Mark Johnson, a reporter at a shrinking Midwestern newspaper with a tight travel budget, recently found himself reporting from Jordan on the Syrian refugee crisis.
He gave readers of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel riveting firsthand accounts of the crisis that connected with his readers back home, including reports on a relief mission by a group of visiting medical professionals.
"The little girl howled pitifully when her mother tried to remove her jacket. Under the left sleeve, the child’s shoulder and back bore a large, red second-degree burn," Mr. Johnson wrote in one of his articles. "Jennifer Nitschke-Thomas, a nurse from Wisconsin, crouched beside the girl, trying to comfort her."
That kind of international reporting would have been impossible for Mr. Johnson and his newspaper without the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Now a member of the Pulitzer family is pledging $12 million so the center can support hundreds more reporters like Mr. Johnson — and to ensure the center’s future.
Emily Rauh Pulitzer is one of the center’s founding donors and the widow of Joseph Pulitzer III, the publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 38 years who died in 1993. The Pulitzer Prizes in journalism are named for his grandfather, who also served as publisher of the Post-Dispatch.
Ms. Pulitzer said in an interview that her donation comes with a stipulation: Pulitzer Center officials must attract gifts of up to $12 million from other donors to provide a total of $24 million for an endowment.
One longtime supporter has already stepped up. Katherine Moore, the widow of David Moore (another grandson of 19th-century newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer) has promised $1 million.
Looking to the Future
Ms. Pulitzer says she decided to pledge the money during the center’s 10th anniversary celebrations to shore up its future and highlight the work it plans to do in the decades ahead.
"The institution has to go beyond the present donors and the leadership," she says. "We’ve seen how matching grants have brought in new donors, and significant ones. If the institution is to survive, that’s crucial."
Jon Sawyer, a former Post-Dispatch reporter who served as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief from 1993 until 2005, the year the Pulitzer family sold its newspaper chain to Lee Enterprises, founded the center in 2006 with Ms. Pulitzer’s initial backing of $1 million. The Moores gave an early gift of $200,000 and continued to donate each year, as has Ms. Pulitzer.
Mr. Sawyer says that after 31 years in journalism, he wanted to do something to fill the growing gaps in international coverage and bring multiple points of view to a broader readership.
"When I started this, my idea was to do five or six reporting projects a year. I’d be doing some of the reporting myself with maybe one assistant," says Mr. Sawyer.
He thought he would pitch those early projects to large U.S. regional newspapers but soon realized most of those papers were slashing their budgets and some were closing down completely.
So Mr. Sawyer turned to bigger news outlets like the Financial Times and PBS NewsHour, a move that ended up giving the center a much broader reach.
Mr. Sawyer says he started out with a $330,000 budget and awarded nine reporting grants to freelancers that first year. Today the center gives out more than 100 grants annually and is set to award a total of $1.6 million this year to journalists covering stories around the globe.
Ms. Pulitzer says she made it clear from the beginning that she didn’t intend to be the center’s only major donor. A seasoned philanthropist who worked as a museum curator in the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Pulitzer says she has seen firsthand the problems that can befall nonprofits relying on one or two main supporters.
"If institutions depend on a couple of individuals, they ultimately run into problems, so it’s very important to have a wider base of support, and that is particularly true of small institutions," she says.
But Mr. Sawyer says he is not much of a fundraiser.
"It’s not the best fit for a journalist. We tend to be skeptical; we’re challenging by nature, and we ask questions and poke holes in things," he says. "I’m definitely a one-trick pony."
What has helped center officials respond to Ms. Pulitzer’s demand to cultivate other donors is simply being able to show the quality of the center’s work.
"We basically tell our story," says Mr. Sawyer.
Today much of the money that supports his group’s reporting grants and other efforts comes from a variety of private foundations and others.
The Gates Foundation has backed global health and development stories and has helped the center expand its partnerships with European news organizations, while the Kendeda Fund has given money for climate-change coverage and is an important source of operating support. The MacArthur Foundation has also backed the center’s reporting projects, and in December it gave a new grant of $2.5 million for general operating support.
Kathy Im, MacArthur’s director of journalism and media, says the center has been able to attract repeat backing from foundations like hers because it has shown it can support a high volume and wide range of projects on a relatively tight budget.
"They’ve gotten very smart and entrepreneurial about a new model of successfully placing the stories they produce."
While supporting reporters covering international beats and getting those stories out to a broad audience remains the center’s main purpose, it has expanded its programs in recent years to include educational and news-literacy components.
In 2009 the center created its Campus Consortium, a partnership with about two dozen universities around the country. The program brings in journalists for brief symposiums and yearlong seminars on global issues and offers student reporting fellowships.
The center also established Global Gateway, which provides online resources and tools for middle- and high-school students and teachers, and a program that brings journalists into classrooms to talk about underreported international issues like food and water shortages.
Supporting the work of its journalists remains the center’s focus, and its financial backing is more important than ever as foreign reporting has become increasingly expensive and dangerous, says board member and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist David Rohde.
Mr. Rohde is best known for his coverage of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war and for his 2008 kidnapping by Taliban members while he was reporting on the conflict in Afghanistan.
He has watched inexperienced journalists report in war zones and has seen up close how their safety and the quality of journalism they produce are directly related to how much money they have for things like a trustworthy driver or a seasoned local journalist to help them.
Mr. Rohde also points out that while technology has made it easier for freelancers to report and file stories abroad, foreign governments are much more hostile toward reporters than they used to be, and they no longer need journalists to help them get their side of the story out. Some insurgents have no qualms about attacking and abducting journalists for money or publicity.
"All of that combines for an unprecedented level of danger when it comes to covering conflict and other stories overseas, so having the Pulitzer Center provide freelancers with reporting grants that let them report safely and professionally is more of a public service than ever."