Top-Notch Panel Named For $75,000 Grantham Prize

February 15, 2005

 

 By MICHAEL MANSUR

A prestigious group of journalists has been named to judge the newly established Grantham Prize, North America's largest journalism prize established to recognize reporting on the environment.

The Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment will provide a $75,000 cash award each year to one journalist or a team of journalists in recognition of exemplary reporting on the environment.

Named recently as judges: Robert Semple Jr., associate editor of the editorial pages, The New York Times; David Boardman, managing editor, The Seattle Times; Dennis Bueckert, national affairs reporter with Canadian Press in Ottawa; Diane Hawkins- Cox, senior producer with the CNN Science and Technology Unit; and Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Grantham Prize will be administered by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.

Funding for the prize is provided by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. The deadline for entries is March 24, with the winning journalist or reporting team announced in July.

"We are living in a world that tragically underestimates environmental problems. Independent and accurate journalism offers great hope in this regard. We believe that this prize will highlight the need for insightful coverage and the awareness such reporting can bring about," said Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham, founders of The Grantham Foundation.

Award criteria and other information on The Grantham Prize are available online at www.granthamprize.org.

SEJournal recently spoke with Bud Ward, prize administrator at the Metcalf Institute, about the new prize.

Why is such a large prize necessary?

Ward: The funders, Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham, feel strongly that contemporary society, both domestically and internationally, significantly underestimates environmental problems we face. "Nothing offers a better hope in this regard than independent and accurate journalism," they said in establishing the new prize program.

In addition, all of us in this field recognize the challenges that journalists – certainly including environmental reporters – face day in and day out in the current competitive journalism climate. We recognize and appreciate the enormous potential of the digital age while at the same time being concerned about the potential negative implications for traditional, responsible journalism and the highest standards of journalism.

The shrinking news hole and dwindling air time many environmental journalists face each day combine with concerns posed by consolidation of media ownership, loss of readers and audiences at many news organizations, and shrinking advertising revenues. All these are among the factors figuring into the need to further recognize and reward outstanding environmental journalists and call attention to their work with a prize of this size.

How much attention has the prize announcement received?

Ward: There are clear signs of a healthy and ongoing "buzz" among journalists about the Grantham Prize, perhaps not surprising given the substantial $75,000 award. Needless to say, the mere establishment of the prize itself was not expected to "make news" on its own. At this point, the key audience we want to be aware of the prize is editors and reporters, and not their audiences, who we believe will come later. Among journalists, the prize has gotten substantial early recognition, in part the result of display ads in American Journalism Review and Columbia Journalism Review, references in a number of online publications and as a result of distribution to newsrooms via the PRNewswire.

That said, there continues to be lots of outreach to newsrooms ongoing and planned over coming months as we build toward the March 24 postmark deadline for submitting entries for the first annual prize. Pieces aired or published during 2005 will be eligible for the 2006 prize.

Have you heard any negative reaction from journalists to the size of the prize?

Ward: The lede, of course, was the size of the prize – $75,000 to a single journalist or team of journalists. The Metcalf Institute prize committee that worked with The Grantham Foundation to structure the prize clearly anticipated that the size of the award would be the major focus of most journalists' reactions. That's how it's working out.

There have also been a number of questions about eligibility. Are book authors published in 2005 potential entrants if they are not themselves "journalists"? (Answer: Yes, but the entries will be judged by the highest journalism standards.) Can a reporter's body of work throughout the year be submitted as a single entry if those pieces deal with a particular environmental issue? (Answer: Series must be identified as such in the initial release.) I'm certain that the newly established panel of prize jurors will grapple with other such questions as their work gets under way.

As for reactions to the prize, a particularly interesting one comes from Frank Blethen, third-generation owner and Publisher of The Seattle Times:

"This is awesome! There are three monumental issues which will determine if our country can sustain an adequate quality of life and if our American democracy will survive three centuries: The environment, inclusions and tolerance, and an independent watchdog press. This is an amazing commitment to our future and to two of these critical issues."

I think that sentiment may resound well in so many newsrooms and among environmental reporters constantly clamoring for more space for their stories.

There has not been as much "negative reaction" from journalists to the size of the prize as I personally perhaps had anticipated. Some have characterized the dollar amount as "disproportionate," and at least one reporter went so far as describing it as "obscene." Needless to say, reporters with those concerns are unlikely to submit an entry.

On the other hand, we've heard some prominent academics joke that "Wow, perhaps I should get back into environmental reporting!" and jest that "I didn't know environmental journalism paid so well!"

Anecdotally, I get a sense that more of the negative reaction, such as it is, may come more from academics teaching environmental journalism than from working reporters themselves. It's possible, of course, that they're just not telling us to our face, but overall the reactions we hear are decisively enthusiastic, and we pick up lots of traffic from various reporters about plans to submit entries. We're being advised to prepare for a deluge of entries come next spring.

In either case, we welcome all reaction from journalists, negative as well as positive. I suppose the real test will be in the number and quality of entries we receive in March.

Will the size of the prize cause more newsrooms to produce more environmental journalism?

Ward: I don't think so, and in fact I hope not, because I firmly believe that so-called "prize journalism" seldom is the best kind.

A more realistic hope is that the prize – and the size of the award – will send a message to top editors and news managers that quality environmental journalism is to be prized, to be valued. And that it's vitally important to our society and democracy.

Another hope is that we will succeed in helping the eventual winning entry – and over the years entries – gain broader distribution and higher visibility among journalists, the public, and decision makers.

How will you ensure the prize's credibility?

Ward: A critical early step, and one we've just completed, involves the selection of an absolutely outstanding pool of jurors – independent journalists with impeccable standing among their peers. Journalists who among them will have the final say on selecting the winner. And who will be committed to doing so in the most transparent and most journalistically responsible ways.

There's more to building and maintaining one's credibility. But take a look for yourself at the bios of the five jurors who constitute the prize judges. We think they provide an exceptionally strong foundation on which to build the credibility of the prize.

Will it be fair to smaller news organizations who must compete against large news outlets?

It's become increasingly clear, with the breakdown of the traditional "mainstream" news media, that responsible journalism can and must occur in a wide range of different settings and media and books. In fact, outstanding journalistic undertakings increasingly are taking place in outlets that at one point weren't even considered part of the journalism world.

That's not being naïve. It's clear that smaller news organizations, with even tighter news budgets than today's large daily newspapers, are stretched to find the resources needed to undertake the most outstanding journalism. We recognize that good journalism costs money and labor hours and top management commitment. It doesn't come free.

Our hope is that the prize will attract such an array of entries that we will see winners from reporters and media far from the beaten track of relative "household names" in the environmental journalism community. We're determined to recognize and reward the most outstanding journalism on these issues, without regard to the corporate size of the outlet.

What is the commitment to this prize? Is it here to stay?

Ward: The Grantham Foundation has made a commitment to fund the prize over the next four years, but it has expressed the hope and intention to fund it into perpetuity if the early years justify that commitment.

We all recognize that no new journalism prize can become "another Pulitzer" without years of tradition, a highly transparent selection process, and an unbending commitment to the most rigorous standards of professional journalism. Being recognized as meeting the highest standards of journalism excellence for a prize program won't come easily, and it won't come overnight. But we are all determined to strive for that standard.

Michael Mansur reports for the Kansas City Star and is editor of the SEJournal. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue

MIKE MANSUR