Systemic Change

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.

The non-profit role in local media has to dramatically expand. 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.

We need a permanent expansion in capacity.  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.

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. 

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.

Steven Waldman
During a water crisis, residents embrace reporters as allies

By Will Wright

INEZ, Kentucky — In this sleepy town in rural Martin County, in the heart of coal country, residents endured weeks without running water in the dead of winter, a local crisis that went largely unnoticed outside of the hills and hollers of this community.

That is, until their plight was picked up by local reporting here, with regional media, including the Lexington Herald-Leader, running stories on the crisis that revealed concerns about the district’s financial and operational stability.

Eventually, national media outlets including and the Los Angeles Times jumped in. And as the story unfolded, some residents even got a sense that — despite the way it is often maligned these days — journalism can actually play a role in affecting change in local communities.

I was recently assigned to cover Eastern Kentucky for the Herald-Leader as part of the Report for America initiative, and I’ve been writing a series of articles that explore the lack of access to running water this winter along with other complaints.

Residents posted videos showing that the water was discolored, coming out the tap looking like beer or milk. Others complained of rashes they believe were caused by bathing in the water, and illnesses like cancer that residents attribute to a long history of chemical contaminants in the water.

The district has refuted many of these claims, saying the water is safe to drink and that the district is now in compliance with all federal quality regulations. But the district also admitted to poor financial management that led to systemic disrepair in the county’s water system and led to the district business manager stepping down, or taking “early retirement,” as the district officials prefer to call it.

The water crisis began in January with a string of frigid weather that froze service lines and shut down an intake pump that funneled water to the district’s treatment plant. The district had a backup pump, but because of its poor finances, couldn’t afford to get it out of the shop.

The district was then forced to shut off water to many of its customers while it filled storage tanks, hoping to restore pressure, but many residents went without running water for much longer than originally proposed by the district. Some say they went as long as two weeks without access in January, making it difficult to bathe, cook and care for elderly relatives and children.

In one public meeting held by county officials to address the growing crisis, tempers flared.

A resident cursed as he criticized the district, and a Kentucky State Police trooper grabbed him by the throat and removed him from the building.

Since then, some vocal residents have continued to criticize the district both online and at public meetings, saying they are paying the price for a long history of financial mismanagement and government waste.

In a Facebook post, the district announced that it had fallen more than $800,000 in debt that it could not afford to pay back. Officials later said the district was just weeks away from financial collapse.

But as reporters stepped in to ask questions and report on the community, hope for change began to materialize.

“For the first time in many, many years, the people of Martin County have hope,” said BarbiAnn Maynard, a citizen activist who has been critical of the water district, in an article for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Another Martin County resident, Tangerie Mollette, said her friends and family “would love to see as much media as possible because maybe they’ll get the ball rolling.”

Media coverage continued along with questions by state regulators, who threatened to force the district to merge with a nearby utility if problems persisted.

The district got approval for a 28 percent rate hike in March, creating revenue that will be used to pay back its debt and make much-needed operational repairs.

It also was awarded millions of dollars in grant money that it will use to fix the crumbling infrastructure that led to January’s water crisis.

Despite the narrative that people in rural areas, especially Appalachia, are untrusting and even hostile to media and outsiders, many residents in Martin County proved the opposite.

Many folks who were critical of the district said on a Facebook group, the Martin County Water Warriors, that the more media coverage they can gather, the better.

Reporters post on the group asking for sources and information, and residents are often quick to jump at the chance, speaking for interviews and giving tours of the county to reporters from out of town.

While members of this band of vocal critics are not representative of all of Martin County, let alone all of Appalachia, their willingness and generosity toward media discredits stereotypes of “Trump Country” — nearly 90 percent of voters in Martin County cast ballots for Trump in the 2016 general election.

As a reporter for the Herald-Leader and a corps member of Report For America, I have been greeted in this region with far more hospitality than distrust or resentment.

People of all backgrounds and political beliefs want, at the very least, to be heard and to be taken seriously.

In Appalachia, an area too often stereotyped and viewed by some outsiders as cartoonishly regressive, it is possible that that feeling is even more acute. For many years, people here have not felt heard.

In January, during the water shutoff in Martin County, I stood in the rain outside a community center and waited for Maynard, the citizen activist, to pick me up. Maynard has organized water drives and as the water crisis got more attention, was an ambassador to out-of-town media. When I met her, before it was a national story, Maynard drove me around the county to meet with families affected by the shutoff. 

I had never met Maynard before, but despite this she took time out of her day to show me the problems she and others in her community had been dealing with, in hopes of being heard. I wanted to listen to their stories and share them with the Herald-Leader’s readers.

The story has evolved in many ways since then, but the hospitality of residents and their willingness to share their stories has not.

Report For America’s mission is to place reporters in areas that deserve more and better local news coverage, and that in doing so, we might restore some trust in journalism.

In at least one rural Kentucky county, the strategy seems to be working.

Will Wright is a Report for America corps member covering Eastern Kentucky for RFA host news organization, the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Impact One Reporter Can Make

Excerpted from a Q&A in StreetFightMag

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. When he got to Eastern Kentucky, the paper had one reporter covering 24 counties in that part of the state.

In his second week, he did 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. Other news outlets did pieces. 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.

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.

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.

Report for America is designed to help us create the most responsive, effective local media system we’ve ever had.


Steven Waldman
Trust is a Crop That's Locally Grown
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Why do Americans trust libraries and the military but not the media?

At the recent Knight Media Forum, Tony Marx, the CEO of the New York Public Library, had a compelling answer. “There is an image of them as selfless,” he said. “If you think they’re doing it only for themselves, it’s harder to trust them.”

This points to the two missing pieces in the conversation about trust: service and presence.

By presence, I mean being there, on the ground doing local journalism. Efforts to improve verification and transparency are critically important. But they will be insufficient unless there are more reporters — a lot more reporters — in communities.

One of the first Report for America corps members, Will Wright, found out how this can transform the relationship between the reporter and the community. In his second week in Eastern Kentucky, he did a story for the Lexington Herald-Leader about residents not having running water for five days. The next month, the head of the water district was forced into early retirement. The month after that the state found $4 million to help fix the system.

Will told us that he’d feared that as an outside reporter coming into a community that’s had its share of drive by (and misleading reporting) that he might get a hostile reception. Quite the contrary. As soon as people saw that he had their back, his phone started ringing.

They were glad someone was listening.

I cant think of anything that would better rebuild trust. And note: this was not a big investigative project. He basically showed up at meetings, listened, interviewed residents. He was there.

Local reporting also de-polarizes. As good, interesting, relevant local reporting as receded it has been replaced by a flood of national, polarized cable news. Local issues can certainly be the source of tremendous conflict but its often across partisan lines.

Can journalists really be perceived as selfless? While 73 percent of Americans believe teachers contribute “a lot,” to society, only 28 percent say that about journalists, according to the Pew Research Center.

The truth is most people I know went into journalism to help their nation or their community. Sure we have ego needs too but most at least started with a genuine public service spirit. That gets squeezed out of us by a business model that emphasizes ratings or page views. If we create more ways for journalists to do what they intended in the first place — serve the public — the trust will follow.

That’s why Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, is cast as a national service program, not a jobs program. Talented reporters are going to under-served communities where they attend to under-covered topics or areas. This also creates a new, more robust business model for local news.

We even ask them to do a service project on their own time, in some cases working with students in a local high school to establish a student run publication. We believe that this will help create a different image and relationship for the reporters, the students, the parents and the community.

The public may still distrust “the media” in the abstract, but at least they’ll have cause to trust local reporters on the ground.

This post first appeared on the website of the Knight Foundation's project on Trust, Media and Democracy.

Steven Waldman
Amazing News About Applications to Report for America

The application window for Report for America has closed, and we received a stunning 740 applications for nine slots.

We’re thrilled that so many emerging journalists want to do a year or two of service working inside a local newsroom, reporting on critically under-covered topics or communities.

As a point of reference, our first class will be more selective than Harvard.

These 740 talented young men and women are willing to uproot their lives and dedicate themselves to communities that need their service. They are ready to listen. They’re ready to go to Las Cruces New Mexico to cover health care or the Mississippi Gulf Coast to cover education. Each application represents a desire to be part of a movement.

Earlier in the year, 85 news organizations across the country demonstrated a similar desire to improve local news. Public stations, newspapers, digital-native startups, nonprofit watchdog groups and other news organizations competed to host the Report for America corps members. (The winners).  For most local editors, the decimation of local reporting has been scarring.  They want to make it better.

The need is great. The desire of journalists is even greater.  And the Report for America model seems to be capturing the interest of news organizations, reporters, and funders.

But this is also bittersweet. After our 20+ judges evaluate applications and our newsrooms make final selections, 731 journalists who want to go to under-served communities won’t be afforded the opportunity to join our 2018 reporting corps.  (We will continue to try to place more of them.  For instance, we will re-consider some in the next class of Report for America in early 2019. Our goal is to have at least 28 reporters in 2019, 247 in 2020, 560 in 2021 and 1,000, in 2022).

What does this teach us? It’s imperative that we grow this program as quickly as possible so that we can go from a dynamic idea to a program that transforms local journalism.

The reporters are ready.  The news rooms are ready. Something big is happening. 

Steven Waldman