Free press

Esserman family looks to prop up local investigative news with fellowships, awards

Six prizes will be given next month under the belief that good journalism bolsters a range of issues 

In the years before Ronald Esserman died in July 2020, he had a wish: He wanted his family to unite around a cause, something that would bring sustainable change to the world. They could choose to support anything they wanted — but they had to do it together.

“That really stems from the concept of tzedakah and tikkun olam, the core [of] how my grandparents taught us to approach life,” his granddaughter, Elyse Goldberg, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Donald Esserman and his wife Charlene owned Esserman International car dealerships and had been involved in philanthropy throughout their South Florida community, supporting Zoo Miami, the Miami City Ballet, the Miami Performing Arts Center and many other local initiatives. “They cared about the arts and education,” Goldberg said, “and even though my grandfather was in the car business, he also  felt very strongly that public transportation was necessary for the health of the community.”

His family had a plethora of ideas of what they wanted to support. “We could have picked women’s rights. [We could have picked] abortion. We could have picked gun rights. There are so many things that we all care about,” his daughter Laura Esserman told eJP. “But when you invest in investigative reporting and a free press, you [are] supporting all of it.”

In early 2020, months before the elder Esserman died, the family announced the Esserman Family Fund for Investigative Journalism, beginning with a $2.5 million investment. The fund currently finances two investigative reporting fellowships for early-career reporters at the Miami Herald with an annual salary of $50,000, plus $10,000 in benefits. It also supports the Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards, a partnership with the Knight Foundation, a yearly award given to journalists based on “quality of analysis and storytelling, rigor of newsgathering, inclusion of community voices, and the impact on public understanding or action,” according to the award’s website.

Journalists are nominated for the award by peers and members of the community. This year’s awards ceremony will be held on May 2 at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center. Out of 56 nominations, 13 finalists have been announced. The first-prize winner will receive $10,000, the second-prize winner $5,000, and four honorable mentions receive $1,000 each. 

Past winners include Monique O. Maden, whose Miami Herald series “Immigration Pandemic” chronicled the living conditions of over 4,000 ICE detainees behind bars during the pandemic; Julie K. Brown and visual journalist Emily Michot, who gave voice to the victims of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, leading to his arrest; a Miami Herald team that exposed the faulty design that led to the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.; and a Miami Herald team lead by tourism reporter Taylor Dolven that uncovered how cruise ship companies kept workers stranded at sea for months without pay during the early months of the pandemic. 

The award is based on the Jewish value of freedom, said Laura Esserman. “While anyone is enslaved, no one is free,” she said. “If you are not reporting on the issues locally, you miss the opportunity to uncover where people are being oppressed… When you invest in investigative journalism, you are investing in the plethora of issues that come up. You are uncovering injustice, greed, corruption, a whole host of issues that are critically important to us, whether it’s gun violence, domestic violence, racism, antisemitism, etc. And one of the ways in which you can make an outsized impact or punch above your weight class is to honor the people who are the storytellers.”

Her dad, Ronald Esserman, knew how to make an outsized impact, overcoming polio twice, first as a child and then again in his later years. Esserman’s father, an immigrant from Latvia, went from being a peddler to owning the largest Dodge dealership in the country at one point. But Ronald was determined to make it on his own so he moved away from his father and the family business in Chicago to start a new life in Miami, working at a cousin’s dealership. His first year there, he slept on a couch in one of the dealership’s offices, using a hot plate to make meals. But soon his management abilities led the dealership to great success, and Ronald ended up purchasing the business from his cousin, selling it, and opening new dealerships with the proceeds, before selling those and opening more.

To Ronald Esserman, Florida supported him, so he wanted to support it in return. The family believed that the best way to do that was to ensure a free press, especially at a time when newsrooms are cutting investigative teams. “Jobs are scarce,” said Laura Esserman. “People are underpaid, but people do it because they have a passion for it.”

In addition to job insecurity, journalists frequently find themselves vilified and blamed for society’s woes. “To a lot of people in this country we’re public enemy No. 1, even though all we’re trying to do is keep democracy strong,” said Brittany Wallman, the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s investigations editor, who, along with her team, has in the past received second prize and an honorable mention, and is again nominated for this year’s Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards.

“For a while there I thought that journalism would completely disappear,” Wallman told eJP. “A lot of my colleagues left the field because they couldn’t see a future… I think models like what the Essermans are doing here, where people have recognized that this is so important to our country and to society and to democracy, it’s a public service; [journalism is] something that philanthropists can help prop up.”

Laura Esserman said the award ceremony itself advances the fund’s goals, driving up interest in the journalists’ work and creating community.

“I’m really excited for the ceremony because there’s going to be an opportunity to talk to people, to learn about the work that they’re doing, to feel a sense of community in the world of journalism,” Alexandra Martinez, a senior news reporter for the Prism news site and a finalist for the Esserman-Knight awards, told eJP. “Since the pandemic, especially as a remote journalist, you don’t always get opportunities to connect with other reporters.”

The Esserman Family Fund’s partner, the Knight Foundation, which provides grants for journalism and the arts, has been a thread throughout Martinez’s career. “I won a Silver Knight award in high school, which is why being a finalist for another Knight award now, at this stage of my career, feels so beautiful,” she said.

Finances for the Esserman Family Fund are managed by the Miami Foundation, which is focused on civic leadership, community investment and philanthropy. The foundation helps nonprofits and charges the Essermans less than 1% for its services. Laura Esserman believes the fellowships and awards are completely sustainable. The endowment yields about 5% annually, allowing the family to spend $100,000-$125,000 each year and still be able to grow. The family hopes to add an additional fellow and increase the prizes in the future.

“The financial part of it is incredibly significant, it can make the difference for a young reporter like me, especially as a single mother,” said Martinez. “It makes a difference in being able to continue in this type of work.”

Goldberg hopes the Esserman Family Fund model can “inspire others to find a way to give back to whatever cause [they care for, and] make it a family effort, which for us is inherently Jewish.”

Every year, the family reads the submissions, bonding as they debate the stories’ merits and pick winners. “My grandmother is still involved,” said Goldberg. “She just turned 95 years old in October, and, even this year, she read all the articles.”