The 2022 Breakthrough Journalism Award was awarded to freelance journalist Neha Wadekar for her nuanced and persistent reporting on the growing Islamic insurgency in Mozambique, specifically looking at the Cabo Delgado province of the country. Her project explores the conflict’s toll on coastal communities that were once tourism hubs, the people displaced as a result, and the root causes of extremism in the region.
Wadekar’s reporting from the region is included in her Pulitzer Center-supported project, The Hidden Story Behind the Fight for Cabo Delgado.
The Breakthrough Journalism Award, a $12,000 prize for the winner, recognizes the achievements of Pulitzer Center-affiliated freelance journalists working on underreported stories. The award is made possible by the support of Eva Lohrer. Freelance Peruvian journalist Luisa García Tellez was named this year's runner-up and was awarded $5,000.
In the award announcement recognizing Wadekar, judge Rhitu Chatterjee said, “Instead of falling back on more simplified narratives about Islamic terrorism in Africa, she [Wadekar] tells a nuanced, complex story about the drivers of the insurgency: corruption and neglect by the local government, exploitation by multinational businesses profiting off of the region's natural resources.”
In an interview with Pulitzer Center Outreach and Communications Intern Katherine Jossi, Wadekar discussed her plans for the future. Jossi interviewed Wadekar at the Pulitzer Center’s 2022 conference, Interconnected: Reporting the Climate Crisis. The conference took place in Washington, D.C., on June 9 and 10.
Katherine Jossi: What drew you to journalism?
Neha Wadekar: My earliest memories are from when I was in high school, and I worked for my student newspaper, and I remember loving it. I was the editor of this little weekly student newspaper. Fast forward to when I graduated from college in 2011. That was a time where journalism people said journalism is dying. This was the pre-Trump administration. It was a tough era for newspapers and for media in general. I never considered it to be a viable career option. I ended up in D.C., working for a management consulting agency, and that was around the time when I realized I wasn't fulfilled, and I didn't feel like I had a sense of purpose in my everyday work. [Consulting] was interesting. I learned a lot, skills that I think are difficult to learn if you go directly into journalism. I learned about project management and different kinds of tools. It was nice to get this crash course.
And then eventually, I just found myself wanting something different. In the mornings, when I would wake up, and I was getting ready for my consulting job, I would binge-watch BBC and VICE videos. Finally, a friend of mine was like, “You know if you watch these, and you're always talking about how cool they are, why don't you just do that? Why don't you just go and try to do it?” So that's what I did. This was my quarter-life crisis. I quit my job. I applied to journalism school. I ended up going to the University of Southern California Annenberg school of journalism. That was an amazing program. It's a one-year master’s. They teach you everything. What I love about them is that they're a well-rounded program. When I graduated from that, I wanted to go abroad, but going abroad as a paid reporter when you're just graduating is tough.
People kept telling me I should go freelance. I said, “There's no way I have the risk tolerance for that. That sounds terrifying.” I ended up getting a fellowship with the Overseas Press Club. It was a three-month stint and they asked where do you want to go? I told them Nairobi because I had visited a friend of mine in Nairobi a couple of months earlier and fell in love with it. They said yes, and placed me in the Reuters bureau there. The first three months of my career—I actually call it a soft landing. I managed to do three months in a super supportive, nurturing environment. They let me publish. They taught me how to do things. So I gained enough confidence that by the end of that I felt comfortable saying, “I'm going to try freelancing.” It’s been six years.
KJ: What has your journey in journalism looked like, and how has journalism changed since you first started freelancing?
NW: It's changed a lot. When I first started, I think this is applicable to almost every freelancer, but you need to take what you can get. I pitched everything to everybody all the time. I would go on every press trip that the U.N. was doing. We're taking journalists to northern Kenya to do this. For every small opportunity, you have to be ready to jump on it. I also shot my own stuff, my own video. I don't like to shoot video. It stresses me out! It's not my strong suit. I love doing on-camera stuff, and I like producing. But physical videography is tough for me. But I still did it. The more you can do, the more your name gets out there. You can actually make enough money to be able to eat in the first two years.
My kind of changing moment was the 2017 Kenyan elections. Kenya has a history of election violence that stems from a history of colonialism, and then tribalism. Usually the country is very stable, safe, secure. Every five years, it sort of descends into stress and chaos for the election period. 2007-2008 were violent, and broke the country into pieces. So in 2017, that was happening, and some journalists stayed for it. Others left depending on their ability to cover it. I ended up staying for it.
I had an amazing contact and mentor of mine, who was an editor for The New Yorker. He reached out and said, “Would you like to do a piece?” He had seen that I was doing a lot of on-the-ground coverage. I'd written for other places. That was a big moment for me as a journalist, because I was just in the right time, right place. Having that byline and having being able to work with him on a story that is important, and that is important for regional stability in East Africa and national security for the United States. That was a significant moment. After that, it became easier to get commissions. I was able to refer to that serious work that I had done.
Since then, my reporting has taken a shift. I don't do breaking news as much. I will in cases of a big emergency. I've done breaking news for terrorist attacks in Nairobi, for example, but not as much on the day-to-day. I like to do long, in-depth features. I've started to zone in on my beats. I used to cover everything, and now I look a lot at gender, women, and girls, and I also look a lot at climate, the intersection of those. So it could be a story about the economy. It could be a story about labor or technology, but usually it touches on one of those two themes. I'm more intentional and specific about what projects I do. With the support of Pulitzer (Center), for example, I'm able to say that this is something ambitious that I want to take on that matters to me, and rather than fearing taking too big a risk on it, I'm able to do a lot more ambitious reporting projects.
KJ: What are some of the challenges you face freelancing?
NW: You’re working alone a lot of the time. I've tried to kind of mitigate that by pulling together teams. I try to bring on a photographer or a videographer or another writer. So it's a team effort, and you can share the burdens and the joys of reporting a complex story. That's one of them … that feeling of loneliness. It's fun to wake up in the morning, put on clothes, go to an office. When you don't have that you have to find ways to keep yourself engaged and inspired. That can often be challenging. It's very unstable. You are as relevant as your last story. You make as much money as you make, depending on how hard you push.
Freelancers often are in a position where they're not making enough or they are publishing very long investigative stories, but only like once a year. Both of those things can be challenging, either reputationally, “Oh, what was the last story you published?” or else, you have no money. Both of those things are stressful. It's finding a sweet spot between how often do I need to publish to eat and keep my name in a place where editors will recognize it. It is very relationship-based. You have to always be maintaining relationships, meeting new people. Every time I'm back in the States, I visit editors and funders in New York and D.C., to make sure that I stay on people's radar and keep those connections. It can also be risky. That's the last thing. If you're traveling to conflict zones and you don't have the backing of an organization, if you get in trouble, you're stuck. Again, why the Pulitzer Center is so important.
KJ: What led you to decide to freelance instead of going the newsroom route?
NW: To be honest, in the beginning, it wasn't really a choice. It was more like I knew I wanted to be doing foreign correspondence, and I knew I wanted to be in Kenya, reporting in East Africa, in the Horn of Africa. And I didn't really know how else to do it besides trying to do it on my own. Because like I said, it's, you know, if I had applied to The New York Times or the BBC and said, “Hey, can you give me this job?” they would have probably laughed at me because I had no experience. And eventually, it became a choice. In the sense that I have applied to jobs, I've been offered great positions at amazing organizations that I really respect. But when I weigh the life I have now, the freedom to choose my own stories, the freedom to choose my own partners, the ability to work when I want, where I want. When you're working on a deadline for a certain organization with a certain amount of time, you may not be able to spend all this time developing a rapport with your sources or with people involved in your stories. Sometimes I drive people nuts because my interviews take hours. I can do that at my own pace knowing that, or with the idea that I know how fast I have to go. If I can take the time, I will take the time.
KJ: What are your plans for the Breakthrough Award?
NW: It’s a huge honor to have been selected, especially when I'm sitting in there [the Pulitzer Center's climate conference] and I'm hearing the stories and the work that other people have done. I'm like, I have no idea how this happened because I'm just bowled over by the work that everyone else has done. This award gives me an opportunity to stabilize myself in a way that I can actually start digging into longer-form projects and investigations. There are so many stories in East Africa and in Africa that we should do about labor practices, about supply chain, but I've never had the time or the funding to be able to start that work on my own until I can pitch it to a funder, because it's a huge challenge. I'd like to actually be able to take the money as well as the honor and roll it forward and be able to start doing even more in-depth investigations, things that really require time and resources and connections.
KJ: What do you hope to achieve in the next year?
NW: I have a couple of projects that I'm excited about. And they're leaning more toward the podcast world. I've started working with this amazing organization started by these two former Wall Street Journal reporters, and their idea is to take journalism and do really deep-dive investigative projects around the world. And deliver those to audiences as podcasts, mini-series, documentaries, shows, and even Netflix shows. The idea is they want to take a story that's a journalism story and make sure that as many people as possible can hear that story and resonate. When I heard about the kind of work that Andy Lehren had done at NBC with Karol Ilagan (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism), I was like, “I want to do that kind of reporting.” So there's work like that as well. I'm reporting on elections next month in Kenya. It's five years later, I never thought I'd be in Kenya long enough to do two elections, and I'm thrilled that I am. That is going to take up a big chunk of my next few months.
KJ: What has been your biggest lesson in journalism?
NW: My biggest lesson, wow. I've learned some hard lessons. But I think the thing that's most important is, that journalism is not about the journalist telling the story. The way the industry has developed, a lot of reporters have turned into their own brands. There is a lot of pressure to follow that model and to build your brand on Twitter and have this huge following and constantly be weighing in on the issue of the day. It's great that there are some reporters who can do that.
For me, journalism is about the people that we interview and talk to and the people that the stories are about and not victimizing people. For example, as somebody who's not African in Africa, the way that Africans are so often reported on is a victimization story. It disempowers the people you're talking about, and it may garner sympathy, but it also creates fatigue in a Western audience. One of the most important things that we can do is to put the power in the hands of the people who the stories are about, and make sure that they have a voice, and they have the ability to be heard. That we also show them as who they are, which are survivors and people who are working every single day in and out to create change in their communities and in their countries. Some stories are just all-around sad, but most stories have an empowered person in them or a theme of perseverance or trying to create change, and we often will minimize those to play up the sad and the tragic, and I think that's a mistake.