Independence is and has always been at the heart of everything we do ever since we started with our grant programmes. We have therefore insisted on working with a jury system to assess and decide on the applications we receive.
Our juries – separate ones for each of our grant programmes – are made up of knowledgeable, experienced (former) journalists or experts. In order to guarantee maximum independence, the jury members of all our juries are anonymous until their mandate ends. For two jury members of our European cross-border grants jury, that time has come.
Leaving the jury after four years are Nataša Pirc Musar, a former journalist, Slovenia’s former Information Commissioner, and now director of law firm Pirc Musar and Nils Hanson awarded freelance investigative editor for and former editor-in-chief of Swedish public broadcaster SVT’s Mission Investigate. Together, they look back on their time in the jury, reflect on Journalismfund.eu’s achievements, and share with future applicants what the best possible application looks like.
Two former jury members look back, reflect and give valuable advice
Hi Nataša and Nils. Four years ago, Journalismfund.eu recruited you for their European cross-border grant jury. How did that happen?
Nataša: To be honest, I have no idea how Journalismfund.eu found me. I just got a call from Journalismfund.eu’s then European cross-border coordinator. I suppose she saw an ideal candidate for the jury in me because of my profile: I worked as a journalist for twelve years, and as former information commissioner of the Republic of Slovenia I have extensive knowledge of data protection and access to information.
Nils: I’m not sure either. I think I met Journalismfund.eu’s managing director Ides Debruyne somewhere at an international investigative journalism conference at some point. He must have passed my name and contacts on to his European cross-border grants project coordinator.
Why did you say yes?
Nils: It is such an important and meaningful assignment. You get the chance to support investigative journalism in Europe in a very practical way. It was an honour for me to be asked for this jury mandate.
Nataša: Journalism has always been a passion of mine. I was eager to see what kind of projects were submitted and how journalists pitched and developed their stories.
Basically, it comes down to persuading the jury of two things: that your story is worth pursuing and that the money you ask is worth spending.
How does the jury work?
Nataša: Each jury member has a mandate of four years. Those four years overlap across the different jury members, so the mandates of all four members never end all at the same time. That way a certain continuity is guaranteed. After each application deadline, the four jury members and Journalismfund.eu’s cross-border grant project coordinator meet via conference call and discuss the submitted applications. Over the four years that I was involved, the jury meetings got a lot more efficient. Initially, we each scored all submitted applications from highest to lowest, then put all those different scores together and then had long discussions about the scores. But it is much more efficient to just talk about the stories themselves. So that’s what we moved towards. Our discussions became more to the point, our meetings significantly shorter and more purposeful. Personally, I always started by checking the two basic, most important things for all submitted applications. One: is the story cross-border. And two: is it investigative.
Were there big differences between the submitted stories? How difficult is it to compare different types of investigations and decide which get a grant and which don’t?
Nils: When it comes to weaker applications, it was never too hard to filter those out.
Nataša: Indeed. You can easily tell apart, for example, a reportage from an investigative story just by looking at the pitch and the wording in the application. I would say that on average twenty to thirty per cent of applications are badly written or misconceived. But apart from those, it can be quite hard to decide, yes.
Nils: The biggest problem is that we have such a limited budget to allocate. It is impossible for every application to get what the journalists want or need. I found that very frustrating at times, especially in jury rounds where there were a lot of impressive, exciting applications to decide between.
What makes for a good application? Any advice for future applicants?
Nils: My most crucial piece of advice would be to get to the point. If you want a grant, here’s what you should do. Avoid being repetitive. Write the clearest possible application in the fewest possible words. Keep your hypothesis or hypotheses short, clear and understandable. What is the story, what is it about, what impact can it have? A trick to help you do that could be to write down possible headlines for your articles. In addition to that, it is important to show us that you have thought about your work process. Which methods are you going to use? Which problems or difficulties do you foresee? And last but definitely not least, the question of accountability: when are you going to contact the other side to hear their side of the story and how will you do it?
Nataša: As I said, my first focus was always on the investigative nature of the story and on the cross-border nature of the team. Reportages will never get through, so make sure your story is investigative. And make sure your team is cross-border. Don’t apply with a team of, for example, four journalists from France and budget a trip to Poland to do research. No, find a colleague in Poland and collaborate with them! Not only will it make your application and your investigation stronger, but it will also lower the costs. Workflow, as Nils said, is so important, and a strong team is the basis of that. The best applications I’ve seen came from teams that clearly state how they will work, how they will divide tasks between themselves. Finally: be fair when structuring the budget. Basically, it comes down to persuading the jury of two things: that your story is worth pursuing and that the money you ask is worth spending.
Nils: Exactly. With that in mind, one last piece of advice. The only way for us as jury members to feel whether or not your story has potential is if you show us that it does. And how can you know it does if you haven’t done any research before applying?
Nataša: Yes, I almost forgot but that’s so important. Do some research before you pitch. It doesn’t need to be much, but do some, and show us that you have!
Have you witnessed an evolution in the topics of the applications or in the proposed research methods in your four years as jury members?
Nataša: The stories differ from pitch to pitch, just like research methods depend on the team.
Nils: There were quite a few applications on ‘hot topics’ like climate change and environmental issues last year, but we also still got a lot of traditional corruption stories. It might be nice to see more journalists tackling the big, complex issues of today. The risk here is that you might get lost in the technical details and lose the story. In the end, it shouldn’t be about wanting to do a complicated investigation, but about wanting your investigation to have an impact.
Avoid being repetitive. Write the clearest possible application in the fewest possible words. Keep your hypothesis short, clear and understandable.
Is there more need today for initiatives such as Journalismfund.eu than there was before?
Nils: Without a doubt. Investigative journalism is becoming ever more important. At the same time, it’s done more and more by freelancers. Making a living out of investigative journalism is not easy at all, so it is vital that the people who do it are supported. The contributions Journalismfund.eu has made in that regard are substantial.
Nataša: Regular media are turning ever more towards instant journalism because they are competing with - pardon my French - clickwhore websites that only chase clicks. They need fast stories, stories that are widely read and shared. But it is not because a story is interesting to the public that it is also in the public interest. Investigative stories increasingly fall between the cracks. It is crucial that we keep providing a foundation for investigative journalism to build on. I agree with Nils that Journalismfund.eu does amazing work. However, it can only fund so many stories per year. Stories that threaten to get lost in the mass of clickbait that is out there. It’s easy to get discouraged sometimes, to feel like a lot of our work is in vain.
What can Journalismfund.eu do more than just give grants? Should we support our journalists in, for example, getting more outreach?
Nataša: I remember that four years ago the letters of intent for publication, which applicants have to provide with their application, were mostly rather weak. They were from small media players, blogs or even NGO outlets. In the third year of my mandate, the jury convinced Journalismfund.eu’s management to ask for stronger letters of intent. That worked: applicants approached bigger media organisations. Maybe that’s something Journalismfund.eu can play a more active role in: connecting journos with editors. After all, it’s in everybody’s interest that huge stories about smuggling, mafia, corrupt politicians, etc. end up in the biggest media outlets in the country.
Nils: I completely agree. Push applicants to get the strongest possible letters of intent. And not just one: try to make them get at least two or three. But that’s not all. There is a lot to be gained by supporting journalists not only before and after their research but during as well. Do follow-ups with the investigating teams. Offer advice on safety and security. Guide and adjust a team’s course on time. To be honest, Journalismfund.eu does have a mentoring programme set up where teams can get a mentor to help and guide them through the entire project from planning to publication. I know the programme is running but not fully up to speed yet. Keep investing in that. The more teams taking on a mentor, the better your supported stories will get.
Thank you for your insightful advice and for your time in the jury.
Nils: It was our pleasure.
Author: Raf Njotea
Find a list of Journalismfund.eu's former jurors here.