Why is Report for America 'national service'?

Why do we call Report for America “national service”?

Of course we think local journalism IS public service. That’s sort of the point of Report for America. But we also see this program as a synthesis between two different movements – the efforts to reform journalism, and the national service movement.

At our training for the 2018 corps at the Poynter Institute, I walked through some of the history of the service movement.

First, there’s a distinction between “volunteerism,” “public service jobs” and “national service.” Volunteering is crucially important and major part of America’s civic culture. Think of that as occasional and unpaid.  Then you have “public service jobs” – basically government jobs with a public-facing mission, like teachers, police and fire fighters.

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National service is something different. It generally refers to full-time, non-profit, lightly compensated efforts.  In each case, the programs have benefits to both the people doing the service – i.e. the servers – and the public.

The largest ever was the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt started it during the Great Depression to help both the servers (by providing jobs) and the nation by cleaning up the nation’s parks.  There were 300,000 per year at one point. A total of 9 million went through the program.

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The goal was both to instill pride, confidence and appreciation of the outdoors – and to transform America’s forests and parks.  The corps members planted 3 billion trees and upgraded 800 parks.

The next major service program was the Peace Corps, started in 1961. This was cast by President Kennedy as both a call to idealism and a way to defeat the Soviet Union in the war for hearts and minds in the developing world.  So far 230,000 have been through the Peace Corps.

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In the 1980s and 1980s, a different type of national service approach emerged. These programs were created privately and locally. Responding to the sense that the federal government would not be addressing local problems, an amazing group of social entrepreneurs created programs like City Year, Teach for America, Delta Service Corps, Citizen Schools, and YouthBuild.

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These programs vary tremendously – some emphasize education, some housing, some education. Some, like City Year, aspire to create a way for people of different classes and races to work together on common civic projects. 

Then in 1993 AmeriCorps was created.  It was highly decentralized but with federal government money subsidizing both the corps members stipends and an education award to pay for college.  It currently has about 80,000 people serving n 21,000 locations. In total, more than a million people have served in AmeriCorps. They enabled some of those great local programs to expand. 

Often, existing volunteer programs like Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers ended up deploying large numbers of AmeriCorps members to lead their volunteers or tackle major projects. More recently, the Service Year Alliance has attempted to knit together private groups (including those not in AmeriCorps) to create and promote programs that let people have a “service year.”

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Report for America is the first major national service program for journalists.  We obviously hope that the corps members benefit tremendously – developing great skills, learning about a new community, and, frankly, having a life changing challenge.

But the benefits to the server are actually secondary to the benefits to the community. If the reporters aren’t doing great work – helping to transform local journalism – then the program wont succeed.  Just as the CCC wouldn’t have been so worthwhile if it hadn’t dramatically improved the nation’s parks, Report for America aspires to help strengthen communities through great local reporting.

Steven Waldman
Covering the West Virginia teacher strike — and coming home
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Report for America corps members write occasional essays about their experiences, curated by the GroundTruth Project. Here's the first one from Molly Born, the Report for America corps member at West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

BY MOLLY BORN

CHARLESTON, West Virginia — The sea of striking teachers gathered in the Capitol here was dotted with red bandanas.

Teachers and their supporters knotted the bright kerchiefs around their necks, wore them as headbands or tied them on their wrists. This collective nod to labor history brought back pointed memories of the century-old unrest of the West Virginia mine wars when striking coal miners fought for better working conditions and considered the bandanas an essential part of their uniform.

After decades in which the labor movement dwindled, the strike signaled a potential resurgence of the union-based spirit that helped define this region.

The work stoppage that closed schools in all 55 counties for nine days began with educators in the state’s southern coalfields, where the mine wars played out – and where I have come to work as a Report for America corps member posted with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

That teachers here called for walkouts first surprised very few with roots in this area. I’m a native daughter of West Virginia with family who worked underground in the mines, but until recently, I knew little of the labor saga that had unfolded in the hills all around me and how it shaped the history of this place.

Andrew Thomas, a social studies teacher at Mullens Middle School in Wyoming County who was among those protesting at the Capitol, told me he didn’t miss the chance to bring history to the foreground. He taught his fifth-graders an entire lesson on the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest labor uprisings in American history.

“Obviously the teacher strike can’t be comparable to that of the mine wars,” he said. “Many lives were lost during the early days of the mine wars. However, the hard work and dedication of both strikes were very similar.”

Teachers and school service personnel across West Virginia walked off the job in late February into early March, demanding better pay and a fix to their health insurance program. The action has inspired teachers in KentuckyOklahomaColorado and Arizona. Less than two months after setting up my base for West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Williamson, I first thought that I was putting my coverage of the southern coalfields on hold for a spell when I headed to the state capital to report on some of the most critical developments of this action.

At the Capitol, I weaved my way through the crowds of teachers and their supporters packing the hallway between the Senate and House of Delegates chambers. Educators in West Virginia are some of the lowest paid in the country, and among those chanting, holding 55 Strong signs or watching from the galleries were old high school classmates, family friends, my next-door neighbor from childhood. People I hadn’t seen or thought of in years were suddenly those whose stories I was covering.

I started my reporting on the seventh day of the strike. Union leaders said teachers wouldn’t go back without the five percent raise that Gov. Jim Justice had approved days earlier and the House had then passed. That proved to be the case when the Senate agreed on a four percent raise the next day. The chambers were at an impasse, prompting the creation of a special committee of lawmakers to come to an agreement. Then on Monday, the eighth day of the strike, teachers returned in record numbers, forming lines that stretched around the Capitol complex.

More than 5,000 visitors came through before authorities made the decision to close the entrances. I could hear the crowd roar several floors down. During one of my many trips darting between the basement pressroom and the legislative chambers, I finally stopped and looked out at the sea of people in front of me, marveling at their energy. We were bearing witness to something remarkable, no matter which side you were on.

On Tuesday, March 6, the Senate agreed to the raise the teachers were asking for, and after a “cooling off day,” classes resumed Thursday. Gov. Justice also ordered the creation of a task force to study long-term solutions to teachers’ health care program. Curious if and how educators would use this experience as a teachable moment, I visited Mullens Middle, where I met Andrew Thomas and his fifth-grade social studies class.

In an emotional lesson, Thomas, a self-identified fierce conservative who voted for Donald Trump, confessed to his students that he felt betrayed by the Republicans in the state Senate who held out on the teachers’ demands. He eagerly showed them a campaign video for state Sen. Richard Ojeda, a charismatic Democrat running for Congress who held court among teachers in the statehouse during the strike.

On a dry-erase board, near a laminated newspaper front-page about Donald Trump’s inauguration and a union poster, he’d written an equation in black marker: $32,000 X 5 percent = $1,600. It was his salary and the extra he’ll get now. Still, he told them, it’s far from enough to make up for living in one of poorest parts of the country.

One of the reasons I moved back to West Virginia was to tell nuanced stories of people the world seldom hears from and to learn more about a place that has shaped me – a place I had fiercely defended over the years, but one I had also disavowed, sometimes in the same breath. I’m not the first West Virginian to leave Pittsburgh in search of a greater understanding of what it means to be from this place (and a good yarn).

Chuck Kinder, a now-retired University of Pittsburgh professor, packed up his life in 1994 and moved home to live among his native mountain people. To colleagues mystified by his decision he quoted Flannery O’Connor. I think of these words often: “To know oneself is to know one’s region.”

 

Steven Waldman
Despite a sale and layoffs, West Virginia newspaper continues its tradition of ‘sustained outrage’
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Report for America corps members write occasional essays about their experiences, curated by the GroundTruth Project. Here's the first one from Caity  Coyne, the Report for America corps member at the Charleston Gazette-Mail

BY CAITY COYNE

CHARLESTON, West Virginia — This town’s daily newspaper, the Gazette-Mail, is housed in a classic 1920s building made of steel, brick and Indiana limestone. On the banks of the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston, the Gazette-Mail was formed in 2015 by the merger of two papers, the Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail. The Gazette’s late owner, William E. “Ned” Chilton III, became famous for his motto “sustained outrage.”

For more than a century, the Gazette pursued a crusading spirit that, as the newspaper website proclaims, “was either feared, hated or loved by those it covered.” It took on big coal and corrupt politicians and it embodied the great spirit of American newspapers, right through to last year when the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for its series on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia.

The staff and its editors like to say it’s a “reporter-led” newsroom, and I loved the place the minute I first walked in as an intern. In December when I accepted a full-time reporting job there through Report for America, I felt like I landed the perfect first job in journalism. I was assigned to work in Appalachia and specifically in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, a region I’d grown to love over the last five years.

But just two weeks into the job, the Gazette-Mail filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Employees were immediately notified that layoffs could come in the next 60 days. The proposed buyer at the time held a reputation for paring down newsrooms, leading us to believe at least a few reporters and editors wouldn’t be there in two months.

Seeing a mentor go

A different buyer stepped up at the last minute, and the sale was finalized on April 1. Not everyone in our newsroom made it through the transition.

In the middle of the newsroom, our former executive editor Rob Byers’ desk sits bare. He was one of several people who weren’t brought on board for the paper’s next chapters. Old newspaper clippings still hang on the bulletin board behind his desk, one announcing reporter Eric Eyre’s Pulitzer, and another from when former coal baron Don Blankenship was put behind bars, just a few of the dozens of things he witnessed in his 25 years at the paper.

On his file cabinet there is a sticker from The Daily Athenaeum, West Virginia University’s student newspaper, where he worked in college, as did I.

Rob also started at the Gazette as an intern, and worked his way through the ranks. He cleared his desk out late one evening, after the staff had gone.

The halls of the newsrooms that Rob departed tell the history of a newspaper industry on hard times. For decades, the Gazette and Daily Mail were competitors, across the hall from each other. Reporters for both still share stories about running into competitors in the narrow, yellow hallways when news would break, and rushing to be the first to get the story.

Now, the Daily Mail newsroom sits empty. Desks are dusty and stacked with files that haven’t been touched in years. Reporters who joined the consolidated paper moved to the Gazette side of the building. Others were laid off or left of their own accord. The whole building feels like it holds a history of a faded newspaper industry struggling to keep up in a digital age.

 Not a time to feel sorry for ourselves

The days after the bankruptcy — before we knew about layoffs or new management or anything of that sort — there was a hush in the newsroom, even if everyone was keeping busy.

As reporters made phone calls and conducted interviews — because everyone still had work to do — it was impossible to ignore condolences passed along from sources. Calls now had an added layer of “thank you for the kind words, yes we’re very upset too, no we aren’t sure what’s going to happen,” and so on.

“It really is like someone died,” one editor remarked.

For many, it seemed like wading through a personal loss. For me, who had only spent a few months in the newsroom compared to decades, it was a bit different.

In college, the Gazette and the Daily Mail both were inspirations of sorts. The papers were my introduction to local, accountability reporting. In the brief encounters I had with reporters who worked at the outlets, their dedication was tangible and their passion contagious.

When I started working there, I got to witness the other side of that. I was able to understand better why reporters here do the things they do, despite the frustrations, and the sometimes larger-than-life issues they’re tasked to cover.

These big things are a part of their lives. They live with the consequences of overwhelming situations just like their neighbors and friends do, and they get to see the forces working to better things in Appalachia, a region many others outside often like to use as a punching bag or the butt of a joke.

Speaking truth to some of the powers here is a responsibility that, at times, seems to swallow you. That’s why I wasn’t all that surprised by the resiliency of this newsroom when things got difficult — and they were difficult.

‘The whole building feels like it holds a history of a faded newspaper industry struggling to keep up in a digital age.’

News of the bankruptcy came in the middle of the West Virginia legislative session, and just as teachers from three of the state’s 55 counties participated in the first organized walkouts that would eventually culminate in a historic weeks-long strike for all the state’s teachers and school personnel.

It wasn’t a time to feel sorry for ourselves or worry about what we couldn’t control or didn’t know. What we did know was that news was happening, and it was our responsibility to cover it as diligently as we would have at any other time.

The state was flooded with national outlets looking for the “true story” of West Virginia’s struggling, working class, but in our newsroom we knew the story.

We know the people. And we know their struggle. We don’t have to look for it; we see it every day.

Around an already contentious legislative session and thousands of teachers flooding the city for days on end during the strike, the reporters were also thinking about the duration of their careers in Charleston. They knew they could be out of a job any day.

The funding from Report for America means I have this position for a year. As the most junior member of the staff, I felt lucky, but I was also concerned for my colleagues — particularly those with long histories at the paper.

Some of my colleagues were filling out applications and even interviewing for other jobs, but still, the paper marched on. Reporters continued, some working 12-hour days or longer. Editors stayed late to keep up with the stories. The work was persistent and crucial — making sense of situations that, at times, made little to none.

In the midst of all this, there was no phoning it in. There was no giving up on telling the stories of the people in this state. Ultimately, I believe, they are who we answer to, who we are responsible to, and to who we are committed.

The reporters here proved that by putting the needs of the people — the readers — before their own throughout all of this. The public good was always a priority, and I truly think — even if layoffs did come — those reporters would have still been up every day, talking to teachers and getting the out necessary information.

The reporters at the Gazette-Mail, including this one, will continue to keep up with their beats, meet their daily deadlines and report the news for the goodness of the people in West Virginia — as they’ve been doing. To put it simply, we will continue doing our jobs, because news in this state doesn’t stop, so neither will we.

 

Steven Waldman
Report for America announces 2018 Corps Members

Pioneering public service program places ten more journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and under-served corners of America 

NEW YORK — Report for America, a non-partisan national service program that places journalists into local news rooms, has announced its complete Class of 2018. Report for America is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit news organization that trains young journalists to cover the most important stories in the world.

Two Chicago natives will be reporting on the city’s historically undercovered West and South sides, including the neighborhoods in which they were raised. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist will be reporting for television, radio, and print in New Mexico. A Next Generation Radio Fellow and co-recipient of the AP’s Innovator of the Year Award for College Students will be reporting from the Mississippi Delta. A former editor in Washington, D.C. who returned to her hometown in Pennsylvania will be the first statehouse reporter for a digital news organization in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. An award-winning photojournalist will be joining a nonprofit newsroom in his home state of Mississippi as their first photographer. A reporter and editor raised and educated in Texas in an immigrant family will focus his reporting on second-generation Hispanic immigrants and the issues they face.

Ten emerging and established journalists were chosen from 740 applicants. An elite panel of judges evaluated each candidate, semi-finalists were interviewed, and then a small group of finalists were presented to each news organization. Each newsroom proceeded with their own interview process, just as they would with any other journalist hire.

Report for America Corps Members are employees of their respective newsrooms, however their salaries are paid for in partnership between RFA, the news organization, and local philanthropic supporters. In the first year of corps member placement, RFA pays roughly 50 percent of the salary.

Our inaugural class, most of whom already have several years of newsroom experience, will start working for Report for America news organizations in Illinois, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and New Mexico in early June. They join three reporters who began their year of service in the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia in January. Report for America’s Class of 2018 includes a total of 13 journalists dedicated to service in their newsrooms and communities.

More than half of RFA’s 2018 corps members have ties to the communities or regions they will be serving, while the rest will be moving to new areas.

These emerging and established journalists are: Carlos Ballesteros,  Mallory Falk, Sarah Anne Hughes, Michelle Liu, Obed Manuel, Samantha Max, Ciara McCarthy, Manny Ramos, Eric Shelton, and Alexandra Watts

The three additional corps members who have been working in the field since January are Molly Born, Caity Coyne, and Will Wright.

 

In 2018, Report for America corps members are reporting on undercovered topics and underserved communities for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, KRWG, the Incline / Billy Penn, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Mississippi Today,  Telegraph, Victoria Advocate, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Lexington Herald-Leader.

Funding for Report for America comes from a variety of national foundations and philanthropists including the Knight Foundation, the Google News Initiative, the Tow Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Galloway Family Foundation and others. 

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Report for America 2018 Corps Members

Carlos Ballesteros is a former Newsweek reporter who also has reported from his hometown of Chicago on city hall, gentrification, housing, and immigration for the South Side Weekly, Nation, and In These Times. He was editor-in-chief of Claremont College’s Student Life for which he led a team of more than one hundred student journalists, managed a budget crisis that nearly shut down the paper, first published in 1889, and created a new emphasis on collaboration and diversity in the newsroom. Ballesteros will be returning home to join the Chicago Sun-Times and report on the city’s south and west sides, including the neighborhood where he was raised.

Mallory Falk is a two-time Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winner, a 2016 USC Annenberg National Health Reporting Fellow, and a radio journalist whose stories have aired on All Things Considered, Here & Now, and Texas Standard. She was an education reporter for New Orleans’ NPR-affiliate WWNO and a producer of What My Students Taught Me, an education podcast from The Atlantic and Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project. Prior to her work in radio, she served as communications director for the non-profit Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. Originally from Pittsburgh, Falk is a graduate of Middlebury College and the Transom Story Workshop. Falk will be joining KRWG in New Mexico as a multimedia reporter covering education, healthcare, economic development and sustainability.

Sarah Anne Hughes has worked as an editor and reporter in the District of Columbia and her home state of Pennsylvania. She began her career at the Washington Post, where she blogged about pop culture and national news. Hughes has worked as a reporter for The Incline, editor-in-chief for the DCist, and managing editor of the Washington City Paper. In the past year, Hughes returned to her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she has been working as a freelancer. She will be joining Billy Penn/The Incline as their first statehouse reporter.

Michelle Liu was a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News, a reporting intern for the Toledo Blade, and a general assignment intern for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She has worked as a contributing reporter for the New Haven Independent for which she shadowed canvassers in New Hampshire and covered labor unions in Connecticut. She was also a program coordinator for Yale’s Summer Journalism Program for high school students. Born and raised in Texas, Liu will be joining Mississippi Today as a statewide reporter with a special focus on the Delta.

Samantha Max was an investigative reporting intern for the Medill Justice Project and a bilingual multimedia news intern at Hoy, Chicago Tribune’s spanish-language daily. She returned to her hometown of Baltimore in 2015 and again in 2016 to work as a newsroom intern for NPR-affiliate WYPR. She has written on immigration and the criminal justice system, and she reported from the steps of Baltimore’s Courthouse East when prosecutors announced the acquittal of Caesar Goodson, one of the police officers charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. She will be joining the Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, where she will work working with local residents to select issues of significant public interest in a unique partnership with the News Co/Lab of the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

Eric Shelton is a photojournalist whose work has been published in the Boston Globe, LA Times, New York Times, USA Today, and Washington Post. He first left his home state of Mississippi to intern with the Associated Press in Boston. He has since worked across Texas and Mississippi as a photojournalist for Texarkana Gazette and the Natchez Democrat, a multimedia journalist for the Abilene Reporter-News, and digital reporter and chief photographer for the Hattiesburg American. For the past four years, he has worked as photo editor of the Killeen Daily Herald, managing photo and video for five publications within the media group. Throughout his career, Shelton has documented issues concerning drug abuse and poverty, and he has won awards from the Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors and the Arkansas Press Photographers Association. Shelton will be returning to Mississippi to work as the first photojournalist at Mississippi Today.
           
Ciara McCarthy was the editor-in-chief of the Daily Northwestern, the first newsroom intern for the Marshall Project, and a special projects intern for the Guardian US. After graduation, she moved to New York to work as a researcher for the “The Counted,” an Emmy-nominated project for the Guardian that documented and reported on Americans killed by the police. More recently, she was a Manhattan-based community news reporter for the Patch. McCarthy will be joining the Victoria Advocate where she’ll cover local government and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Obed Manuel is a reporter and editor focused on his home city of Dallas. Until recently, he was an associate editor at Central Track, where he was focused on city news / politics and social change movements. He previously worked as managing editor of Latina Lista, where he launched a weekly podcast and wrote on immigration and technology. A graduate of the Mayborn School of Journalism at University of North Texas, Manuel was a staff writer for the North Texas Daily and was a two-time intern at the Dallas Observer. In 2015, Manuel assisted former Dallas Observer editor Joe Tone with research for Bones, a nonfiction book about money laundering through the quarter horse racing industry in the American southwest. A native of the northern Mexico city of Monterrey, Manuel will be joining the Dallas Morning News to report on the growing population of second-generation Hispanic immigrants and the issues they face.

Manny Ramos is a data-driven journalist dedicated to covering his hometown of Chicago. Ramos is a two-time Fellow at City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based on the South Side, for which he covered the failings of the Chicago Police Department’s community-policing initiatives and worked as a public health multimedia reporter in collaboration with WBEZ’s Curious City. During this time, he also served as a journalism mentor for underserved youth via Free Spirit Media. Prior to this, Ramos reported on city politics and Chicago Public Schools for Gaper’s Block and covered municipal elections for the Daily Line. He was an editorial intern for the Chicago Reader and Depaulia’s first podcast producer and political reporter. Ramos will soon join the Chicago Sun-Times for whom his reporting with focus on Chicago’s south and west sides.

Alexandra Watts was a 2017 Next Generation Radio Fellow with NPR in 2017. While at Arizona State University, she became the first ever audio and podcast editor for The State Press, and she worked on podcasts/audio with the news division of Arizona PBS. Watts has a BA & MA from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She had internships in digital media and broadcast news with KJZZ and worked in community engagement with the PIN Bureau, where she was part of the team who won the Associated Press Media Editors’ Innovator of the Year Award for College Students. Watts will soon be joining Mississippi Public Broadcasting to cover the Delta region.

These ten 2018 corps members are joined by the first three 2018 corps members who were posted to newsrooms through a pilot program in Appalachia. They are:

Molly Born, a native of West Virginia, worked for six years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she covered crime, local government, and education. In pursuit of the story, she spent the night at a palatial Hare Krishna commune, reported on location from the middle of a four-lane highway, and (politely) commandeered a passing car to hear the verdict in a murder trial. She's a graduate Fairmont State University and has a masters in journalism from Northwestern University. She has long carried a bit of West Virginia everywhere she goes — in the form of a tattoo of the state’s motto on her back. As an RFA corps member, Molly now reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. She has already investigated the plight of a town whose water was contaminated by a coal mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, and explored how a lack of reliable internet access is hurting rural economies.

Caity Coyne was the Editor-in-Chief of West Virginia University's award winning, independent student newspaper, the Daily Athanaeum, and a reporting intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Coyne is originally from San Diego, CA, but she found a home in West Virginia as a student. As a RFA corps member, Caity reports on the state’s southern coalfields for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. She has tenaciously covered a statewide teachers' strike and featured a once-booming coal town that may be forced to dissolve as a municipality.

Will Wright covered the environment and government accountability during internships at the Sacramento Bee, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.  He was Editor-in-Chief of University of Kentucky’s independent student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. After graduating from University of Kentucky in December 2016, Wright completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He grew up in Eighty Four, PA, a small town outside Pittsburgh. Since joining RFA, Wright has reopened the Lexington Herald Leader’s Pike County Bureau in Kentucky. He already put a spotlight on Kentucky's "worst water district" where some residents went without water for weeks. The district's business manager retired shortly after publication, and the state committed $3.4 million to fix water issues in eastern Kentucky. Will also collaborated with veteran reporter Bill Estep to break a story about $3 million in back taxes owed by Kentucky-based coal companies linked to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

 

Report for America: Report for America is the only nonprofit journalism initiative in the U.S. that combines public service with its mission to cover the news. Launched in 2017 and donor-financed, Report for America is creating a new, sustainable system that strengthens communities and journalism. Our mission is to deploy talented, service-oriented journalists into undercovered areas, provide Americans with the information they need to improve their communities, hold powerful institutions accountable, and rebuild trust in the media. Report for America is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, an award-winning nonprofit media organization with an established track record of training and supporting teams of emerging journalists around the world and in the US.

The GroundTruth Project: The GroundTruth Project is a Boston-based, independent, non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the US and around the world. In the last five years, GroundTruth has supported 150 reporting fellowships as far away as Myanmar, Egypt and Somalia and as close to home as Kentucky, Minnesota, and Montana. Our newest initiative 'Report for America' seeks to address a crisis in local journalism in America which has become a crisis for our democracy. By deploying RFA corps members into RFA host newsrooms for one year of public service reporting, RFA is trying to create a movement to restore trust in journalism and serve communities that need better coverage of the issues in their community. For more, visit www.reportforamerica.org

CONTACT:

Maggie Messitt

mmessitt@reportforamerica.org

630-234-8638

 

 

GroundTruth Admin
The "new business model": Non-profit journalism

 

This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy

By Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott

At a recent conference on local news, the veteran broadcaster Bob Schieffer praised the Texas Tribune — the acclaimed nonprofit website — but then added that it was just "a Band-Aid." His reasoning: In the long run, real journalism can be sustained only if it’s part of a commercial enterprise. Stated another way, local news will be saved only if we create "new business models."

It’s time we recognized that an entirely commercial approach will not, in fact, save local journalism and that nonprofits and philanthropy must take a greater role. This nonprofit-commercial mix is the "new business model" that we’ve been pining for.

There’s broad consensus that the crisis in local journalism is a crisis for democracy and the health of communities. Yet we keep hoping that a new app or a new business idea will fix it.

Yes, we’ve seen some exciting developments among national media. The Washington Post has a print circulation of about 350,000 but reaches 90 million people each month through the internet. But local news continues to collapse, as local advertisers turn to national platforms like Facebook or Google. A local news publication cannot outrun falling ad rates by reaching tens of millions of new readers. We need a radical shift in our thinking about local media models, including a different attitude toward the role nonprofits play in journalism.

Nonprofit news organizations can be powerful and enduring. We want our journalistic institutions to be strong, not only so they can survive but also so they have the muscle to hold powerful institutions accountable.

We often assume that nonprofit news organizations must be wispy mendicants holding out a tin cup. Let’s remember that many other lucrative parts of the economy are dominated by formidable nonprofit organizations. Some 59 percent of hospitals are private nonprofits. About 90 percent of college students study at nonprofit or public institutions. When it comes to the information world, we already have some nonprofit goliaths, including the Associated Press (a nonprofit cooperative), Wikipedia (a nonprofit fueled by small donations and based on open-source software), NPR (a nonprofit funded by listener donations and some government money), and ProPublica (a nonprofit supported by donations). And on the local level, the Vermont Digger and the Texas Tribune have become major players in their states. Nonprofits can be mighty.

Journalism is an essential and valuable public service. Some have said that if journalism can’t sustain an entirely commercial business model, then it doesn’t have real value.

However, economists teach us that there are two types of value. Some products or services have primarily private benefits. You pay for an apple, you eat it, and you get all the delicious benefit. But there’s a whole other category, known as "public good" services — things that benefit both individuals and the community. Having free education, for instance, helps the student but also makes society happier, safer, and wealthier.

Some types of journalism are public goods. A newspaper investigation that, say, uncovers flaws in the parole system might take a year to conduct and will lose a newspaper tremendous amounts of money. But by keeping violent criminals off the street, it has tremendous social value. There’s also the "free rider" problem — that is, many people in town benefit from that series, but only a small number pay for it (by subscribing to the newspaper).

Philanthropists routinely recognize this when they support a broad array of causes from the arts to the environment. John Thornton, a founder of the Texas Tribune, notes: "No one says, the number of violins in the orchestra should be determined by how many tickets they sell."

The journalism business needs to accept — as other industries do — that some of what it does is a public good, providing broad social benefits and requiring broad philanthropic support.

In the 1930s the government faced a dilemma. A new communications medium called radio was growing rapidly. For-profit companies like RCA argued that all the broadcast spectrum should be given to them because only a commercial model would be sustainable. The government, however, decided that while that was mostly true, some things — like educational programming — would probably not be provided in sufficient amounts or quality. So it required that some of the broadcast spectrum be set aside for "educational programming." Because of that decision, we have public radio and TV alongside the vibrant commercial media.

Nonprofits innovate as much, if not more, than commercial ventures. Some believe that commercial competition ensures that businesses are more likely to innovate. That’s often true, but let’s not kid ourselves. In the local news world, competition often drives media toward greater sensationalism, not greater quality. Conversely, nonprofits are under tremendous competitive pressure themselves to prove the impact of their work to attract donors. In fact, nonprofits likely operate in a more competitive environment than monopoly newspapers before the internet.

There’s more than enough philanthropic money available to save local journalism. The good news is that we’ve had a massive transfer of wealth to the rich. Well, that’s not good news, but, thanks to negative trends related to inequality, there are now many people and foundations that do have more than enough money to save journalism if they were inclined.

The count is up to 10,800,000 millionaires. And 540 billionaires, who have a combined net worth of $2.4 trillion. Local journalism could be fixed with an investment of somewhere between $300 million and $500 million annually, which could field 10,000 new reporters through something like the Report for America approach we are pioneering. (Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, places reporters in existing newsrooms, pays half their salary, and gets the news organization and local donors to cover the other half.)

Of course, we think the public-service model is extremely promising. Report for America, a sort of Peace Corps for journalists, aims to place 1,000 reporters in communities by 2022. But there are many great nonprofit news models. The bottom line: We need a sea change in the way local philanthropy thinks about local news.

The last time we had a lot of super-wealthy people with spare change was in the Gilded Age. Andrew Carnegie funded 3,000 libraries with his excess cash. Funding 1,000 reporters — or 10,000 reporters, for that matter — would cost a whole lot less.

Steven Waldman is president and co-founder of Report for America and the author of a landmark Federal Communications Commission study of local news. Charles Sennott, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, is CEO of the GroundTruth Project and a co-founder of Report for America. 

 

GroundTruth Admin