Some Tips for the Free Press Conference Scholarship Application (Due November 6)

The deadline to apply for scholarships to attend the National Conference for Media Reform is fast approaching: November 6. (The conference will be held in Memphis, TN, January 12-14, 2007.)

Fill out the scholarship application form here. I suggest reserving an hour to complete it, not including any time you might spend reading this post.

You can use the form to request funds for your travel, food, and lodging expenses, or just for a waiver of the registration fee. The registration fee is $75-250, depending on your timing and financial capacity, or on your status as a blogger.

The application asks for your name and contact information, basic information about your organization, and two references. There is a short description of financial need and a longer (up to 400 word) applicant statement addressing three questions:

  1. How does media reform relate to the work you already do? Describe your past/current involvement.
  2. How will you bring what you learn at this conference back to your community? What communities, constituencies, or networks can you help engage?
  3. How do you see your community involved in media reform in the short term? In the long term?

Then there is a cool grid that calculates your scholarship request based on numbers you enter for your travel, lodging, and meal costs and the portion of those costs you can cover.

I was one of five people on an “outreach committee” for the last NCMR who helped solicit applications and disburse the funds. For that work, including the work of helping devise and test the system and the online tools to manage it, I and the other OC members received stipends of $2000.

I don’t know if this year’s OC is using the same process. I don’t even know who’s on the committee for the most part. But I think we were fairly successful so I imagine these thoughts and memories will still be useful. Those applicant statement questions sure sound familiar.

When we did it last year – this is from memory, so I may be a little off – we received a few hundred applications and apportioned $50,000 to about 175 people. Most scholarships were in the $150-250 range with very few if any getting $500. Each OC member had, I think, $5000 to apportion however she saw fit. The other $25,000 was awarded based on a point system.

Each application was randomly distributed to and then read and scored by two of the five people. There were some clear yesses and nos, then those on the cusp got a further review, as I recall.

Blocks of points were awarded for specific affirmative action categories, with different point amounts based on Free Press’s and the OC’s priorities for participation. Then there was a scale for giving points based on the statement. I forget how we accounted for geography, but it seemed to work out well.

Need was a yes/no rather than scored on a scale. We trusted that most people who applied had a need, but that also meant economic class was not really a factor in the scoring. It was important to Free Press that applicants demonstrated a willingness to contribute at least some portion of their expenses, even if that wasn’t reflected in the totals people estimated and requested. Everyone or nearly everyone who got a point-based scholarship got their entire request.

The scoring system made it very difficult for someone who was not in any of the affirmative action categories to get a point-based scholarship. So middle-aged white men who didn’t have a personal connection to the OC had basically no chance of getting one. In the rare instance where that cut out someone who shouldn’t have been cut out, one of us took care of it with our personal allotment.

On the other hand, someone in one affirmative action category with a weak statement also would not have made the cut.

Don’t try to game the system by inflating your travel budget to make it look like you’re contributing a large amount while asking for a large amount. When I smelled that bullshit, I just tanked the application, though maybe that’s just my Brooklyn thing. You could also lie about your race, age, sexual orientation, or gender, if you’re a complete asshole.

More common actually was people asking for too little because they didn’t want to be disqualified for greed, but then when they got the scholarship it wasn’t really enough for them to get to the conference.

Or someone got the scholarship they requested but then waited to book a flight and prices went up and he or she got screwed on that end. Don’t make that mistake – I was checking airline tickets to St. Louis at the end of the process while I was apportioning the last bits of my personal allotment and I swear the prices went up overnight once the scholarships were announced.

The best advice I can offer is to do some research to come up with an honest, complete assessment of what it will cost you to travel to the conference. Planning that budget is one of the parts of the application that takes some time, but it will be worth it in the end. If you are already planning to share a rental car or hotel room with someone to minimize your expenses, have whichever one of you has the stronger application ask for that full expense.

For the references, it’s hard to imagine FP or the OC calling them up, so I’d recommend trying to use someone they would know for one of those spots, if possible, and using the other spot for someone that really knows you.

I also suggest you take some time with your statement. It’s a pretty crude scale so a point might make all the difference. But even if you think you’re a shoo-in, if you don’t already know the people on the OC, this is a good opportunity to introduce yourself. If this year’s group is anything like the four incredible people I got to be on a committee with last year, you will want to put your best foot forward.

As with any request for funding, you might have to balance what information about yourself and your organization you are willing to share with Free Press with the funder’s need for information and your desire to explain or take a stand. They get a pretty awesome database out of this process.

If multiple people in your organization are applying, I suggest using some of the same language on each of your applications. There was one group last year that had four people use the exact same statement, which was written from the perspective of the collective. I found that collusion slightly off-putting but also very admirable. If it were my group, I might share answers to questions 2 and 3, but have a few sentences at the beginning to personalize each one.

For what it’s worth, I really appreciate Free Press’s commitment to this scholarship program. I think it’s a generous amount of money, both in the total pool and in the personal allotment, and I believe we were able to fund just about everyone who should have been funded. I also appreciate the autonomy we had as OC members.

There is an important area where there could be some improvement. We should have done more to support scholarship recipients at the conference. The purpose of the scholarship program is to attract people who have historically been marginalized within the media reform movement. So it’s particularly sad when you get those people to the conference only to repeat that dynamic.

There are two ways to provide that support at the conference. The first is to empower the OC to work as guides, friends, and advocates in that space, and to allow scholarship recipients to connect with each other early on in the weekend. The second and by far the more meaningful step is to make those marginalized groups and their concerns a central part of the conference.

To not do so undermines the work of the OC and blows opportunities to strengthen the media movement. For example, I think we did a great job attracting Indymedia activists, especially women and from a wide geographic range, to the NCMR in St. Louis. That was the main purpose of including me on the OC. But I and Free Press both failed to create an environment for constructive engagement and Indymedia, Free Press, and all of the conference participants were the worse off for it. The situation for youth of color participants was certainly worse, but I didn’t have direct experience with that.

Free Press’s legitimacy is partly determined by the extent that young people and people of color are present at the conference. As is true with a grant-making foundation, they need you as much as you need them. They just have the profound advantage of unity compared to your scattered competition for scarce resources. The legitimacy market is a tricky business.

The 2005 and 2003 water under the bridge notwithstanding, there will be a lot of great people at the 2007 NCMR and a lot of new opportunities. I’m sure some but not all of the old mistakes will be made, along with some new ones. But if you are considering going, you should at least give Free Press a chance to subsidize your attendance.

Check out other posts on the National Conference for Media Reform.

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3 Comments

  1. bxlight said

    […] I’m really excited about a couple of new things. But first a note – Josh Breitbart’s blog on Wireless Philadelphia’s Communication Strategy is a must read. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Also, if you’re a community media activist, he gives you the low down on writing a good application for a scholarship (deadline Nov. 6) to the National Conference for Media Reform. This is good stuff, and if you get a scholarship, you must set aside a few dollars of it for a treat for Josh. Chocolate covered ginger, maybe. […]

  2. […] I got some positive feedback on my post from yesterday offering some tips for the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) scholarship application, which is due November 6. Only one person said “thanks, but no thanks.” A friend had what I think is a great idea: ask everyone to publish their applicant statement. […]

  3. […] If you’re planning on attending the National Conference on Media Reform, Josh Breitbart has given some great tips for how to fill out your scholarship application here. […]

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