In a narrow sense, Report for America is focused on plugging the gaps in “news deserts.” But as ambitious as that sounds, our long term goals are much bigger – to systematically change the nature of local news, and thereby create a healthier democracy.
Four seismic shifts have to happen. We must:
Dramatically expand the non-profit role in local media. Even if local commercial media improves its revenue model, it will not be substantial enough to sufficiently cover the community’s most important issues, and all of its communities. In the digital world, the least economical types of journalism will usually become unbundled from the rest, and languish.
The role of non-profit media at the local level needs to grow. That could mean more public radio or more non-profit investigative organizations. Or it could mean Report for America’s model, which places reporters in a mix of commercial and non-profit organizations, rewarding the most innovative and those committed to civically important journalism. Most likely, it will mean all three.
Donors – average citizens contributing $25, community foundations, and wealthy philanthropists – will need to engage in a way never before seen. Journalism cannot be funded mostly by government, so the private philanthropic world has to step in. The good news is, it won’t take that much money. Under the RFA model, $10,000 location support can make a reporter happen.
Make local reporting a public service vocation. Our profession has to re-embrace its commitment to journalism as public service. We are there to give them the information they need to lead their lives well and to hold the powerful accountable. This will also earn trust and in the long run draw more talented people into journalism. The goal is to make local reporters seem less as ambulance chasers and more like ambulance drivers. The job “local reporter” should be in the same public-service category as teachers, sanitation workers or librarians.
Ultimately, our “theory of change” assumes that the reporters have impact both while their in their local newsrooms, and beyond. If they go to national organizations, they’ll carry with them the experience of truly understanding the stories coming out of under-served areas. If they leave journalism, they will become ambassadors to the public, explaining the journalistic process and deploying journalistic skills — listening, fact-checking, intellectual honesty — in other leadership roles.
Expand capacity permanently. We don’t want reporters to come in for a year or two, leave and have the news ecosystem to revert back to what it was before.
The key to permanence is point number one. If we expand the number of local residents who view journalism as an essential civic good, we will permanently improve local journalism.
Beyond that, we need to experiment with other dramatically different approaches. For instance, what if for every endowed journalism professorship, we had an endowed local reporter slot? After all (no offense our great j-school professors), teaching students well will mean nothing if there are no jobs for them. Endowments will enable local journalism to persist forever.
Go beyond the Golden Age. Let’s be honest: in the “golden ages” of local journalism, many communities were ignored, many topics given short shrift. Although the economics were more forgiving then, poorer communities were still under-covered, in part because advertisers saw fewer dollars in those neighborhoods.
The goal now should be to create something better than has ever existed – and that is possible. First, the business model shifts mentioned above will allow for – and indeed require – an attention to all communities, regardless of income or race.
Second, the technological changes that have helped cause some of these problems do provide tremendous opportunities to engage a wider range of communities. Digital platforms can allow for the voiceless to have voice. So if we combine those tools – and assertive new efforts to engage the community – with the service approach to local journalism, we can move beyond merely stimulating fragile green shoots in news deserts.
If we approach this creatively, local journalism can be bloom more robustly than ever before.