Columbia Journalism School
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Oakes Award

Honoring outstanding environmental reporting in the name of
New York Times editor and journalist John B. Oakes

The John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, which carries a $5,000 prize and plaque, 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 Oakes’ family, friends and colleagues. It recognizes journalists whose work meets the highest standards of journalistic excellence, and it is presented in the fall at Columbia Journalism School.

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’ 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’ 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 &ldquot;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’ 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.

History of the Award

The Graduate School of Journalism assumed the administration of the prestigious John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in 2005. Read more


Caroline Martinet, Program Manager, Oakes Award
Columbia University Journalism School
2950 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

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