Livingston Awards seek endowment, expand outreach for powerful storytelling among young journalists

Charles R. Eisendrath is the founding director of the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan. Under his leadership, the Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan amassed an endowment of more than $56 million, including $10 million from Knight Foundation during the past 25 years. Below, he writes about new Knight funding for the Livingston Awards. Video credit:

In the best of all possible worlds, a kick in the pants comes with a free ride to your favorite place.  That’s pretty much what Knight’s new $450,000 gift to the Livingston Awards meant to me as founding director. Actually, it was a bunch of kicks:

The first was to find matching money, which the University of Michigan has agreed to provide.  The university well understands the importance of quality journalism to civil society, and the centrality of a public institution aiding young people in journalism, just as it does those in other fields.

The grant and further help from the university’s development office will give us time to put in place a $6 million endowment to make the prizes a permanent encouragement for young talent.  To winners, $10,000 checks are important, but not nearly as valuable as the national recognition that comes with the award. At a New York media bash attended by 150 leaders in the field, checks are handed out by members of a judging panel drawn from the most luminous names in journalism. Job offers often follow.

The bigger of the boots concerned things digital and outreach. After 30 years, the program had grown sufficiently comfortable as the largest all-media, general reporting competition in the country to let the past speak for the future. That’s always a mistake. We were sitting back on a record of receiving hundreds of high-quality applications each year without thinking strategically about how to better serve the profession by tailoring the contest to its rapid transformation. When we realized this in our initial conversations with Knight, we jumped the gun by beginning our innovations when a grant was only a glint and a hope.

We began assembling a board of  “digital nominators” for the prizes, asking them to keep a special eye out for fabulous journalism executed online by people younger than 35, a Livingston specification. We will route suggestions to our seven regional judges across the country.  Although we have high-quality digital submissions that win prizes, that isn’t good enough for a program aimed at the young. Surely the newest branch of the media family, digital journalism, should be overrepresented. We believe the Knight grant will let us test this proposition.

We also booked our recent winners to address audiences beyond journalism, as part of an effort to show parts of the general public the use and importance of powerful journalism. That is how Rachel Manteuffel of The Washington Post found herself giving a speech at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to a crowd gathered for Veterans Day.  Her comments about  “The Things They Leave Behind,” which she had freelanced for Washingtonian magazine, effectively demonstrated how her poetic piece could have won out over competition from conventional reporting. Her words left few eyes dry.

Alexandra Zayas of the Tampa Bay Times, who took the prize for local reporting, found herself at the Poynter Institute featured in a webinar that drew 350 participants from around the world.  

We can’t report yet on the reception for the presentation John D. Sutter and Edythe McNamee of CNN Digital will have next April, but we think it significant that Amnesty International had no hesitation making their telling of  “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” a featured part of its annual U.S. convention in Chicago.