For freelancers struggling with resources and time, a surprise award offers relief

Debt mounted for freelance journalist Cerise Castle while she reported on gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Gas costs to travel and meet sources. Expensive public records. The Los Angeles-based journalist estimates spending about $5,000 on materials. There was also the hotel Castle said she had to pay for, and the hiring of a security guard, when the death and rape threats became so frequent and credible that she had to go into hiding for two weeks.

“The cost of reporting is not something I think we speak about as much as we should,” Castle said. “I wasn’t doing it, as our past sheriff has claimed time and time again, for financial gain. I was really doing it because I saw a need in my community and a story that needed to be told.”

Castle had heard about deputy gangs since she was young and felt compelled to find out what she could about them. But when she sought support to uncover the more than five decades of abuse, terror and murder in the law enforcement agency, she recalled being turned down by legacy newspapers. A friend suggested Castle pursue the story with Knock LA, a nonprofit community journalism project.

The outlet eventually published “A Tradition of Violence,” a 15-part investigative series into gangs operating within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“I’m not someone that believes in working for free in any sense,” Castle said. “So while I was really glad to do the work and I’m incredibly thankful to Knock for compensating me and publishing the work, there is something to be said about that cost and what it takes to tell a story like this.”

That’s why Castle was shocked when she learned she was one of two recipients of the 2023 American Mosaic Journalism Prize. The $100,000 prize from the Heising-Simons Foundation is awarded to freelance journalists for excellence in long-form, narrative or deep reporting about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the United States.

“This award is truly life-changing for me,” Castle said. “To receive this financial award, it completely changes the circumstances for how I’m doing this reporting. It alleviates so much stress that I was facing on a daily basis, just trying to figure out, ‘OK, how am I going to tell this story with a limited budget? With limited resources?’”

Castle said this is good not just for her and her reporting, but for the good of the entirety of Los Angeles County as she continues her work.

Carvell Wallace, a memoirist and freelance journalist, is the other recipient of this year’s American Mosaic Journalism Prize. Also based in California, Wallace is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine and a podcaster who covers race, arts, culture and more for various publications. He’s interviewed high-profile people like Samuel L. Jackson, Mahershala Ali, and most recently Michael B. Jordan for Rolling Stone.

“I’ve had like a month or so for it to sink in, so I feel more at ease with it,” Wallace told Poynter recently on learning he was nominated for the award and won. “But when I first found out, it was definitely like I was in shock for a few days. I just couldn’t even process it really.”

Wallace began freelancing after a blog post he wrote went viral. The piece was about himself — a Black divorced father — trying to get his kids through the evening routine while waiting for the grand jury decision in the trial of Darren Wilson. Wilson was the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

From that post came more writing opportunities for Wallace, who is now working on a memoir.

As a freelance journalist, he works a lot.

“I have this constant feeling that to make a living as a writer is so rare and difficult, that it feels like the fact that there’s an opportunity for me to do that — it’s like I can’t squander it,” Wallace said. “I find myself taking on a lot of assignments, working on multiple things at a time, saying yes to a lot of things that I might not if I felt like I had some breathing room.”

According to the Heising-Simons Foundation, the American Mosaic Prize is a complete surprise to its recipients and “based on confidential nominations invited from more than 150 leaders in journalism throughout the country.” A panel of 10 judges selected Castle and Wallace.

Wallace said he hasn’t made any concrete plans on what to do with the money from the American Mosaic Journalism Prize. But he might try to not work so much.

“One thing I think about with the award is that it may give me a chance to slow down a little bit and focus on one piece of work for longer,” he said. “Because I feel like I don’t get that a lot.”

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