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Grant Writing: The Next Skill for Successful Journalists

A reporter and a foundation official share their best tips for winning fellowships or grants.

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It’s now an economic reality for journalists: Many outlets pay for at least some of their reporting through grants and fellowships. That means many reporters need to supplement their news writing with grant writing.

But how can you make your application stand out from the crowd? These tips, from a journalist who has written successful fellowship applications and from a foundation official who has approved grants, will help you write your applications with confidence and a plan.

(Searching for fellowships and grants? Check out our list here.)

Don’t Be Afraid to Try

Detroit Free Press reporter David Jesse has been an Education Writers Association Fellow twice, and he’ll be a Spencer Fellow for the 2020-21 academic year. His most important advice? Just apply.

“Sometimes things work out, and you get it,” Jesse said. “Now I have a chance to do some really cool work.”

(See some of Jesse’s award-winning work here. Listen to him discuss that work here.)

Even if you don’t get the fellowship, you’ll have learned something about your project by putting it in writing. Jesse pitched a project on rural students in Michigan to EWA and didn’t receive funding for it. But the thinking and writing that went into his proposal helped him figure out how to cover the issue.

Be Specific

If you’re applying for a grant, it’s important to demonstrate two things: your need for the funding and your ability to serve the needs of the funder, said Joseph Lichterman, the manager of editorial and digital strategy at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. When you’re describing your project, the more detailed you can get, the better.

“Don’t say, ‘I want to cover the impact of coronavirus on education,’” he said. Instead, “say, ‘I want to talk to teachers about how they’re teaching online.’”

Jesse suggests being able to distill your project into one or two sentences. When he applied for the Spencer Fellowship, he was able to define his focus and four possible subtopics underneath it.

“That allows the folks who are judging [your application] to say, ‘Yeah, we think there’s something there that we can help with,’” Jesse said.

Determine, too, how your own goals for your project line up with the foundation’s interests. The Spencer Foundation values the pairing of journalism and academic research, and there currently isn’t much scholarship on the topic Jesse will be studying during his Spencer fellowship — looking at the future of small private colleges in the Midwest.

“I pitched something that would be able to break some ground by working with academics,” Jesse said.

Going to Market

Once you’ve nailed down your idea, you need to think about your market.

Jesse described his experience with a market mismatch: Someone suggested he apply for the Spencer Fellowship and write about the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State University.

But that’s been done, Jesse said. The market for that story is saturated.

“Everything’s been said that’s going to be said,” he noted. “There are a number of books [on the topic] — books from gymnasts, books from reporters. I didn’t know that I’d be able to bring anything new to the table.”

The project on Midwestern private colleges Jesse successfully pitched to Spencer, by way of contrast, doesn’t have that same overload.

“You’ll find some academic stuff here and there, and you’ll find some one-college specific things, but you won’t find a whole lot in the middle,” he said.

Prove Your Worth

Almost every funder wants a post-mortem to see whether their funding was effective. But don’t leave your post-mortem for post-project: Note which metrics you’ll track in your proposal so you can show your progress along the way.

Those metrics could include things like the traffic on the stories, of course, but also audience reach and engagement, increased subscriptions or the impact on a community, Lichterman said.

His organization isn’t looking for specific numbers, and they know that plans can change.

“We’ve been asking grantees to have a theory of change in how this is going to move the needle,” he said. “We want to help sustain that and make sure the organizations are able to continue it in the long term.”

This is also helpful to think about for your newsroom, Jesse said. What kind of stories will your outlet be able to publish from your fellowship or grant? How big will they be? Are your editors bought in to the project?

Plus, if you successfully prove that your stories can have an impact, you’re more likely to get that next round of funding.