With backing from one of journalism's pedigreed families, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting opened in early 2006 to promote foreign affairs coverage in U.S. media.
The center provides travel grants to journalists – mostly freelancers but also news organization staffers – to do in-depth stories about war-torn, exploited or overlooked lands and people. For instance, it helped send a reporter and photographer from North Carolina's Fayetteville Observer to Afghanistan to chronicle U.S. soldiers' rebuilding efforts there at "Fort Bragg East." It has subsidized stories exploring government corruption in Colombia, Maoist activity in India and an American-led effort to save a Mozambique national park devastated by civil war. It has awarded at least 40 grants to date, with most ranging from $3,000 to $10,000.
"I knew from my own experience that if you got a small grant that got you somewhere, you could turn it into something important," says Jon Sawyer, the center's director. He'd reported from five dozen countries while working in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau from 1980 through 2005. In that last year, as his paper and other Pulitzer holdings were being sold to Lee Enterprises (see "Lee Who?" June/July 2005), Sawyer proposed the center.
He found a backer in Emily Rauh Pulitzer, once his former chain's principal shareholder. "There's [been] a terrible diminution of quality and a strong cutting back of information about what's going on in the rest of the world," says Pulitzer, a center trustee. "That's incomprehensible, because as the world gets smaller, we need to understand more about it."
She put up $250,000 annually for four years to launch the center and another $250,000 to support educational outreach. Other initial donors include David Moore – a grandson of the first Joseph Pulitzer and a longtime Pulitzer Inc. director – and his wife, Katherine.
The initiative started out as "a modest idea," Sawyer says, but it has quickly grown in scope and reach. The Pulitzer Center is an independent division of the World Security Institute – itself a sponsor of journalism and scholarship – which provides office space in Washington, D.C., staff resources and plenty of synergy. The institute produces "Foreign Exchange," a weekly global affairs program for public television. Pulitzer is the primary supplier of its "In Focus" slice-of-life video segment. Pulitzercenter.org features grantees' blogs from the field. The center also set up a channel on YouTube, whose editors in December featured Pulitzercenter.org at the top of their "News and Politics" page and praised its videos as "some of the most moving journalism you'll find on this site."
Sawyer speaks enviously of the financing of ProPublica, a lavishly funded new investigative reporting enterprise (see "Big Bucks for Investigative Reporting"), even though it's clear he's mastering the art of the deal. He assembled multiple supporters for a Palm Beach Post series last November on "Heroes of HIV" in the Caribbean. First, Pulitzer sponsored reporter Antigone Barton's fellowship with the International Center for Journalists to spend three weeks reporting in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Then Sawyer arranged for Barton to get a National Press Foundation fellowship to the International AIDS Society conference in Sydney, Australia, which included a week's training on HIV. With part of a $102,000 grant from New York's MAC AIDS Fund, the center hired a videographer and Web producer to accompany Barton to the Caribbean. Three of their videos appeared on "Foreign Exchange"; all are on the Pulitzer Web site, along with interviews and other materials. "He is extremely resourceful," Barton says of Sawyer. "He had a vision of what this could be."
Pulitzer grantees' work has been carried by the Post-Dispatch, Smithsonian magazine, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Times, the Christian Science Monitor and other outlets. But if Sawyer and Associate Director Nathalie Applewhite believe in an idea, they'll approve funding even without a news organization's prior commitment.
They invested $13,000 to help Utah-based freelance reporter Loretta Tofani travel several times to China for a project on how the lack of safety precautions led to sometimes fatal injuries and illnesses in almost every Chinese industry that exports to the United States. Tofani – who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting for the Washington Post before joining the Philadelphia Inquirer and spending years as its China correspondent – had lined up a news outlet, but that fell through with a change in management. She offered the nearly complete project to the Salt Lake Tribune, which accepted it overnight with the proviso that Tofani localize the story. Tofani says she gladly spent the next month "running all over the state and talking with people about work conditions in the factories they were using."
In October, the Tribune published a four-part series, "American Imports, Chinese Deaths." Editor Nancy Conway says she's "glad that we had the opportunity to work with Loretta and to publish the stories," for which she paid $5,000. The only drawback, says Conway: "It would have been better if we had been in on the story from the beginning."
Sawyer agrees. He wants newsrooms "to be as closely involved as they can be. We're not competing with anybody. We're trying to partner with everybody."
– Carol Guensburg