Last week, NYU alumna Jaeah Lee won one of the two inaugural American Mosaic Journalism Prizes. With an unrestricted prize of $100,000 — more than six times the amount a Pulitzer Prize winner receives — Lee was just awarded one of the largest cash prizes for journalism in United States history.
The Heising-Simons Foundation, a California-based charity, created the American Mosaic Journalism Prizes to honor freelance writers for “excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep-reporting on stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape,” as explained in a press release.
Not only does the family-run foundation wish to reward journalistic work that manages to evoke empathy for these neglected groups, it also aims to moderate the burdens that come with the work of a freelance journalist, such as long hours and financial insecurity, according to the release.
“I am honored and humbled to be recognized by such an esteemed panel of journalists,” Lee told WSN.
The charity emphasizes that the award is intended both to draw attention to the writer and to “give them the freedom to continue their work.”
The prize is “a game-changer in offering writers like myself a chance at financial security, and in allowing us to focus on the stories that matter most,” Lee said in an interview with The New York Times.
According to the release, Lee stood out to the 10 accomplished judges by “delving into the stories of people after the headlines fade, exploring different vantage points with complexity and empathy.”
For instance, Lee spent 17 months with a mother whose son was shot by a police officer. Lee’s eventual story on the mother’s experience, published in a California Sunday Magazine cover story under the title “After the Shooting,” was praised by the panel of judges.
Lee and her fellow recipient Valeria Fernàndez were selected from a group of freelancers in print, digital, audio and televised journalism, each of whom has published pieces in mass media outlets over the past year. The group was nominated by over 50 successful journalists from across the country.
Since earning her bachelor’s degree from NYU in 2007, Lee has published her work in prominent international newspapers such as The Atlantic, The Guardian and VICE. Among other topics, she has covered criminal injustice and racial inequality in depth. In a short video for the American Mosaic Journalism Prize, Jaeah points out that a good story is characterized by the ability to give the reader the opportunity to connect with groups that harbor strong cultural differences from his or her own.
Lee says she plans to use the cash prudently.
“A big chunk will go to taxes,” Lee said. “After that it’s going toward paying off debt, savings for health insurance, retirement and an emergency fund. These might sound like boring answers, but it’s also a reminder that so many freelancers work without these basic needs.”
Email Sophie Brach at [email protected].