Report for America’s ‘Staggering’ Start in Building a ‘Better Local Media System’

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Throughout America, there are hundreds of news deserts—communities where the water may be shut off but residents don’t find out why, as happened in January in Martin County in Eastern Kentucky.

Report for America addresses this double crisis of local news and local democracy by deploying talented journalists into newsrooms in underserved communities—as it did for the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader in Martin County.

In this Q & A, Report for America co-founder and president Steve Waldman, who wrote the landmark 2009 FCC report on “Information Needs of Communities,” explains how the project works and aims to help transform the local news industry.

What do you make of Report for America’s initial numbers—740 reporter applications and 85 local newsrooms for nine openings?

They are staggering. They show what a tremendous appetite there is on the part of reporters and newsrooms to really dive in at the local level and try to solve the crisis in local journalism through a public service model.

How much of Report for America is covered financially so far?

We are covered for funding our class of 2018—12 reporters and 11 news organizations—so that’s good. We start with funding a local reporter’s salary at around $40,000. When you split that with national funders picking up 50%, the local news organizations that host the corps members providing 25%, and the community 25%, it becomes a lot more affordable. We can tell local philanthropies that for $10,000 they can make a reporter happen. That’s a very compelling argument.

This is an initiatve of the GroundTruth Project. Who’s writing the checks nationally?

The national funders include the Knight Foundation, Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Google News Lab, the Select Equity Group Foundation, the Galloway Family Foundation, and others partners for the first year.

Is it too soon to talk about your longer-term funding?

No, we’re already focused on that. It’s true that the first thing we have to do is make sure the first 12 reporters do great work and prove the Report for America model works. But it’s not too soon to be looking at the bigger picture. Our goal is to place 1,000 reporters in the field in 2022.

The first thing is to see that there’s an appetite to scale this in a big way, and I think we’ve shown the appetite is amazing, and there are enough excellent reporters who want to do it and enough local news organizations that want to use them well. The “only” question next is can we raise enough money longer term to make this a truly transformative new model and can we do the blocking and tackling on execution.

Is it possible that as you ramp up Report for America, you will seek to generate a bigger share of funding from the local community?

In our budgeting for the fourth and fifth year, we assume that would happen. This program is not going to be scaled, and the problem of local news solved, unless there is more support from the community—period.

That might mean readers buying more subscriptions from local providers or donations to Report for America. But, one way or another, the crisis in local news is not going to be solved unless the community gets more involved and passionate in its support.

How does Report for America go through its selection process in finding the right news organizations and the right reporters to support?

The first big substantive question to a news provider is, what are the news deserts in your area and the gaps in coverage? Secondly, how will you use Report for America corps members to fill those gaps? These corps members have to be focused on civically important beats.

Another question to the news provider is, are you committed to helping us raise local funding to support a reporter? Not every provider wants to do that, and they didn’t get to the finals in the application process.

The providers who were selected were all motivated to get the local share. The 11 winning news organizations are quite impressive in their range and quality.

Our attitude is that even if the local newsroom says, “OK, it’s a pain to get community funding, we’ll just pay the full $20,000 local share ourselves.” We say, “No, we’d rather not; we think it’s in all our best interests in the long run to make the effort to raise community funding.”

Journalists too often haven’t connected with the communities they say they want to serve. Is that changing?

It was an alien concept. Newspapers missed the revolution in terms of what sites like Yelp and Craigslist achieved. They weren’t thinking of themselves as a community platform.

Now, we are seeing news providers starting to experiment with getting close to their communities. There’s the listening tool Hearken. Jim Brady and his group at the Spirited Media sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Denver are putting a strong effort into public events.

But there’s a long way to go, and there’s a critically important bridge that has to be crossed. We want to be a helpful player in making that happen.

We’re trying to really underline the idea of community engagement—and public service—by having the reporters do a direct volunteer service project. For instance, they’ll be working in high schools and middle schools to help students create or enhance student-run news websites, podcasts, or broadcasts.

How do you ensure that what you’ve started at Report for America becomes best practices longer term?

We’re providing a nudge and helpful advice and a financial incentive. But news providers will have to want to engage more deeply with their communities themselves. We’re going to be creating the kind of marketplace where we reward the news organizations that are the most innovative in achieving community engagement. We’ll reward them with great reporters.

Journalists today have a lot more data about their news subjects, and it’s more accessible. Can this make up for the loss of so many newspaper journalists, which the surge in employment of journalists at pure-play news sites doesn’t begin to offset?

Any good local reporter has to be facile with data to make scarce resources go further. But one of the premises of Report for America is that we really need a lot more reporters. Technology can make each journalist’s effort go further and improve distribution, but we have to face facts: There’s a limit to how much any of that can really help if you don’t have enough local reporters.

In figuring out the new business model for local news, there’s the false hope that there’s some app that will solve the local news problem. But the commercial model as we know it is not going to solve the local news crisis. And technology is not going to solve it.

We’ll need a bigger role for the nonprofit sector and we’re going to need a lot more reporters on the ground.

What does your experience with initial Report for America journalists tell you about that thesis?

One of our first journalists is Will Wright, a talented young man who is embedded in the newsroom of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. He was put in Eastern Kentucky. When he got there, the paper had one reporter covering 24 counties in that part of the state.

In his second week, he does a story about a thousand residents in Martin County not having water for five days after the financially troubled local utility shut off the supply because of “high water usage, busted meters, etc.”

The story got immediate attention. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich weighed in, and a month later, grants totaling $5 million that had been sought by the utility to fix the problem were quickly approved, with most of the funding coming after direct intervention by the governor of Kentucky and the local congressional representative.

What’s really telling about this story is that it wasn’t the result of a six-month-long investigative project. This happened during Will Wright’s second week on the job. He went to meetings. He followed up, interviewing key officials. He listened. The people of Eastern Kentucky had been complaining about the water for months and years. But the complaints went into a vacuum.

Wright’s reporting shows that news sources can be so barren in some areas. So deploying an enthusiastic, talented reporter can have a really significant impact.

The public’s trust in the news media is, overall, low, surveys show, although local providers do get a higher low rating than national ones. How much of a challenge is trust of the media in communities like those in Eastern Kentucky?

Wright assumed there would [be] a certain amount of hostility to the news media when he began his coverage through Report for America. Now when he walks down the street in Martin County, people are high-fiving him. Going to public meetings, listening, caring about people and what’s going on in their lives are what will improve trust in the news media.

Can public-service journalism—the kind that’s the focus of Report for America—restore to local news the trust and reputation it had in the so-called golden days of print?

Together with improved business models, we can go to a better place than we’ve ever had in local news. The insertion of this nonprofit, public service element forces local news organizations to do what they secretly want to do anyway, which is to cover what’s civically important.

There’s a bottom-line benefit for local media, of course. When members of the community value and trust local news more, they will be far more likely to buy subscriptions, click on ads, and go to sponsored events.

The foundation of democracy, it’s often said, is in the local community. Is there a relationship between local democracy and local news?

The crisis in local news is a crisis for local democracy. Solving the crisis of local democracy is going to require us to come up with creative, dramatic solutions for local journalism.

One issue is practical. People need good information to make decisions for their families and their community—knowing when to drink the water or knowing who to vote for to make sure the water is drinkable. So it’s practical and civic.

The other half of the issue is polarization. Local issues are not partisan in the same way that national issues are. They aren’t determined by liberal and conservative public opinion. They can be contentious, but there are different fault lines, and people are dealing with each other—or should be—as human beings instead of as political constructs or caricatures.

With Report for America, we want to create a media system that’s better than it’s ever been. We tend to all talk about plugging the gaps, to get us back to where we were when newspapers were healthy. But that’s not ambitious enough.

We have the potential, if we approach this the right way, to make something much better. We can combine the progress and innovation of technology with greater, more creative local reporting and make sure the communities that were left out even in the glory days of the print era don’t get left out this time. Report for America is designed to help us create the most responsive, effective local media system we’ve ever had.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.