Opinion
May 02, 2016

Journalism Prizes That Honor Union Leader Change Lives and Policies

On July 10, 1946, just a year after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, his friend and confidant Sidney Hillman died suddenly in New York City at the age of 59. Born in Lithuania, Mr. Hillman immigrated to the United States when he was 21. A natural leader, he rose to become the founding president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a co-founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and President Roosevelt’s partner in forging the New Deal. Legend has it that when FDR was about to make some key political or policy decision, he would tell his aides, "Clear it with Sidney."

After Mr. Hillman’s death, his union established the Sidney Hillman Foundation to honor his legacy. Because he was a passionate believer in the role of a free press in creating a fair society, the foundation soon began to award annual prizes for journalism in pursuit of social justice and the common good. Nicknamed the "progressive Pulitzers," the Hillman Prizes have been awarded every year since 1950.

We’re a unique foundation — highly focused on highlighting stories that advance major social causes and just as committed as our founders were to reporting and analysis that makes an impact. But as more foundations focus on ways to strengthen journalism, stomp out inequality, and advance major social issues, I hope they will take some lessons from our work.

Over the decades, our prizes have lauded the work of journalists covering the defining struggles of their times: school integration, the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, immigration, women’s rights, the environmental movement, and access to education, health care, and employment. Inequality has been on our radar from the start.

Our role has grown more important as the infrastructure that used to support professional journalism has changed radically. Journalists today struggle to have their stories read, their videos watched, their voices heard above the noise. Yet theirs is the work that changes minds, shifts public opinion, and inspires better public policy.

This is an effort that remains vital for American democracy. Take the example of this year’s recipient of the Hillman Prize for Web Journalism: Curt Guyette, who broke the story of the Flint water scandal.

Mr. Guyette is employed by the ACLU of Michigan; his investigative-reporter position is funded by the Ford Foundation. The Pulitzer Prize committee told him he was ineligible because he works for an advocacy organization. His response: "We just have to be scrupulous to make sure that our work is accurate, credible, and able to stand up to the most intense kind of scrutiny. And if we do that, whatever other people might want to label it, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still a reporter, doing what a reporter does."

Can philanthropy, with its growing focus on tackling inequality and racial injustice, take up the challenge of funding journalism that advances the cause — the kind of stories the Hillman Prizes aim to reward and elevate?

The answer is unclear. Of course, there is ProPublica and other nonprofit journalism organizations such as Mother Jones and the Marshall Project doing great work. But modern grant making often demands results and measurable impact, and it’s difficult to quantify or understand the results of an investment in journalism years before a story appears before the public. As with what happened in Flint, sometimes you might not even know what you’re looking for.

But a look at the past decades of Hillman winners reveals vast impact. We’ve honored exposés of the Ku Klux Klan, the Watergate crimes, and child labor. Our racial-justice awardees stretch from the streets of Birmingham in the 1950s to the streets of Ferguson in 2014. We’ve spotlighted labor stories from the migrant fields of the Southwest to the shop floors of the Northeast. And we’ve amplified some of the bravest voices of the last seven decades: Murray Kempton (our first prize winner), Harry Ashmore, Edward R. Murrow, Carl Rowan, Jane Jacobs, Fred Friendly, Seymour Hersh, I.F. Stone, Michael Harrington, Ta-Nehisi Coates (the 2012 Hillman Prize was his first major award; he’s now one of our judges), and Jelani Cobb (also now a Hillman judge).

More often, though, our panel of judges chooses to call attention to the work of a regional newspaper, a local television news team, or a little-known independent journalist. Not only are their stories important; encouraging journalistic careers like theirs is central to our mission. And as the profession changes, our mandate is expanding. Finding and rewarding new, important, diverse voices is part our goal. In 2011, we created a monthly prize called the Sidney Award, an attempt to help publicize an important story each month, that has come to be a bellwether for other awards.

The Hillman Foundation does not owe its existence to a plutocrat’s fortune. Instead, it was seeded by the most forward-looking part of the labor movement (but is fully independent of any larger entity). We charge no fee for prize submissions, and the judges answer only to their own consciences. Our awards, unlike many, include a little cash along with plaques and praise — and the checks go directly to the (chronically underpaid) journalists, not to their outlets or organizations.

As we get ready this week to award the honors to the latest Hillman winners, I hope people in the nonprofit world will read the works we have selected as a reminder of the power of journalism to change lives and policies. And I hope more foundations and donors will step up their support for the kind of journalism that really matters — not the celebrity or gotcha pieces that are written primarily to get clicks and advertisers.

Alexandra Lescaze is executive director of the Hillman Foundation.