The backers of one of journalism’s richest awards are bringing the prize to an end, betting that professional development, rather than financial incentive, will do more to improve coverage of the environment.
The Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting announced Tuesday that the $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment is no more. After six years, The Grantham Foundation is shifting its support “toward efforts that will directly improve news coverage of environmental issues, especially those related to climate change,” according to a press release.
In an interview, Sunshine Menezes, Metcalf’s executive director, said the hefty purse “was a wonderful way to publicly acknowledge the value of environmental journalists,” but there is a substantial need for the type of science training that is the institute’s specialty. In an email, Menezes wrote:
While one of the original goals of The Grantham Prize was to encourage more and better environmental news coverage, it was exceptionally difficult to directly assess the ability of the prize to accomplish that goal. On the other hand, we always evaluate the impacts of Metcalf Institute training programs for journalists and consistently find significant gains in participants’ ability to interpret scientific data, understand peer-reviewed literature, and identify credible scientific sources, as well as in their knowledge of the specific environmental issues tackled in the programs. In short, I think the Grantham Foundation’s investment in the kind of professional development that we offer for journalists is much more likely to facilitate more and better coverage of the environment than the prize was.
Not everyone agrees, including the Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Weiss, who won the Grantham Prize in 2007 (the second year it was given) with his colleague Usha Lee McFarling for a five-part multimedia series about humans’ deleterious impact on the world’s oceans. In an email, he wrote:
I think it’s terrible loss for environmental journalism. Training the next generation is very important. But so is sustaining the interest of existing journalists writing about the environment and changing climate.
Too many editors either don’t care about these topics or see them as expendable luxuries. As a result, I’ve seen more attrition of environmental journalists than for staff reporters covering crime, government or politics.
If would be hard to measure the impact, but I suspect the high profile prize encouraged some to stick with it, and others to work harder at pulling together the big story. It’s sheer size generated a lot of buzz for one reason: It was the stuff of dreams.
The Metcalf Institute, established at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography in 1997, currently offers fellowships for a variety of highly regarded programs, including a one-week science immersion workshop with lab and field training for 10 journalists, and one and two-day seminars for journalists and news executives alike that focus on specific scientific topics. The new initiative remains a mystery, but the institute plans to announce details on its website in November.
“I can tell you that we’re planning to hold several programs per year, each targeting different groups of journalists in different parts of the country,” Menezes said. “We also plan to include past Grantham Prize winners as speakers in these programs, to continue highlighting their great work.”
From 2008 to 2010, the three latest years for which information is available, Grantham gave Metcalf an average of $390,000 per year to support the prize program. It’s annual gift will probably drop a bit, to about $300,000 per year after subtracting the amount that went into the purse and two or three $5,000 awards of special merit each year, according to Ramsay Ravenel, the foundation’s executive director.
“To be clear, we remain deeply committed to the field of environmental journalism,” he said. “We realized that despite Metcalf’s great work, the prize strategy was too indirect. We also realized that journalists don’t write stories about other journalists winning prizes, so the winning stories never quite got the second bump of exposure we hoped they would.”