Jackpot lost

Is a $75K prize or better training more likely to improve environmental coverage?

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.”

Ravenel added that Grantham’s overall spending on environmental communications is going up. That includes support for outlets like the Center for Public Integrity, which received $500,000 in 2010, Grist, which got $75,000, and WGBH, a public radio station in Boston, which got $109,000. In 2011, Grantham committed $2.5 million over five years to support the Center for Public Integrity, Ravenel said, and added InsideClimate News, a new grantee, to its list.

That should come as good news to Dan Fagin, the director of New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, also known as SHERP. While he thinks Grantham has made a smart move, and that the prize money could be better used elsewhere, Fagin would prefer to see more direct support for actual journalism. “I’m all for more training, but I don’t think it’s our most critical need,” he said. “Our most critical need is more journalism.”

Pointing to the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism, established in 2010, which gives twice-yearly awards of around to $1,000 to $3,000 to individual freelancers or staff writers, Fagin said he’d love to see the Grantham Foundation do something similar on a larger scale. [Update: According to SEJ’s executive director, Beth Parke, the foundation gave $25,000 to the fund in 2011.]

It’s hard to argue with that. Prizes and training are vitally important, but they’re not the industry’s biggest problems. For reporters to win awards and show off their skills, they need opportunities to work in the first place, and it’s those opportunities that are sorely lacking. Anything that be done to create them is the highest service to the profession. Beyond that, is training better than a prize? Most likely, yes.

As Weiss noted, there’s an unquantifiable value in a prize that’s so big, the mere possibility of winning is enough to make many reporters work harder. The question is: Where does that effect kick it in? It’s tempting to say that Grantham should have scaled back to a $25,000 award, for instance, and devoted the rest to training. But would that be enough of an incentive? Perhaps, but as Menezes suggested, it’s much easier to justify education programs on paper, and it’s not hard to understand why a foundation would prefer the direct, measurable impact of training.

“Journalism is a rapidly evolving industry right now,” Grantham’s Ravenel said. “So like the rest of the industry, we are experimenting, trying various approaches, all with the long-term goal of converging on those strategies that most efficiently advance our mission.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,