Report for America announced Thursday that it’s placing 225 journalists into 162 local newsrooms.
It’s the biggest expansion since launching in 2017. The nonprofit places journalists into local newsrooms for up to two years, sharing salary costs between RFA, the newsroom and the community. The expansion takes RFA, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, from its current 59, and it comes during tough times for the industry and the world with a global pandemic and its especially devastating impact on local newsrooms.
“On the one hand it’s scary to grow this rapidly,” said Steve Waldman, co-founder and president. “But on the other hand, it felt like the crisis in local news has just gotten worse and this is why we’re here, so we felt like we needed to press ahead and grow as much as we could.”
The placements, including 48 returning reporters, have been in the works for a while. They also include 14 previously reported statehouse positions. But the coronavirus has changed some of the plans, including for a few newsrooms that withdrew because of layoffs and budget constraints, Waldman said. There’s also a provision in the contract, he said, that states the positions can’t be used to facilitate or enable layoffs.
“The problems with local news are business model problems,” Waldman said. “There is no shortage of great journalists who want to do the work. There’s no shortage of news organizations who want to serve their communities, and my God, there’s certainly no shortage of need for really trusted, accurate information.”
Since it launched, Report for America’s goal has been to place “emerging journalists” into local newsrooms, which pay a quarter of that reporter’s salary. One quarter is raised in the community, and the other half comes from RFA.
“Emerging” has often been interpreted as “young,” but this year’s class includes people transitioning into journalism from other careers, including Brandon Lingle. Lingle, who will cover political dysfunction in the San Antonio suburbs for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News, previously worked as a public affairs officer for the U.S Air Force. He lives in San Antonio.
Lingle sees local news under attack on several fronts — job cuts because of the coronavirus, business model changes and distrust toward the media nationally. It’s an interesting time to join the industry, he said.
Still, “I’m excited to experience life on the other side of the notepad.”
Chris Jones, a freelance photographer who lives in Brooklyn, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan. In June, he’ll move to Morgantown, West Virginia, to cover white supremacists for 100 Days in Appalachia.
Jones, whose parents were in the military, said he learned young that journalism was a form of public service and local newspapers filled that role the best. He grew up reading The Joplin (Missouri) Globe, The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier and the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Post-Gazette.
“Local journalism is what prevents local corruption,” he said, “and corruption trickles up.”
Richard Two Bulls has spent the last seven years working for a local TV station in Rapid City, South Dakota. Before that, he was in the U.S. Navy. Two Bulls will be covering nine Native American reservations for South Dakota Broadcasting. He’s also an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He’s looking forward to reflecting on life where he lives.
“I still feel like there’s a lot of poverty porn that happens,” he said. “It’s really easy to do for people who come from different areas of the United States and they work their first job there.”
He wants to tell stories that include how people are preserving dying languages, setting up food pantries, and to show the culture of life in a place that’s driven by agriculture.
And Erin McKinstry, who lives in Alaska, will be covering Sitka for the community radio station KCAW. One thing she hopes to cover is energy in a remote region where most places are only accessible by plane or boat.
When local news shrinks, she said, people in rural America have less and less information about what’s happening where they live.
“It seems even more important to me right now that this is happening that people are getting on the ground in the local news sector,” she said.
Report for America says this new group is 40% journalists of color, more than three quarters are women and one quarter speaks Spanish. RFA is also getting $2.5 million from the Facebook Journalism Project.
New members will start in June and get virtual training. One change with this new class — because of the coronavirus, reporters won’t be expected to stick to their proposed beats and projects, Waldman said. And a change that could be coming, and may be welcome by newsroom veterans — Waldman said RFA is seriously looking at changing to include more experienced journalists.
Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.
Correction: RFA is placing journalists into 162 newsrooms, not 167, which was previously reported in a press release. It has been corrected.