The Impact One Reporter Can Make

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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