Why Does Report for America Place Reporters in For-Profit Newsrooms?

“Why does Report for America place reporters in for-profit newsrooms? Shouldn’t those places cover the communities adequately — on their own dime?”

We get this question occasionally. I want to address it head on because we believe strongly that Report for America corps members should partner with a full range of models, including both nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms. In fact, right now, half of our 300 corps members are in nonprofit and the other half are in commercial entities.

On one level, it’s a simple matter. We assess most decisions through this lens: What does the community need? We view the community as the primary beneficiary of the program, even though our direct support is, of course, to newsrooms and reporters.  And in the cases of these 105 for-profit newsrooms, we believe that the hybrid model we have pioneered — nonprofit spirit and money injected into commercial entities — leaves the community better off.

But, really, the answer is more complicated than that. It’s worth unpacking.


The Crisis for Communities

The vast majority of local reporting is provided by for-profit entities. Most Americans get local news that is reported by newspapers or local TV stations, whether they get that information directly from those sources or indirectly through social media. And newspaper business models have collapsed. (Just because newsrooms are for-profit doesn’t mean they’re making a profit.) As a result, they have slashed reporting staffs. We can curse the CEOs and have sympathy for the laid off reporters — but the real victims are the residents of those communities. 

The collapse of local journalism has led to a profound crisis of democracy.  Studies have shown that less local journalism leads to more waste, more corruption, more pollution, higher taxes, more alienation and more polarization. The vacuums have been filled by disinformation and conspiracy theories, and polarizing national news. The spread of news deserts is accelerating, and now we have hundreds of “pink slime” sites — some operated by political advocacy organizations and others as shady pay-for-play sites.  

We need to fill these gaps rapidly. One important answer is to create new news organizations, often nonprofits, or help existing nonprofits to expand. That’s why a disproportionate share of our corps members — half of the total — do serve in nonprofits — places like Flint Beat, Oklahoma Watch, and WyoFile. We need far more of these kinds of sites, and we need them to get bigger and stronger. We have even helped some nonprofits get started from day one — like Mountain State Spotlight, Wichita Beacon and the Sahan Journal.

We also work with many existing for-profits. There are about 8,000 commercial newspapers and 1,758 local TV stations, compared to a few hundred nonprofit websites and a few hundred public radio stations. Local newspapers are still often the only ones with the heft to hold the powerful to account. Two-thirds of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes went to commercial newspapers. They often are the only news organization in town. Almost all Black- and Hispanic-owned newspapers are commercial family-owned businesses. And it can be difficult, and expensive, to start new brands and build up trust quickly. So for now, excluding for-profit entities would mean punishing Americans with less and less news.

Of course, we’re not blind to the problems of the commercial sector. We have seen for-profit,  publicly-traded chains under-finance newsrooms to maximize dividends; newspapers owned by hedge funds slash journalism to increase investor returns; and some family-owned publications cut journalism excessively to maximize profits.

We do not want to place Report for America’s precious assets — our donors’ money and our beloved journalists — into just any kind of for-profit newsrooms. We lean in the direction of creating a new hybrid model that has the best elements of for-profit and nonprofit thinking. 

First, they must dedicate resources to under-covered areas. This is baked into our application process when newsrooms ask to be accepted into the program. They’re not allowed to pitch us on the need for health care coverage in Washington County and then switch to having the reporter manage the Twitter account.

More affirmatively, they commit to putting a guardrail around important beats — including many that hadn’t been covered in a long time or, in some cases, ever. Among the innovative beats that have been developed by our corps members in commercial newsrooms: reporting on  formerly incarcerated people for the Detroit Free Press; covering mental health in Western New York for Spectrum TV in Buffalo; covering Native American tribes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; and covering Vietnamese and Black communities for the Biloxi Sun Herald.

One of the readers of the Sun Herald reminded us of why we need to think about this journalism — even when done by commercial media — through the prism of community worth. Brie Bushaw, a resident of the area, feared sending her 10-year-old son to school because he is autistic, and she herself is diabetic. “Would he get coronavirus? Will he bring it home to me and my husband? What would happen to our jobs if we did get it? What if one or all of us became fatally ill because of coronavirus?? I wasn’t going to take that chance.” She was elated to find out the school was offering online learning but  then tried to fill out the online application:

I came to the question, “Do you have internet at home?” My options were yes or no. My husband and I were barely affording rent, power and food! Of course we didn’t have internet. So I click no and my heart dropped. A message popped up and the words I read filled me with so many emotions…”You don’t qualify for virtual learning.”

What?? How is this even possible?? So because I can’t afford an extra bill at home my son’s life has to be put at risk?? I couldn’t believe it. I had heard about Ms. Taft through a group of parents who had created a Facebook page strictly for parents of students in my school district so I contacted Ms. Taft.  

Taft did a story which resulted in the district providing internet access for families like her. “Our first phone call, Ms. Isabelle Taft called because she was doing her job. But it soon became obvious to me that she was the voice of all of us.”

This is heartwarming. It is also a glimpse at a new model in the making — a hybrid news organization that is not quite nonprofit and not fully for-profit, yet more committed to the community and more sustainable. This sometimes changes the dynamic within the commercial newsroom. The city editor can now say to the finance head: “This beat doesn’t generate as many page views as the Confused Cats photo gallery but the community loves it and it comes with a subsidy from Report for America.” That changes the business model — and makes the journalism more community focused. 

Our presence can also make newsrooms more representative of the communities they serve. Almost half of Report for America corps members are journalists of color, more than double the average for a typical American newsroom.  We currently have some 140 journalists of color in the field — including 47 at for profit newsrooms.   

We encourage the journalists to embrace and champion a spirit of service. Each corps member performs a community service project focusing on youth media, working in high schools or middle schools. This helps the reporter get rooted in the community, improves trust in news organizations and stimulates interest in journalism — and the process of verifying facts — for a new generation.  For example, Zoë Jackson, Minnesota Star Tribune, mentored high schoolers involved in the production of a regular newscast at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. Not only did she help them develop and hone their interviewing skills, she showed the students—the majority of whom were persons of color—that there were indeed journalists who looked like them, less than 10 miles from George Floyd Square. Jackson, by the way, was permanently hired by her newsroom after her first year as a corps member.

We help newsrooms build a “third revenue stream” — donations from the community. This can sometimes be from foundations, wealthy donors or small donors. By developing this capacity, they will not only survive but do so in a way in which the incentive structures push toward, rather than away from, better public interest journalism.

Last year, we helped our newsrooms raise $5 million for themselves, which means they’re more likely to be able to maintain these reporters positions when we go away. (We support a specific position for up to three years.) Consider the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a part of the CNHI chain, which is quickly becoming the last viable news source for Upper Peninsula Michiganders. We asked them to raise $10,000 from the community to help support the RFA corps member Kaye LaFond who covered local and regional government. To generate support, the paper educated the philanthropic leaders about why the collapse of local news matters to the region. The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation dove in and, along with other new funders, is on track to raise six figures. Meanwhile, our Corps member, Kaye, also helped create a service initiative called the Mishigamiing Journalism Project which enlisted indigenous women to do journalism. The kicker: one of the participants has been hired by the Record-Eagle as its first Native American reporter.  

Our hope is that our model encourages the newsrooms to take steps so that they would not always need Report for America funding. While we pay half the salary in the first year, that portion drops to one third in the second year, and 20 percent in the third year.  After the subsidy ends (or even before it), a number of newsrooms opt to retain the corps member. So far, 21 percent of the corps members got hired by their newsroom, while most of the others got other journalism jobs.

“It can change the dynamic of your newsroom,” says Matthew Cabe, city editor of the Victorville Daily Press, which was able to resume dedicated coverage of Barstow, California after a four-year absence. “It can change the dynamic of your community. It can actually get a community to start believing in what you’re doing again. And quite honestly, it can get you to start believing in what you are doing again.” 

You still might be saying: “OK, Report for America does good work, but why can’t newsrooms do all this stuff themselves without getting a subsidy from a nonprofit?  Can’t these newsrooms just spend their own money?” The sad reality is that just because they’re big companies doesn’t mean they all have a lot of money. One of our biggest for-profit partners, McClatchy, literally declared bankruptcy last year. 

Of course we don’t only look at their financial capacity. We look at how they think about community journalism. For instance, we decided not to put new reporters into new newspapers owned by hedge funds. This was a big decision. If past practice is any guide, these newspapers will whither. Most hedge funds actually make quite a bit of money and yet decide to extract resources, and harm the residents. Putting a reporter there might provide some good copy in the short run, but it won’t alter the trajectory of a newsroom. What’s more, we have found from past history that they tend to not do right by the reporters because they are often so busy cutting their team of editors that the journalists cannot learn.

We have a strict clause in our contracts banning newsrooms from using Report for America corps members “as a way of replacing existing employees or to facilitate layoffs, pay cuts or furloughs.” In almost all cases, if the workforce is unionized, the corps member is part of the bargaining unit. The News Guild views Report for America as a positive force that is helping to expand the journalistic workforce.  The corps members are paid whatever the normal salary is for someone of that skill level, not less, or more. We know of at least one case in which the presence of RFA prompted a newsroom to raise their wages. And of course, our hope is that the corps members are retained even after the Report for America support goes away.

With family-owned newspapers, we look to see if they are investing in better local reporting. If they seem to be working toward creating a better, sustainable future, then we would consider how we can help them get there. If it’s owned by a billionaire, we want to see signs that they were putting serious resources into trying to make it work.  

About 20 of our newsrooms are owned or founded by Black and Hispanic journalistic leaders, and almost all of them are for-profit. Historically, the founders of Black newspapers believed that the only way they could maintain independence and clout would be as self-sustaining commercial enterprises. These have played monumentally important roles throughout history and many are hanging by a thread. 

All in all, almost 80 percent of the Report for America corps members are in nonprofits, Black and Hispanic newspapers or family-owned newsrooms. 

The remaining 22 percent or so are placed in newspapers or TV stations owned by chains, especially McClatchy, Gannett and Advance. On the one hand, for many decades these chains produced some of the best local journalism in America. Indeed, in many communities they still provide the bulk of reporting. But in recent years they have slashed their newsrooms — sometimes more than they needed to — and the quality in many places has fallen. 

Significantly, we have found that some of the best work done by Report for America corps members is in some of these papers. Will Wright shone the spotlight on the lack of clean drinking water in Eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald Leader (McClatchy).  A team of three reporters are part of an ongoing series digging deep into why gun violence is rising in Missouri for the Kansas City Star (McClatchy).  And for the first time in four years, the Victorville Daily Press is able to dedicate a reporter, Charlie McGee, to cover Barstow, California (Gannett).  And of course we couldn’t be prouder of our support of the Capital Gazette (Tribune Company), which has inspired us all in their reaction to the massacre in their newsroom.

So in deciding which host newsrooms to partner with, we balance different factors. When it comes to chains, we ask ourselves: Will the reporters do important work that will genuinely help the community, especially on a beat that hadn’t been done before? Are they trying to engage the community to support the reporting through philanthropy? If this newspaper disappeared, would the area be a news desert?  Are they cutting back on reporters in order to puff the stock price or inflate executive compensation? Does the news organization have a track record of doing right by the Report for America corps member, including with good editing and support?

These are subjective decisions, based on imperfect information.  We recalibrate each year. We will look for signs of both deterioration and improvement. But we believe that all of these newspapers currently in the Report for America program passed the tests. We’re proud to be with them, and have found that most of the editors there are as dedicated to the public interest as are the leaders of the nonprofit organizations.  

In all, the role of for-profits is rapidly changing.  We’re excited about the hybrid models we’re developing, and hoping we can be a positive force in encouraging, and helping, the commercial newsrooms to serve their communities even better.