There's no magic formula for a successful proposal, but here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
The Pulitzer Center provides grants to cover the hard costs of reporting projects. Grants are open to all journalists: writers, photographers, radio producers, and filmmakers; staff journalists as well as freelancers. We support veteran reporters who have been widely published, but also back less experienced applicants who are looking for help to jumpstart their careers. A diversity of voices— gender, ethnicities, backgrounds and nationalities—is important to us. Some applicants get a grant on their first try; others have to work harder at it. One applicant who was twice rejected kept coming back and eventually went on to do a dozen different projects with Pulitzer Center support. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
MAKE IT YOUR OWN
Potential applicants often ask us what topics we're interested in seeing and we always turn the question back to them. The best proposals we receive come from journalists with a deep commitment to reporting on the topic they propose, and to finding as many ways as possible to engage audiences. We want the ideas to be generated by the journalists because they are passionate about them—not because there might be funding available to report on them.
The only broad parameter we have is that projects address global systemic crises. And by crises we do not mean simply headline-breaking conflicts.
A crisis can be a conflict. Syria and Iraq are crises. But so is the struggle for access to clean water and sanitation in Bangladesh, or the quiet struggle against female genital mutilation in parts of Africa, or the destruction of the rain forest in Malaysia. We support reporting that digs beneath the surface to address the root causes of such crises, as well as possible responses to them.
We're not just looking for appropriate topics, we're looking for story ideas that are surprising—that reveal something new, or will help readers see an issue in a different light. Ebola is an appropriate reporting topic; a profile of a prominent doctor working in the midst of an Ebola outbreak is a story idea; a story about one or more Ebola doctors who have surprising insights on how best to battle the epidemic is a better idea.
THINK BEYOND ONE STORY
We support projects, not just one-off stories. Our overarching mission is to raise awareness of underreported global crises, so the most successful applications demonstrate that the journalist has thought about how to reach the widest possible audience. We encourage applicants to work across multiple platforms. Sometimes this means creating partnerships with others—writers working together with photographers or videographers or newsrooms joining forces to tackle a complex story, for instance—to maximize impact.
DO SOME HOMEWORK
The most common mistake that applicants make is they don't check our website to see what projects we've already done, or what projects we're currently doing.
Europe's migration crisis is a good example. Since early 2012, we have been flooded with applicants who want to go and cover the story. If they had checked the website, they would have noticed that we've been covering this story from the beginning, funding dozens of projects for print, broadcast, and online. It's an ongoing story of great significance and we will continue to support journalists who want to report on it. But check our website before applying and tell us how your approach is going to be different, or what gap in our coverage you're going to fill.
Be brief. Keep it simple. We know some stories are very complicated—and we give you space on the application form for supplementary material—but if you can't explain what your story is about and why we should read it in 250 words or so, then you probably have some more homework to do.
A DISTRIBUTION PLAN
One of our primary goals is to get the journalism we support before the broadest possible audience. That's why our online application form asks you to provide us with a plan for distributing your work. If you're on staff—great—your employer will publish or broadcast your stories. But if possible, we'd like you to think beyond your own outlet to other platforms that might be interested in your reporting. In the past we've had staffers at newspapers contribute reports to local public radio stations and national magazines. This is a great way to showcase the original reporting of your newspaper.
Life is tougher for freelancers. We can provide some help and advice, but it's mainly up to you to contact outlets and persuade editors that your story idea is worthwhile and they should run it. We know it can be difficult—sometimes near impossible—to get a rock-solid assignment from an outlet, but you must at least try to get some expression of genuine interest that we can corroborate. A credible distribution plan is key to a successful application.
A WORD ON SAFETY
If your project involves reporting in a hostile or dangerous environment, we do require that you and your potential outlets adhere strictly to the ACOS Alliance principles outlined here. If you are a freelancer and you plan to report from a conflict zone or hostile environment, you must have a firm assignment from a news organization that will assume full responsibility for your well-being. It also helps if you have taken a recognized hostile environment training course. Over the last two years, the Pulitzer Center has been able cover the costs of training for more than 40 freelancers.
The application form asks for a rough budget estimate for your project. Our grants cover the hard costs of getting to the story and reporting it—airfare, hotels, meals, local ground transportation, records requests costs, data analysis/visualization costs, local reporting partners, or assistants, translators, etc. We expect you to try to keep your costs down. Don't even think of flying business class. Don't plan on spending a month when two weeks will suffice. You don't have to stay in the cheapest fleabag hotel in town, but don't go overboard in the other direction. We recognize the importance of finding a good local reporting partner for some stories, but good doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive. Shop around, compare prices, check with other correspondents. In other words, don't think of us as an ATM. We are not. If you work for a newsroom, university, or similar, please note that we do not allow overhead or indirect expenses in our budgets. We are a modest non-profit that has to go out and raise every dollar that we give to you.
WHAT WE DON'T FUND
To save our grantees and staff time, we thought it would be helpful to outline editorial products and project expenses we don’t fund:
- Books (we can support a story that might become part of a book, as long as the story is published independently in a media outlet)
- Feature-length films (we do support short documentaries with ambitious distribution plans)
- Staff salaries
- Equipment purchases (equipment rentals are considered on a case-by-case basis)
- An outlet’s general expenses (for example rent, utilities, insurance)
- Seed money for start-ups
- Routine breaking news and coverage
- Advocacy/marketing campaigns
- Data projects aimed solely at academic research. Data should be developed to enhance/support journalism.