The John B. Oakes Award | Columbia Journalism School

The John B. Oakes Award

The John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, which carries a $5,000 prize, is given annually for news reporting that makes an exceptional contribution to the public’s understanding of environmental issues. The award was founded in 1993 by family, friends and colleagues of Oakes (1913-2001), who was an environmental journalism pioneer and an editorial writer for The New York Times. It recognizes journalists whose work meets the highest standards of journalistic excellence.

How to Enter

The 2021 Oakes Award is now open for nominations. Deadline: April 22.

The John B. Oakes Award and its $5,000 prize is given for outstanding environmental reporting across platforms. Print, radio, broadcast and digital reporting are eligible for the award. All entries must have appeared in the U.S. during 2020. The entry fee for each nomination is $50. Entry fees are non-refundable.

How to Enter:

All materials should be formatted and uploaded as PDFs or as URLs. Links must remain live through September 2021.

Please fill out the entry form (credit card | check payment) and upload supporting materials.

Materials needed for entry:

  • One to five pieces of environmental reporting. Materials may be uploaded as PDFs or as links.
  • Confirmation that the pieces appeared during 2020.
  • Broadcast transcripts for radio or video reporting, or if your online entry includes audio/video components.

Supplemental materials such as a brief statement on the work as well as biographies of the persons who contributed to the pieces may be submitted.

Please keep in mind:

  • A single article or a series of articles can be submitted. A series must be designated as such by the publication when it is printed. A regular column may also be submitted as a series.
  • If submitting a series, up to five articles can be submitted.
  • The judges may divide the award among the writer, videographer, photographer, and illustrator, if their work substantially strengthens the winning piece.
  • A translation must be supplied for any article not written in English.
  • If a piece or series lives online, direct links may be provided. Otherwise, please upload the material to a site such as YouTube or Vimeo.
  • For all visual elements, the name of the photographer, videographer, or graphic artist should be included on all entry forms.
  • Entry fees are non-refundable.

2020 Oakes Award Winner & Finalists

The John B. Oakes Award Jury has named a winner and two finalists for the 2020 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. The Oregonian/OregonLive has won the 2020 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism for its compelling and impactful series “Polluted by Money."  Sometimes the best journalism exposes conduct that’s legal — yet so wrong. Journalist Rob Davis took a close look at the state’s laws allowing people and corporations to give political candidates unlimited donations. That has made Oregon number one in the U.S. among corporate political giving per capita. Davis then showed the stranglehold that corporate money has on policy, especially environmental policy — made more curious in such a liberal state now suffering a backlog of environmental protections. Davis also found compelling human stories to show the harm to regular citizens. “Polluted by Money” hit like an earthquake. Limits in the state’s biggest county and city went into effect. Courts are taking action. And voters statewide will decide this November whether limits expand statewide.

Two Finalists for the 2020 Oakes Award are: Los Angeles Times for “American Fallout” and The Washington Post for “2°C: Beyond the Limit."

The 2020 Oakes Award winners and finalists were honored virtually on Mon., Sept. 21.

Find the full announcement with judges’ citations here


About John B. Oakes

John Bertram Oakes (1913­-2001), the creator of the contemporary op­-ed page and the editor who brought conviction and incisiveness to New York Times editorials, was a pioneer of environmental journalism. At a time when no newspapers had environmental reporters and the idea of an environmental beat did not yet exist, Oakes's editorial page made the environment a prominent topic in the national debate.

John Oakes became an editorial writer for the New York Times in 1949 and was editor of the editorial page from 1961 to 1976. The Times's Robert D. McFadden has written that, before Oakes took over, the paper’s editorials sounded “more like the advice of the family doctor than the boom of civic conscience.” Oakes reinvigorated the editorial voice, pushing his writers to take strong positions and articulate them with force. He received the George Polk Award in 1966 for bringing to the Times editorial page “a brilliance, an intensity and a perceptiveness” that made it “the most vital and influential journalistic voice in America.”

Oakes conceived the idea for another of his lasting contributions to journalism, the op­-ed page, shortly before he became the editorial page editor. Although the concept of a forum for both outside contributors and Times columnists languished for years, caught up in debate within the paper over space and editorial control, the page Oakes eventually created has been adopted by newspapers all over the world. Oakes himself was a frequent contributor to the Times op-ed page until the mid-1990s. In 2000, he received the George Polk Career Award “for his singular journalistic achievements.”

The Oakes Award has always been conferred for feature reporting. Oakes himself, however, spent most of his writing career as an editorialist and essayist. He was a stylist of great eloquence; many of his editorials, such as those on President Kennedy’s assassination and the lunar landing, are classics of the period. Before becoming editorial page editor, Oakes also wrote a monthly environmental column for several years. (The column was his own proposal; when Times editors expressed doubt that readers would have any interest in the environment, he offered to write it for free. It was to become one of the most popular columns in the paper.) Some of Oakes’s favorite environmental subjects included parks and public lands; the “radical, inflationary, economically unsound, and environmentally degrading” policies of Interior Secretary James Watt; and government inaction on “the spread of aerial sewage in the form of acid rain.”

John B. Oakes was a nephew of Adolph Ochs, who became publisher of the New York Times in 1896. Oakes’s father, George Washington Ochs-Oakes, was mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, editor of the Philadelphia Ledger, and publisher of Current History magazine. In 1917 he changed his two sons’ surname, and modified his own, out of anger at the German atrocities of World War I.

A Rhodes scholar and the valedictorian of his graduating class at Princeton, John B. Oakes began his life in journalism in 1936 as a reporter for the Trenton Times in New Jersey. The next year he started reporting on politics and writing features for the Washington Post. During World War II he served in Europe as a counterintelligence officer, and for his service received the Bronze Star, the Croix de Guerre, and the Order of the British Empire. After the war he joined the New York Times as editor of Week in Review. He married Margery Hartman in 1945. They had three daughters, Andra, Alison, and Cynthia; and a son, John, who now serves on the Oakes Award Committee of Judges.

Past Winners

See recent and past winners:

Year Result Organization Journalists Work
2019 Winner Inside Climate News Georgina Gustin, Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr. and Paul Horn

Harvesting Peril: Extreme Weather and Climate Change on the American Farm


  Finalist ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine Abrahm Lustgarten Fuel to the Fire
  Finalist The Desert Sun Ian James and Zoë Meyers Poisoned Cities, Deadly Border,
2018 Winner The New York Times Eric Lipton, Coral Davenport, Danielle Ivory, Barry Meier and Hiroko Tabuchi

Trump Rules: A Historic Drive to Rollback Environmental Protections - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


  Finalist The Post and Courier Tony Bartelme Scum: Toxic Algae is a Growing Menace
  Finalist Quartz Akshat Rathi The Race to Zero Emissions
2017 Winner Reuters M.B. Pell, Joshua Schneyer

Unsafe at Any Level: Exposing the hidden hazards of lead poisoning across America


  Finalist The Center for Public Integrity David Heath, Jim Morris, Jie Jenny Zou (CJS '13) Science for Sale
  Finalist The Washington Post Todd C. Frankel, Jorge Ribas, Michael Robinson Chavez, Peter Whoriskey Mobile Power: Human Toll
2016 Winner InsideClimate News Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman, David Hasemyer, and Lisa Song "Exxon: The Road Not Taken"
  Finalist Climate Central John Upton "Pulp Fiction"
  Finalist The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners More than 80 journalists from two dozen news outlets around the world  "Evicted and Abandoned: The World Bank's Broken Promise to the Poor"



San Jose Mercury News

Lisa M. Krieger, Paul Rogers

"California Drought"



InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity & The Weather Channel

David Hasemeyer & Lisa Song, Jim Morris, and Greg Gilderman

"Big Oil, Bad Air"


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dan Egan

"A Watershed Moment: Great Lakes at a Crossroads"


On hiatus - no award given




Chicago Tribune

Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe, Michael Hawthorne

"Playing with Fire"



Environmental Health News

Marla Cone

"Playing with Fire"


InsideClimate News

Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan, David Hasmyer

"The Dilbit Disaster"


USA Today

Alison Young and Peter Eisler

"Ghost Factories"



The New York Times

Justin Gillis

"Temperature Rising"



The Associated Press

Jeff Donn

"Aging Nukes"


The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News

Ronnie Greene and Matthew Mosk

"Green Energy: Contracts, Connections and the Collapse of Solyndra"



The Center for Public Integrity

International Consortium of

Investigative Journalists

Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade


The Times-Picayune, New Orleans


Deepwater Horizon oil spill coverage


The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dan Egan

Great Lakes, Great Peril: A Road Map to Restoration



USA Today

Blake Morrison and Brad Heath

The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and

America’s Schools


The New York Times

Charles Duhigg

Toxic Waters


The Center for Public Integrity

Kristen Lombardi

The Hidden Cost of Clean Coal


The Military Times

Kelly Kennedy

“Poisoned in Iraq: How Open Air Burn Pits are Risking Your Health”



Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Susanne Rust, Meg Kissinger and Cary Spivak

Chemical Fallout


The Associated Press

Martha Mendoza, Jeff Donn and Justin Pritchard




The Times Picayune of New Orleans

Bob Marshall, Mark Schleifstein, Matt Brown and photographer Ted Jackson

Last Chance: The Fight to Save a Disappearing Coast


The Los Angeles Times

Judy Pasternak

"Blighted Homeland


Harper’s Magazine

McKenzie Funk

Cold Rush: The Coming Fight for the Melting North



The Los Angeles Times

Kenneth R. Weiss and his team

Altered Oceans



Harper's Magazine

Erik Reece

Death of a Mountain


The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dan Egan

“Troubled Waters, the Great Invasion”



Cascadia Times

Paul Koberstein




The Detroit Free Press





Mobile Register

Ben Raines




Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Robert McClure and Andrew Schneider




The Times-Picayune

John McQuaid




Los Angeles Times

T. Christian Miller




The Seattle Times

Deborah Nelson, Jim Simon, Eric Nalder and Danny Westneat




The Seattle Times

Duff Wilson




The Record

Dunstan McNichol and Kelly Richmond




The News & Observer

Pat Stith and Joby Warrick



Board of Judges


David Boardman is Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia and Chair of the John B. Oakes Award Board of Judges. Previously, he was Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of The Seattle Times, the largest news organization in the Pacific Northwest.

Emilia Askari is an environmental journalist and an educator who conducts research at the intersection of news literacy, social entrepreneurship, digital citizenship and games.

Talia Buford is a reporter for ProPublica covering disparities in environmental impacts. She was previously an environment and labor reporter at the Center for Public Integrity and an energy reporter for POLITICO.

Jeff Burnside is an independent journalist who has spent more than 20 years working as an investigative reporter. He was most recently a senior investigative reporter for KOMO 4 News in Seattle.

Jody Calendar, an environmental reporter, is a former American Press Media Editors (APME) national director.

Tom Herman is a journalist and teacher. He teaches seminars at Yale College (in the fall semester), Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (also in the fall) and the University of San Diego (in the winter semester).

Deborah Nelson is Associate Professor of Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.  She joined the Philip Merrill faculty in 2006, after five years as the Washington investigations editor for the Los Angeles Times. 

John G. H. Oakes is the son of John B. Oakes and co-founder of OR Books (, an alternative publishing company that embraces e-books and other new technologies. 

Susanne Rust is an investigative reporter specializing in environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times. Previously, she was the director of Columbia Journalism School's Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Trahant has been a professor at the University of North Dakota and the University of Alaska Anchorage and reports and comments on events and trends on Facebook, Twitter (@TrahantReports) and other social media.