Freelancers and Fellowships: A Path for Growth

July 15, 2014

Freelance Files


Fellows participating in IJNR's Crown of the Continent Institute in Montana during June 2013 were briefed at this stop on their journey by University of Montana fire scientist Ron Wakimoto.
                                                       Photo: © Osha Gray Davidson

Six years ago I faced a conundrum. To succeed as a freelance journalist, I felt compelled to dig deep into a specialty. While I loved reporting on a variety of topics, the thought of devoting all my time to a typical newsroom beat – business, health, government – didn’t thrill me.

Then came a Knight Center fellowship that changed everything. The Knight fellowship focused on climate change and its sweeping effects. It offered unique professional seminars on the science, economics, politics and social science issues related to climate change. And, it was the first of many fellowships that have profoundly shaped my career. The value of a journalism fellowship seems like a no-brainer. You get training. You get story ideas. You get paid (sometimes). You also receive one of the best gifts you can’t get while working day-to-day deadlines: time. The benefits are many and likely why fellowships are so competitive.

As a summer media fellow at the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center in 2013, I was immersed in a university-like setting during the day; and in the evenings, I retreated to a quiet house in the country where I read my course assignments and wrote articles.

Currently, I’m one of two science communications fellows at the National Science Foundation-funded National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. A steady flow of scientists crosses my path every day; and my fellow fellows, post-doctoral researchers, regularly point me to new perspectives on ecology, biodiversity and ecosystems services.

As a freelance journalist, I often hesitated before applying for a fellowship. Self-doubt ruled. I thought institutions would prefer to award a spot to a staffer at the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post rather than an independent reporter with no particular affiliation. While that may have been true in the past, the media market has changed so much that freelance journalists with strong performance records now regularly receive fellowships.

When opportunity knocks

Freelance science writer Osha Gray Davidson, of Phoenix, AZ, says he wished he had understood a couple of decades ago the importance of fellowships. “They’re the single most important resource I’ve found to help me do my job better,” he said. Davidson has been awarded several fellowships, including a Heinrich Boell Foundation Media Fellowship in 2012. This summer he will attend Vermont Law School as a media fellow.

Perhaps the biggest value in fellowships is that they can provide a base of knowledge about issues a journalist has not yet investigated. And there’s no telling when that knowledge will come in handy. In 2013, Davidson was awarded the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources’ Crown of the Continent fellowship. During the five-day fellowship, he attended seminars on wildfires and devoted time to learning about wildfire in the West. The day he returned home to Phoenix was the day 19 men died in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

“With a basic understanding of the issues involved, and having met one of the top fire researchers in the country at the institute, I felt equipped to query Rolling Stone for a piece on the disaster,” Davidson said. A month later, the story was done.

Davidson says he can’t prove it, but he’s pretty sure that each fellowship he receives increases the odds that he’ll be successful in getting another one. “Funders want to be able to point to results, and every grant or fellowship I’ve received I’ve used to produce at least one major story,” he said.

Fellowships also provide intangible benefits that can propel a freelance career, says Davidson. “An editor who sees that a prestigious institution funded my work is, I think, more likely to bet on me, too,” he said.

Widening your frame of reference

Christine Heinrichs, a freelance journalist based in San Luis Obispo County, CA, received a National Tropical Botanical Garden Environmental Journalism Fellowship in 2007. She said the experience provided her a leap forward in how she sees the world. She learned specifics about invasive species: how Hawaii has become overrun with houseplants, and how feral hogs have destroyed habitat for native species, for instance.

“It was truly sobering,” she said. “Acquiring that knowledge gave me a different perspective on invasive species. This isn’t some secondary issue. This is life and death, not only for the native species but also for us. If unwanted plants and animals dominate the landscape, traditional ways of life become impossible.”

Heinrichs says the experts who taught her group were working to resolve crisis issues that have never been confronted. She learned from a botanist tracking rare species who visits extreme environments of ever-more-rare plants year after year. She learned from a horticulturalist who sees the possibilities of breadfruit to feed the hungry.

“Their ability to take their knowledge and apply it to solving problems was inspiring,” she said. “They encouraged me to think bigger about the stories I encounter. How did the shooting of elephant seals fit into marine conservation issues? What’s the importance of the otter surrogate mother program? How can an unseen collection of poultry art help save heritage breeds?”

Heinrichs’ group of fellows came from diverse media and backgrounds. One was from Colombia working for Voice of America. One was an editor for Scientific American. One was a film-maker. As a result, Heinrichs learned new technology, and new skills, especially from the film-maker. She said, “This fellowship was life-changing.”

As for me, I’m about to embark on the biggest fellowship of my career. In July, I'll start a six-month appointment as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., where I will write about issues at the nexus of climate change, agriculture and population growth. A fellowship application takes a great deal of work. It is well worth the effort, however.

A fellowship can improve your network of sources. It can provide income, and a return on your investment of time. But it isn’t a vacation. To find a program that will best suit your needs, check out these resources:

Lisa Palmer is a reporter based in Maryland. She writes about climate change, environment, business sustainability and social science. Her work has been published in Slate Magazine, The Guardian, Yale Forum, Yale e360, The New York Times, Ensia, and Scientific American, among many others. She has received funding from the Solutions Journalism Network to support her reporting on climate change resiliency. She has worked as a freelance editor for the National Academy of Sciences. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Boston University and master’s degree in communications from Simmons College in Boston.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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