Report for America: a community service-based model for saving local journalism

Photo: Bob AuBuchon, Flickr Creative Commons

It’s hard to know which of these factoids is more depressing:

  • Only 28 percent of Americans believe journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, compared to 73 percent for teachers and 65 percent for scientists, according to a Pew report.

  • A jobs website declared newspaper reporter to be the worst job in America, edging out corrections officer and lumberjack.

These two bits of gloom are likely connected to each other—and to the bleak economic reality of local news. The problem is not words produced per writer (that’s probably never been higher) but hours of reporting spent per story. Alas, each piece can now be subjected to its own brutally precise return-on-investment analysis. News organizations lose money on stories that take a lot of time but generate only modest page views, so fewer and fewer such stories are produced.

Simply put, on the local level, the ad-based business model does not generate enough revenue to pay enough reporters to do enough reporting. As a result, communities are not being well served by journalistic institutions.

It’s time for a dramatic new approach grounded in community service. In a new report underwritten by the Ford Foundation that will be released tomorrow at Montclair State’s Engage Local conference, I attempt to draw lessons from a world not usually thought relevant to journalism: the three-decades-old movement of national and community service programs such as AmeriCorps, City Year, and Teach for America. A new national service program focused on local reporting would more efficiently deploy philanthropic resources to the media enterprises that need it most, while instilling a new sense of idealism into community-based coverage. It is time to Report for America.


The New Nonprofit Media

The classic advertising sales pitch ran as follows: to reach a consumer you have to advertise alongside content that person is reading. The digital revolution changed that. The content-as-proxy-for-reach paradigm has been replaced by an ever improving system of targeting consumers directly via social media, mobile, and other vehicles.

On a national level, some organizations—the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times come to mind—can generate such massive reach that they can outrun softening ad rates. That doesn’t work on the local level, where scale is limited by geography. The odds that a three-part series on the El Paso sewer commission will go globally viral just aren’t that great.

The second issue is what economists call the problem of public goods. Some types of journalism have enormous value to society as a whole without generating much consumer demand. A series about people unfairly sentenced to death may have enormous civic value even if few people read it.

Many people—journalists, philanthropists, concerned citizens—noticed this problem playing out in their communities. Some started hyperlocal for-profit sites, with varying degrees of success. There was also a boomlet of new nonprofit media experiments. Among the newcomers: ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, Charlottesville Tomorrow, and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.

Great progress has been made, but not nearly enough. Of the $527 million in philanthropic support that went to nonprofit media from 2009 to 2011, just $27 million, or 1.5 percent, went to investigative work—about as much as went to “interactive games.” In part this reflects an allergy among some funders to subsidizing content creation, which is seen as ephemeral—as opposed to innovation and infrastructure, which can create more lasting effects.

So far, the biggest contributions have come from the fortunes created by robber barons of the 19th century (Carnegie, Knight, Ford, Rockefeller), with insufficient involvement from the winners in the digital economy, such as Apple and Google. And there’s evidence that the enthusiasm for this cause, such as it was, may have plateaued. According to data from Media Impact Funders, the total amount of funding for “journalism, news, and information” dropped from $186 million in 2009 to $167 million in 2012.

While the nonprofit media entities are making slow progress toward sustainability, many still struggle. A 2015 Knight Foundation report found that only 23 percent of the revenue generated by nonprofit news organizations was “earned income,” meaning that “nonprofits remain very reliant on foundation funding, and few appear to be rapidly approaching a sustainable business model.”

New models, and more philanthropic support, are urgently needed, squarely targeting the most acute areas of market failure: insufficient funding for labor-intensive local reporting and the journalists who do it.


Hidden Lessons of AmeriCorps

Programs like AmeriCorps instill an ethic of service—a concept to which we will return in a moment. But let’s start with some practical lessons. Community service programs have attempted to solve the following riddle: How can a national effort get help to local communities, with minimal bureaucracy and overhead?

To a remarkable degree, they have succeeded: Some 800,000 AmeriCorps members have served about a billion hours at 15,000 locations since 1994, and the program has coordinated the efforts of another four million volunteers.

Some of the keys:

Support people rather than programs. The vast majority of federal funds for AmeriCorps go to the stipend and educational award for the corps member. These efforts often come with some administrative funds to support programs—and even when they don’t, providing stipends defrays costs for the organization—but the money is still focused on subsidizing the labor itself, lowering the effort’s per-person cost. This is important since what local journalism needs, philanthropically speaking, is a labor subsidy.

Achieve a national impact through local implementation. Many philanthropists and foundations have grand ambitions (and occasionally even grand egos) and therefore prefer to work on a national scale. But the most pressing needs are often in the nooks and crannies of community ecosystems. Service programs provide ways for philanthropists to support causes of national import with locally grown solutions. They might, for instance, sponsor mentoring efforts through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a national program that deploys mentors locally.

Sustainability is easier when the community has bought in. These programs strive to support institutions that really need the aid. This is made more likely by AmeriCorps’ competitive grant-making process, and reinforced by the requirement that recipients match the national funds with local support. Organizations therefore only apply if they have real need for the AmeriCorps members and have some faith they can get community support.


A New Model: Report for America

Report for America’s mission would be to support local journalism that improves communities and the lives of their residents.

Here’s how it might work.

A national nonprofit entity is created, financed by philanthropy (not government funding). Applicants are not mostly recent college graduates but rather early- or mid-career reporters who want to devote more reporting time to civically important beats. The stints are for two years, as with the Peace Corps and Teach for America.

The subsidy comes in two tiers: a lower amount for less experienced reporters, a higher stipend for more senior ones. The national Report for America organization contributes part of the stipend (say, $20,000 and $40,000 respectively), with the rest provided by the local media organization and the community at large.

The program could focus on a particular issue (education, health care, development, municipal government, the environment), emphasize particular journalistic skills (data journalism, multimedia, investigation), or target specific underserved communities. The selected corps members would gather for special training, which would cover technique, ethics, and subject matter.

Local journalistic institutions would compete to receive corps members, just as a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity might apply for AmeriCorps slots. Each makes the case that it would use the reporters to support forms of journalism endangered by modern media economics. Preference would go to labor-intensive assignments that might take weeks or months to produce a journalistic payoff, and to subjects with high civic value but limited appeal to advertisers and modest attraction to readers.

Report for America selects the winning organizations. Crucially, this structure sidesteps debates over what kinds of institutions will or should survive. It considers applications from a wide variety of organizations, including newspapers, TV stations, public radio stations, geographically centered nonprofits, issue-oriented nonprofits with local branches, civic research organizations, Public, Educational, and Governmental Access channels, and journalism schools. The best proposals win.

Once in the newsroom, fellows are managed by local editors, just as AmeriCorps members are managed by local nonprofits. They work on packages that take time to develop. Say the program is focused on health care: they might produce a deep-dive investigative piece on the dysfunctional public hospital or weekly beat stories assessing local nursing homes in a sophisticated way.

Report for America provides a support structure to connect these reporters with each other and to provide occasional networking and instruction. The corps members benefit—but so do the organizations, as best practices circulate among local newsrooms around the country.

To be clear, this idea is not meant to replace stand-alone nonprofit or for-profit journalism organizations. Indeed, the nation would be far better off if every major city or every state had a ProPublica-like nonprofit news organization. But if AmeriCorps is any indication, the best of the new nonprofit media organizations would be among the greatest beneficiaries of Report for America.

This approach could draw in additional sources of donor and community support. First, it would make local journalism seem—and be—more noble and worthy of support from big donors, who often view reporters more as part of the problem than the solution. It would give the most ambitious among them a way to fund something massive that nonetheless manifests itself locally. It provides a different model for those loath to support approaches that aid what they view as the failed infrastructure of legacy media. It is market-oriented in that it allows the most innovative and successful programs to grow (regardless of where they come from or how old they are).

Report for America would draw additional support from local communities and small donors, much as public radio has over the years. The local match for a single Report for America member could be between $10,000 and $40,000, well within the capacity of most communities and even crowd-funding efforts. Some of the 750 geographically-based “community foundations” that have so far avoided funding journalism might find this approach manageable and desirable. One could imagine mini-endowments being created (perhaps in the name of retired journalists) to cover the match for local institutions, should they win Report for America corps members.

Let’s not kid ourselves: to draw community support, journalism has to both help the community and be seen as such. And that leads to the final and perhaps most important reason for a program like this: It will improve local journalism. Being forced to think primarily about how to serve the community—as opposed to how to generate pageviews—will be a useful guidepost. That’s not to say journalists should become civic boosters; often the best way to serve a community is to turn over the rocks and look in the shadows.

At the end of the day, a program like this would enable reporters to do what many of us joined the profession for in the first place: to do some good, using the particular skills we happen to have. A journalist friend of mine once cautioned me that “journalism is not one of the healing professions.” That’s true, but it should be one of the helping professions. At its best, community journalism is a service to the community. Report for America wouldn’t eliminate the various maladies of modern journalism, but it would provide a way to strengthen the worthiest elements, instead of the most cynical.

Steven Waldman is a journalist and digital entrepreneur. As senior advisor to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, he authored a landmark study on local media. Earlier in his career he wrote The Bill, about the passage of the law creating AmeriCorps, and subsequently served as senior advisor to the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. This article is adapted from a longer white paper, which can be found here. You can watch Waldman discuss his proposal June 16, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. at the Engage Local conference sponsored by Montclair State's Center for Cooperative Media. You can follow the livestream here and join the Twitter conversation at #engagelocal.