CMI announces O’Donnell Fellowship top six finalists

Written By Dara Collins, Editor-in-Chief

On Aug. 26, the Center for Media Innovation (CMI) announced the top six finalists with potential to receive the $20,000 award from the Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship.

The finalists include Sergio Chapa, a reporter of the Houston Chronicle; Douglas Fischer, Executive Director of Environmental Health Sciences; Erica Hensley, Health/Data Reporter and Knight Foundation Fellow of Mississippi Today; Nick Keppler, Freelance Journalist and Editor; Maria Rose, Morning Edition Producer for NPR and WESA-FM; and Matt Stroud, CEO and Executive Editor of Postindustrial Media.

“We initially thought we were going to do five finalists, and, based on the strength of the presentations, we ended up including six, and we’re really pleased,” Director of the CMI Andy Conte said. “They came in from all across the country, and there are a lot of really creative, innovative ideas. And they all have that really strong targeted approach to news deserts, which is something we wanted.”

Earlier this spring, the CMI announced its partnership with the Allegheny Foundation to fund the fellowship over a three-year period and award the money to a journalist to utilize creative storytelling in news deserts or underserved markets.

The CMI began accepting applications in May and promoted the fellowship throughout the summer. By the deadline in July, the fellowship yielded nearly 30 applications from all over the country, including Alaska, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and local applicants from the Pittsburgh area.

“It was overwhelming first the responses that we got,” Conte said. “Then I think the other feeling that I had was that we’re at this time with journalism where so much of the news is negative…and it was really affirming to hear from so many people who were talking about ways to move forward and ways to innovate and try new things and try to address these issues where there is little or no local news.”

“This is the first year of the fellowship, so we’re trying to spread the word as much as we can,” said Lou Corsaro, Managing Director of University Marketing and Public Relations. “Since this is going to continue from year to year, we want to try to expand the reach.”

Conte and Corsaro said they used a number of methods to promote the fellowship including social media promotions, videos, digital advertisements and other promotional strategies.

“We created a series of videos that talked about ‘what is a news desert,’ ‘why is this fellowship significant,’ ‘who is Doris O’Donnell,’ ‘why should you apply for it,’ and then we used social to push all those out,” Conte said.

Aside from digital promoting, Conte and Corsaro reached out to journalists and universities across the country.

“Very few people have ever heard of Doris O’Donnell in the first place, so we were trying to spread the message about who she was,” Conte said. “Then, being a brand new fellowship, people didn’t really know what it was about, so just the messaging all around that was really important to get the word out and try to let people all across the country know what was going on.”

Conte and Corsaro are pleased with the applicants’ presentations and the inaugural application process for the fellowship.

“It was so gratifying to see so many people from across the country recognize what we were trying to do, respond to it and come up with these really terrific ideas for it,” Conte said.

According to the CMI’s press release, Keppler, a finalist from Pittsburgh, proposes a project to report on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, possibly the world’s most inflated drug market. Houston native Chapa plans to cover earthquakes in news-deprived areas seemingly affected by intense drilling and fracking.

The panelist of judges considered value, innovation, engagement, diversity and ability when choosing the Top Six, and they will look to the same criteria once again when deciding the winner.

The judges include NPR’s David Folkenflick, Amber Hunt of the Cincinnati Enquirer and “Accused” podcast, Brentin Mock of Citylab, Carl Prine of the Navy Times and News Desert Researcher Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

A portion of the award should be used to visit the university once in the fall, spring and once again in April, when the winner finishes their proposed project, according to Conte. Conte wants students to be heavily involved in the process.

“I would love them to meet with students and talk about their project and how they’re going about it,” Conte said. “That’s one of the things we’ve tried to do with the Center is expose our students to top-level journalists around the country, so this is another opportunity to bring in somebody who’s at the top of their game.”

The winner will be announced at the CMI on Tuesday, Sept. 10.

“I think we all felt validated by this process…it’s a pretty big deal for a university the size of ours to take on something like this and say, we’re going to do a national award and we’re going to put it out there and make sure that journalists all across the country hear about it and apply for it,” Conte said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, do something big.”