October 15, 2018

Report for America, an ambitious attempt to bring the Peace Corps/Teach for America model to local journalism, is opening applications to news organizations and sponsored reporters for a second year. 

The project expects to double the number of placements to 28, co-founder Steve Waldman told me this week. Then the pace will quicken.

"We do need to keep refining," he said, "but if all goes well we hope to get to 250 in year three." That would put Report for America on a path to fielding 1,000 local reporters by 2022, Waldman's stated goal.

The gating factor is securing a quantum jump in support from foundations or from a few key individual contributors. Some of the usual suspects — Google and the Knight Foundation — have been onboard for the initial funding round.  

Report for America had 780 applicants for 13 spots in the first cohort, and 85 organizations tried to secure the reporting help. With notable journalistic successes already, Waldman said, early evidence is that both the supply and demand sides of the effort are robust.

In business terms, you can spot the parallels to a for-profit startup. There were a couple of years of planning after Waldman floated the idea in the summer of 2015. Now we are in the middle of a couple of years of beta. And if all goes well, second-stage investors will see the case for committing a lot more for the next stage.  

The first three Report for America reporters were placed in Appalachia. And the first big story, in eastern Kentucky, exposed a water system failure. Before long, the state hurried in with a $3 million fix.

That experience confirmed what Waldman and co-founder Charles Sennott had hoped.

"It didn't take a huge six-month investigation," Waldman said.  The reporter (Will Wright) found the first water story his second day on the job "just by being on the ground and talking with people." 

(Wright's sponsoring organization, the Lexington Herald Leader, once ran a bureau in that part of the state, which had closed for budgetary reasons).

In screening the first applicants, Waldman and Sennott chose to send a pair of reporters to the Chicago Sun-Times and two to non-profit, digital-only startup Mississippi Today. The Chicago reporters, both Hispanic, Waldman said, grew up on Chicago's South Side. They were able to steer clear of crime news and instead report more broadly on untold stories, like the role of barbers in the neighborhoods.

In future years, Waldman said he hopes to increase the participation of public radio and local broadcast outlets as well.

Going in, the founders said they expected most of the successful applicants would be idealistic college graduates, as has been the case in Teach for America. Three were (and all of the first-year group are young) but more typically they had a year or two of professional experience.

The structure of the arrangement with sponsoring organizations was carefully considered. The hosts provide a 50-50 match to Report for America's $20,000, preferably roughly half of that from local donations. (The split goes to one-third/two-thirds if the position is renewed for a second year).

"My pitch to them," Waldman said, "is that for $10,000 you can make a reporter happen."

Because the amount that assures buy-in is small, it defuses a potential objection from foundations (which I have been observing for more than a decade) that by subsidizing newspaper positions they may end up underwriting a failing business model.

The second rule of thumb is that winning organizations need to be highly specific about the work an added staffer will do and their capacity to use the person well. "A general assignment reporter cranking out four digital stories a day is not what we want," Waldman said.

I also think the timing for a ramp-up may be ideal. The last year to 18 months have brought a wave of concern about declines in local reporting, leaving many so-called "news deserts" where no professionals are acting as civic watchdogs. 

RELATED ARTICLE: About 1,300 U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage, UNC news desert study finds

Money is pouring into a range of new efforts with perhaps a welcome shift from yet another study to actual investment in actual journalism.

Waldman agrees with that assessment. "A statistic we use is that it used to be, not long ago, that one in nine journalists was in New York, Washington or Los Angeles; now it is more like one in five. That has exacerbated the problem that our journalism is way too coastal."

Steve Myers, a former Poynter colleague, editor of The Lens in New Orleans and currently a Nieman fellow, amplified on the point in a piece earlier this month. On-the-ground local journalists organically learn essential reporting skills, Myers wrote, but entry-level jobs in the big cities, often emphasize aggregation, hot takes and tech skills instead.

Waldman and Sennott bring strong credentials to the undertaking.  Waldman co-founded the successful religion website Beliefnet in an earlier Internet era. He also wrote what many consider to be the definitive research report on the coming crisis in local news for the Federal Communication Commission in 2011.

Sennott was the founding editor of Global Post, designed to expand international coverage in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When Global Post fell short of financial viability and was folded in to WGBH in Boston, he pivoted and started GroundTruth, with some of the same aims.

Why join up with Report for America? Sennott emailed me:

Our mission at The GroundTruth Project is to support a new generation of journalists to tell the stories that matter in under-covered corners of the world…. GroundTruth was largely focusing on international reporting (during) its early years, particularly what we referred to in our formation documents as divided societies and struggling democracies. By the summer of 2016,  it was glaringly apparent that the U.S. itself was a divided society and a struggling democracy.

So housing Report for America as a domestic extension made sense.

For all it has going, Report for America will still face a steep climb. A full complement of 1,000 reporters, Waldman points out, would cost around $17 million annually — not quite as much as ProPublica's annual budget, but substantially larger than other nonprofit stalwarts like Texas Tribune and Chalkbeat.

And, realistically, there are bound to be alternative approaches competing for philanthropic dollars.

Applications for organizations wishing to participate in the 2019 edition of Report for America, are open through Oct. 31. The application process for potential reporters opens Nov. 1 and closes Feb. 1. 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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