Is Report for America just a bandaid?

By Steven Waldman

In a narrow sense, Report for America is focused on plugging the gaps in “news deserts.” Our goal is 1,000 reporters in the field years from now, so we are aspiring to dramatically improve the quality and quantity of accountability reporting on the ground. This is a ‘helping communities’ program more than it is a ‘helping journalists’ program.

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.

Five 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 a combination.  This year, we have placed Report for America corps members into 22 non-profit organizations (and, of course, RFA itself is part of a nonprofit organization, The GroundTruth Project).

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 residents the information they need to lead their lives well and to hold the powerful accountable. Reporters and news organizations will earn trust. In the long run, more talented people will be drawn 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 they are in their local newsrooms, and beyond. Many of our reporters are from the areas on which they report; hopefully, some will stay. But if they go to other local news outlets or 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.

In the Report for America model, local newsrooms are expected to raise part of their share of the reporter’s salary from local donors. We aspire to draw millions of dollars off the sidelines, from people or institutions who previously didn’t consider a healthy news ecosystem to be part of creating a healthy community.

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.

Change the Incentive Structure for Local Commercial Organizations.  Report for America does place journalists in some commercial news organizations, most especially newspapers. Why? First, in many communities, helping the newspaper is still the best shot at providing accountability reporting and serving the community.  Second, over time, we hope RFA can alter the incentive structures in local newsrooms by injecting non-profit, mission-oriented thinking or requirements that focus editors on civically-important beats. Consider this passage from a Columbia Journalism Review article about the two Report for America reporters working at the Chicago Sun Times:

 “The pair are rarely, if ever, assigned to breaking crime stories. ‘We can’t just send them to the crime scene,’ Chris Fusco, the Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief said. Because of their agreement with RFA, the two fellows covered a range of community issues—economic development, immigration, educational initiatives, health disparities, demographic trends—anything but crime. Because the Sun-Times had gone through layoffs and ownership changes, reporting manpower was stretched thin. ‘There’s days, believe me, you would love to take the warm body that’s in the newsroom and dispatch it to whatever crisis that is going on,’ Fusco admitted. ‘But we can’t do that.’”

While some commercial entities will be impervious to these kinds of incentives, in other cases philanthropic requirements can alter behavior — sometimes ‘forcing’ them to take approaches they’d like to take anyway.

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 marginalized voices to be amplified.  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 bloom more robustly than ever before.

This is a revised version of a piece that ran in April, 2018.