Steve Waldman
Steve Waldman
Four years ago Steven Waldman documented in a report for the Federal Communications Commission the erosion of local journalism as newspapers' business fortunes declined.

Now he is suggesting a remedy -- a non-profit Report for America organization, modeled on AmeriCorps and Teach for America. Waldman summarized the idea in an article yesterday for CJR and is presenting it at a conference on local journalism today sponsored by Montclair State University's Center for Cooperative Media.

Waldman envisions reporters, many of them young but some experienced too, being placed at newspapers, public radio stations and other existing outlets.  Part of their salary would come from the new non-profit, the rest from a match by the organization receiving the placement.

"I think this really has a chance of catching on," Waldman told me in a phone interview. "A lot of people have floated ideas like this...and it might draw on new philanthropy that is not into sustaining old structures."

"Those of us chronicling the disruption five years ago were not totally clear where this was going.  We thought international would be a mess, but it really isn't, whereas local remains stuck... But it may also be a little more manageable problem now."

Part of the strategy would be appeal to community foundations or donors to improve diminished coverage close to home.  And organizations would be spurred to define a specific topic where good journalism could benefit the community.

Waldman likes the service corps model for a number of other reasons:

  • It "supports people rather than programs." Training and an administrative superstructure are necessary, but most of the money goes to the labor itself.
  • It "enables a philanthropist (or government) to have a national impact but through local implementation."
  • Small organizations can be helped with the addition of a few people or even just one.
  • There is a good chance the programs can become sustainable.
  • The structure "encourages camaraderie and learning among service members without creating large bureaucracies."

AmeriCorps has 75,000 placements yearly, and Teach for America has more than 10,000 "corps members" serving two-year stints. Both programs have been in business more than 20 years.

I'm particularly interested, as is Waldman, in the prospects for moving from concept to something actually happening.

Waldman himself is a plus.  He was founder of and is currently readying another for-profit launch.  Besides being an entrepreneur, he has credibility in philanthropic and government circles. And earlier in his career, he worked with former Sen. Harris Wofford on the launch of AmeriCorps.

Still, Waldman concedes that there are practical challenges.  He sees Report for America as complementary to the growing group of local and regional not-for-profits, but it could be seen as a competitor for scarce foundation funding.

Also investigative reporting or rigorous accountability coverage of local government and schools could be a tough sell to community donors -- and there wouldn't be much point to supporting light or booster journalism.

While government funding would be a possibility, Waldman prefers to steer clear of that or of making the program a subdivision of AmeriCorps:

Report for America should foster controversy. It should tweak the powerful, whether in government, the private sector or the nonprofit sector. Creating a trouble-seeking corps would endanger the rest of AmeriCorps program, or any government-funded endeavor, no matter how well-intended....

I would [also] be concerned that government funding could cause a journalism-oriented service program to shy away from its most aggressive, challenging projects.

There's one more problem.  Waldman developed the idea with a grant from the Ford Foundation.  But his sponsor there, Jonathan Barzilay, left to become chief operating officer of PBS, and Ford, under a new president, is undergoing a major reassessment of its priorities.

So while Ford support remains a possibility, Waldman said, it is not as likely as he and Barzilay thought when they started several years ago.  Also because of the coming launch of his new venture -- LifePosts, a site to commemorate deaths, graduations and other "life moments" -- Waldman said, "I can't drop everything and be the one driving it."

Waldman told me that a pilot could probably be tested with as few as 100 placements, but Report for America would need to scale into the thousands to have impact and justify the administrative expense of recruitment, selection, and training.

But "if it's working," Waldman added, "I think it's something every community could benefit from."