Many local newsrooms have been cut to the bone so often that there's hardly any bone left. But starting early next year, some may get the chance to rebuild, at least by one.
On Monday, a new project was announced at the Google News Lab Summit that aims to place 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms in the next five years. Report For America takes ideas from several existing organizations, including the Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach for America and public media.
Unlike foreign or domestic service programs or public media, however, RFA gets no government funding. But they are calling RFA a national service project. That might make some journalists uncomfortable – the idea of service and patriotism, said co-founder Charles Sennott, founder and CEO of the GroundTruth Project. But at its most fundamental, local journalism is about protecting democracy, he said.
"I think journalism needs that kind of passion for public service to bring it back and to really address some of the ailments of the heart of journalism," he said.
Here's how RFA will work: On one end, emerging journalists will apply to be part of RFA. On the other, newsrooms will apply for a journalist. RFA will pay 50 percent of that journalist's salary, with the newsroom paying 25 percent and local donors paying the other 25 percent. That reporter will work in the local newsroom for a year, with the opportunity to renew.
Sennott and Steven Waldman co-founded RFA, which comes from a partnership between Google News Labs and the Groundtruth Project. RFA also gets support, and its reporters will get training, from the Center for Investigative Journalism, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Solutions Journalism network and the Knight Foundation (which funds my job covering local news at Poynter. Poynter also gets funding from Lenfest and Google News Labs).
Like international and national service organizations, RFA will be hard to get into, said Waldman, who founded Beliefnet and wrote a book about the national service bill. (Disclosure: I was in the Peace Corps.) Emerging journalists — not necessarily young but new to the business — need to have the skills to report and show they know how to have an impact quickly, Waldman said.
"This program will not succeed unless the reporters are doing really good work," he said. "It can’t just be a nice thing for the reporters."
And it can't just be a filling-the-seat thing for the local newsroom. Digital start-ups, public radio stations, newspapers, TV stations and journalism schools are all possible partners. But they have to make the case that they'll use the RFA journalist for civically important local journalism that's in the public's interest, Waldman said, "not just clickbait."
"The key threshold is prove to us you’re going to put this person to really good use."
For the first year, half the RFA journalist's salary will be paid by RFA, a quarter by the local newsroom and a quarter from local donors that that newsroom has to help find.
"It’s spreading the burden around a little bit, and it’s certainly saying that the non-profit news and journalism model has to play a much bigger role in local than it has," Waldman said, "and this is a vessel to do it."
RFA's thinking carefully about how newsrooms can do that and not put themselves or their reporter in conflict or question because of that funding, Sennott said. GroundTruth Project adopted guidelines that adhere to PBS' funding guidelines, which ensure editorial independence at every step, he said. RFA also has a paid advisor who was formally the head of standards at PBS.
After that first year, the newsroom has the opportunity to renew. If they do, the cost-sharing will shift to put more of the burden on the newsroom and community, but they're still working out those details, Waldman said.
Finally, on the reporter's end, there will be a community service requirement. That work will be related to their skills, Waldman said, and might including working to help a high school newspaper go digital.
RFA isn't just looking for newsrooms that need people to help them cover their communities. They're also looking for newsrooms that have a tradition of excellence and mentoring.
Sennott knows that that may be tough right now, as local newsrooms continue to shrink.
"A lot of them are hurting," he said.
But there's an opportunity, on both sides, for some learning.
Digital natives can bring the skills they've learned to cover the news into the local newsrooms, and they'll get the experience of working with good, tough editors and colleagues who can help them grow as journalists.
It's something Sennott thinks young reporters now are missing.
He started at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, before moving to state and national organizations. Now, many of the young journalists he meets are skipping that local step that teaches them standards.
"What I think a lot of emerging journalists are missing these days is the experience of being lied to on a local level," he said. "You need to go into storytelling and you need to know what it’s like to be misled."
Local reporting offers the chance to break through that experience and know what to look for in a way that national and international doesn't, at least when you're brand new.
Colonization at the local level?
National and foreign service organizations regularly face a few criticisms: They're colonizing the places they serve and replacing local workers with service workers.
Replacing locals may be less of an issue, Waldman said, because local newsrooms have been so decimated already.
"We definitely will want the newsroom to show that this is additive, that they’re not being used to replace someone else," he said.
And bringing in both people from the area and people from outside the area with different perspectives should be a good thing in the newsroom, he said. They see it as an ambassadorship.
Google News Labs is developing a training model around the use of Google tools in the newsroom, for instance, which the RFA reporter will share with their new newsroom.
The biggest pitfall in national and foreign service, he said, is often the quality of the work itself.
"The No. 1 thing is you have to do good work. If you don’t do good work, it kind of unravels."
Pocketbook and soul
There’s really two crises in journalism right now, Waldman said – "a crisis of the pocketbook and a crisis of the soul."
Newsrooms are hollowed out, the old business model is broken, and on one level, he said, RFA hopes to help by getting more reporters on the street.
It can be sustainable, he said, if RFA can help unlock the support of local donors, who previously, perhaps, didn't view local journalism as a civic need. In the past, the way to support a newsroom was to buy a subscription.
"But we’re saying there’s another way and we now also need to support our local journalism in the form of this public service model."
As for the crisis of the soul, "I think journalism needs this kind of passion for public service to bring it back and to really address some of the ailments of the heart of journalism," Sennott said.
Not to say that serving in a local newsroom will be guaranteed to be especially uplifting. Newsrooms are wonderfully cynical, beautifully curmudgeonly places, full of people that are resistant to anything that's too shiny and new, he said.
That's a good thing.
But they're also staffed by people who know their communities and the way to tell their stories, people who could be mentors to young journalists, and people who could learn new skills from those young journalists.
"They’ll beat the excitement out of them fast," he said. "But I think if we pick the right people, that will just make them stronger."
Clarification: An earlier version of this story didn't attribute this paraphrased statement to Charles Sennott: That might make some journalists uncomfortable – the idea of service and patriotism. It has been updated.