I just figured that when you were performing at a certain level, award committees would seek you out and give you money and plaques, after which you could feel free to drink yourself into early retirement as a has-been instead of a never-been. As I said, I came around on this point.
After nearly a decade in San Francisco, I moved to Boston in late 2007. Journalistically speaking, Boston was a hard nut to crack. I got work with one of the alternative weeklies, a regional magazine and some community papers. But for the life of me I couldn’t get anything at the Boston Globe. Then, in February 2008, my pitches started to get noticed.
I hadn’t become a better writer, and my pitches weren’t composed with more poetry. The only difference was that I had won an award. A few people in Washington, D.C., decided that something I wrote 12 months earlier was worthy of their stamp of approval (and their money, hallelujah for that). Almost from the moment I started adding the “winner of …” line to my digital signature, the Globe started responding to my messages. It might be correlation without causation, but I don’t think so.
Rather than the punctuation mark at the end of a career, doing your best to collect minor awards near the beginning of your career is a great strategy for bolstering your image. This is doubly true for freelancers, who need to scratch and claw and fight to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the scratching, clawing throng.
With a little searching, almost any working journalist can find an award their work might qualify for. If you’re in New England, you can apply to the New England Press Association Awards. If you’re in California, try for the Northern California SPJ chapter’s Excellence in Journalism or Freedom of Information Awards or the Los Angeles Press Club’s awards. Anyone can apply to the Association for Women in Communication’s Clarion Awards. And obviously, SPJ presents Sigma Delta Chi Awards every year.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. And many of SPJ’s local chapters conduct their own awards programs.
Aside from awards for general excellence, there are plenty of beat-specific awards, which are an excellent way to establish your familiarity with a subject to a new editor. The award I won last year was called the Cushing Niles Dolbeare Media Award, and it was presented for “reporting on the affordable housing crisis,” which couldn’t have hurt me when I started pitching stories about foreclosures in the fall.
Applying for fellowships is another excellent way to fill the sometimes cavernous financial gaps between assignments. Like awards, fellowships come in a huge variety of flavors. The Carter Center offers a mental health reporting fellowship. The Soros Foundation offers something called the Open Society Fellowship. The Dart Center offers a fellowship for reporting on violence and trauma. If you look hard enough, you’ll find something that suits your needs and niche.
You can find listings for awards, fellowships and other opportunities at the back of Quill each October, December and January. Also watch SPJ’s blog for freelancers at spj.org/blog/blogs/freelance.
The other nice thing about awards: No politicking is involved. Joseph Kennedy might have fixed the Pulitzer in 1957, but no one is power-brokering for an IRE award or a Clarion. The judges on smaller awards are concerned with picking the best work that makes it to their desk, and there is no penalty for being a freelancer. I was asked to be one of the judges for the Cushing Niles Dolbeare Media Award this year, and I know when I sit down to review submissions I’m not going to care whether their bylines begin with “staff writer, “contributor,” “special to” or “correspondent.” Awards are rare opportunities to play on an even field in a business obsessed with cache.