Money & Careers

Mary Stucky—a Woman Who’s Making a Difference

Mary Stucky(1)

Mary Stucky (photo: Kate McDonald).

“I’ve always wanted to make change in the world—always, always, always,” Mary Stucky tells me. The veteran journalist is in New York to receive “the Pulitzer Prize of broadcasting”—the medium’s highest honor, a 2014 Peabody Award. This award was bestowed for work generated by the scrappy little nonprofit she co-founded, Round Earth Media, whose mission is to mentor and support fledgling foreign correspondents as they report untold stories for top media outlets around the world.

In an interview the day before the May 31 awards ceremony, Stucky, 59, tells me how she found her life’s work. “When I was growing up in the sixties and early seventies, who were the people making a difference?” she asks me—and continues, emphatically, “Lawyers and journalists! Lawyers were raising constitutional issues on behalf of women and minorities, and journalists were exposing corruption and informing the world about the civil rights and women’s movements.”

Stucky sampled both fields (a summer internship in a law firm, another at a radio station). She chose journalism: “It was more exciting,” she says, chuckling. “And I realized that what I like is to get out and do . . . I like to talk to people who are doing things and to figure out how to convey that information so it’s consumable—which is really hard to do, and I underestimated how hard.”

That was a great era for journalists—the era of the Watergate scandal and the fight for expanded civil rights. It was competitive, she acknowledges, “but you could get a job.” Stucky started out as an editorial assistant at McCall’s magazine and went on to become a contributor to national shows on public and commercial radio and TV. “For most of my career, journalism was thriving, and I benefitted from that,” she says. “I want to give back.”

Her way of giving back was to invent a program, through Round Earth Media, that gives young journalists the financial support and mentoring they need to become reliable reporters and editors. Stucky has spotted a problem that is invisible to most of us: the plight of the next generation of journalists. How, she wonders, can they make a living in today’s media environment? In Stucky’s day, you started out at a local newspaper/ TV media outlet and then went on to other, larger outlets; but these days, newspapers and other media have decimated their staffs, closed their foreign bureaus.

“I don’t think the public knows that many of the bylined stories they see in newspapers are written by free-lancers,” Stucky says. “Many young journalists can get work only by free-lancing, and it’s tough. You take all the risks and eat the expenses, and there’s no regular flow of income. You see a byline in a newspaper, and the readers don’t know that it’s not by a staffer. The public doesn’t know where its news is coming from.”

To interview Stucky is to get an insider’s take on how journalists operate—how the sausage is made. Round Earth Media, co-founded in 2005 by Stucky and her friend Mary Losure with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, originally focused on underreported stories in the Andes region. They did their reporting the usual way. “You parachute in as an American, then go to a local journalist to hire as a fixer. You have him tell you what the good stories are, set you straight, give you his stories, help you, and you pay him relatively little. You come home with your story, you win the Pulitzer Prize, and the fixer might not have a byline, not even a contributing credit.”

Stucky’s reports on Chinese and Hmong immigrants were part of the documentary series Crossing East, which won a 2006 Peabody Award.

But, by 2008, Stucky, who was running Round Earth (Mary Losure had left the organization after about a year), had decided that parachuting in was not the way to cover stories in foreign countries. There should be no fixer. The stories should be researched and written by a team—an in-country journalist and an American journalist, working as equal partners. And, because she was worried about the prospects of young reporters, Stucky chose to work with those under about age 35. “I want to be sure that there’s a next generation of global journalists,” she says. Round Earth would pay their expenses, and give them fees if the media outlets didn’t pay enough. The journalists would cover underreported stories. And, since most of them were in the early stages of their careers, they would be mentored by veteran American journalists. Round Earth would pitch the stories to the media editors they know, and these stories would be published or broadcast in both countries.

The results were gratifying. The young journalists have found compelling stories (see next page) and have reported them so well that Round Earth has succeeded in placing them in media as prestigious as National Public Radio and The New York Times. (The organization has placed stories in some 70 media outlets.) And, of course, Stucky is proud of the Round Earth–supported radio documentary Drugs, Murder, and Migration in Honduras. This is the work that won the 2014 Peabody Award. Reporter Marlon Bishop shared the award with Stucky, Round Earth’s partner in Honduras, Radio Progreso, Round Earth’s freelance producers, and the U.S. media outlet Latino USA. “Bishop says, loud and clear, that it would have been impossible for him to do the story without his very, very brave Honduran reporter partners,” Stucky tells me.

Pairing an American reporter with an in-country reporter confirmed what Stucky had suspected: American journalists need to work with an in-country peer (not simply a fixer) to get a foreign-country story right. “When one of our American journalists talks to his (or her) in-country partner, the partner may say, “You guys are all wet. What are you thinking? People would laugh at that story if you ran it down here. You’re wrong, wrong!”

Next page: Journalism 101: What is a story?

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  • Kolean Pitner June 28, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Mary Stucky is an inspiration! Round Earth Media is a resourceful model for changing the world through meaningful investigative journalism while mentoring young journalists. Bravo!