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The New Guard

Meet the 2023 Dao Prize Finalists

By

Sara Garstka, The National Journalism Center

March 28, 2024

Last November, Andrew Kerr, Aaron Sibarium, and Joe Simonson of the Washington Free Beacon were named finalists for the National Journalism Center’s inaugural Dao Prize. The Dao Prize, presented by NJC and sponsored by the Dao Feng and Angela Foundation, recognizes excellence in investigative journalism. NJC trains truth-seeking journalists with its signature 12-week internship program. 

In 2023, Kerr and Sibarium were honored for their hard-hitting investigations into dark money and institutional corruption respectively. Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger took home the top prize for their work on The Twitter Files, and the Free Beacon’s Joseph Simonson co-bylined the award-winning series on dark money with Kerr 

In presenting the awards, Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal called the celebration “a truly consequential moment.” It was, according to Strassel, “A moment when those of us who celebrate freedom, and who understand from where and what that freedom flows, begin to once again celebrate and reward real journalism.” 

With applications for the National Journalism Center’s 2024 Dao Prize now open, we checked in with Kerr and Sibarium to learn more about their impressive careers in pursuit of the “real journalism” Strassel described.  

Meet Andrew Kerr, Aaron Sibarium, and Joe Simonson 

NJC:  How did you get into journalism? 

Kerr: Unexpectedly. I have a degree in computer science and worked in corporate tech for about three years after graduating college. But I’ve always been passionate about the news and politics. I discovered during my free time that my technology background gave me a knack for open-source research. This ultimately led me to realize I had cultivated a passion for investigative reporting. When I was 25 I decided to take a risk and pursue this dream full-time. I was fortunate enough to land my first full-time investigative reporting gig with the Daily Caller News Foundation in early 2018 and it’s been full speed ahead ever since. 

Sibarium: I always knew I wanted to do writing of some kind, but I came to reporting largely by accident. In 2020, I was an editor—not a writer—for the Free Beacon, but I was closely following debates at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how best to allocate the soon-to-be approved COVID vaccine. It turned out the agency was planning to prioritize essential workers over the elderly because, they said, this would result in racial equity—even though old people were at much higher risk from the disease.  

I ended up writing a story about the CDC’s decision-making process, looking at how agency bureaucrats twisted various rules and ethics guidelines in order to fit their preferred conclusion. The story was a hit, and a few months later I was promoted, so to speak, to a full-time reporter. I’ve been on the institutional capture beat ever since. 

Simonson: I had an interest in politics growing up, but college is when I really decided on journalism as a career. In my second semester of my senior year, I basically just sent a job application to every outlet I could think of. Luckily, one of them, the New York Post, was stupid enough to give me a chance. 

NJC: What should young journalists do to be successful? 

Kerr: Being a jack of all trades will only get you so far. Identify your strengths and use them to carve out a niche for yourself. Become the best at that thing. When people think of you, they should know you’re the go-to person for whatever it is you’ve chosen to specialize in. 

Sibarium: Work hard. You won’t always need to work long hours but, if you want to get time-sensitive scoops and dominate your beat, sometimes you will—including on weekends if the situation warrants it.   

I would also stress the importance of kindness, courtesy, and professionalism, not just with your colleagues but with your sources. The more pleasant you are to work with, the more people will come to you with tips. 

Simonson: Read, read, read. You should basically consume as much news as you can find. It’s amazing what kind of stuff journalists leave on the table for you to report out. Also, don’t make the mistake of getting into op-ed writing. There are enough columnists out there. I’m 30 and I don’t think most people care about my opinion on virtually anything. Imagine what they thought when I was in my 20s. 

NJC: How can journalism influence public policy? 

Kerr: Policymakers don’t know what they don’t know. Reporters shine a light on the things that need to be paid attention to.  

Sibarium: Sunlight is often the best disinfectant. When I reported on the race-based rationing of COVID drugs, for example, a number of states and hospital systems removed race from their allocation criteria. You’d be surprised what simply stating facts can do. 

Simonson: Most lawmakers know what’s going on the same way you and I do — through the news. If you get a good story in front of one of them, you’d be surprised by how much they may be willing to take action.

NJC: How can the industry be fixed? 

Kerr: Reporters and news outlets should be honest about their biases, and readers should know that the bias is manifested mostly in the stories outlets choose to cover. And that’s okay. There’s a certain level of honesty in conservative media that I don’t see in mainstream outlets. Nobody’s under a false impression. It’s in the name — conservative media. Too many mainstream outlets and reporters have tricked themselves into thinking they’re immune from their biases, or that they don’t have them at all. As a result they ignore important and legitimate stories — Hunter Biden’s laptop, COVID lab leak, the Black Lives Matter scam, the list goes on and on. Mainstream outlets let their biases take control and they ignored those legitimate stories for years. 

Sibarium: There’s no easy fix, but journalists can help on the margins by covering stories the mainstream media won’t cover—carefully, rigorously, and without unnecessary bomb-throwing. That will make it harder for the mainstream media to ignore the reporting. 

Simonson: Probably by getting rid of most journalists. Short of that, the profession needs as many support networks that will nurture, train, and pay for journalists who are willing to take the craft seriously. I’ve been blessed to have all the resources I can think of at my disposal in order to report out good stories at the Washington Free Beacon, but there aren’t too many like it unfortunately. 

 

NJC: Why should journalists apply for the DaoPrize? 

 

Kerr: For the exposure alone. There’s no application fee, and a panel of established journalists across the industry will read and recognize your work. From a networking perspective, only good can come from that. The potential for a cash prize is the cherry on top.  

Sibarium: Worst case scenario, you get a free dinner and a fun networking opportunity. Best case scenario, you win recognition and a lot of money.  

Simonson: It’s easy to get frustrated in this job by a lack of recognition. I mean, journalists don’t get into this line of work for the money obviously. So when you see hacks at establishment news outlets get showered with praise for mediocre work, you can get discouraged. The Dao Prize changes all that. It’s the first time in my professional life where I’ve really seen an alternative institution spring up and reward people like me and my colleagues for their hard work. It’s easily one of the most exciting developments in my field. 

You can follow all the 2023 Dao winners’ work on X: 

Aaron Sibarium: @aaronsibarium 

Bari Weiss: @bariweiss 

Michael Shellenberger: @shellenberger 

Andrew Kerr: @AndrewKerrNC 

Joe Simonson: @SaysSimonson 


Applications for the 2024 award for real journalism are currently open and close September 2nd. More information is available here. 

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