Report for America set out to give local news a boost. Here’s how it’s going

Will Wright, one of Report for America's first corps members, re-opened the Lexington Herald-Leader's eastern Kentucky bureau in January. Courtesy photo.

Will Wright, a journalist at the Lexington Herald-Leader, knows a lot about the water in eastern Kentucky. How it’s gathered from local tributaries and reservoirs, how it’s treated, and how it’s transported to businesses and homes. This year, Wright reported extensively on the failing infrastructure of one county’s water district, on the West Virginia border, including an incident in January that left more than 3,000 people without access to water for days.

Wright, 24, is one of the first corps members with Report for America, a national service program in the vein of AmeriCorps and Teach for America that aims to chip away at the country’s local news crisis by pairing talented young reporters with under-resourced newsrooms across the country. In January, the Herald-Leader sent Wright to re-establish its bureau in Pikeville, Kentucky, a city of about 7,000 in the heart of coal country. As the newspaper’s sole reporter in eastern Kentucky, Wright now covers 13 counties that have not received persistent media coverage in a statewide outlet since the Herald-Leader closed its bureau there in 2011.

The month following Wright’s initial reporting, the water district manager retired and the state allocated $3.4 million to repair the ailing system. “They’ve been having these water issues for years,” Wright says. “When I talk to people here, they just feel like they haven’t been heard.”

An initiative of the Boston-based nonprofit GroundTruth Project, Report for America started small, placing three reporters in Appalachia in January; along with Wright at the Herald-Leader, the program fielded corps members to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in West Virginia, and to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The program expanded in June to 13 total reporters at 10 newsrooms, across eight states, and will more than double in size in 2019, to 28 reporters in about 20 newsrooms. By 2022, it aims to have 1,000 reporters in newsrooms across America, according to Steve Waldman, a veteran journalist and entrepreneur who co-founded Report for America with Charles Sennott, editor and CEO of the GroundTruth Project.

“We’ve proven you can have an impact by putting a reporter on the ground somewhere,” Waldman says. “We’ve shown there’s a tremendous thirst and appetite for this reporting and an eagerness to view local journalism as a public service.”

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The outlets supported by Report for America in its first year—10, selected from a field of 85 applicant organizations—range from legacy publications, like the Dallas Morning News, to new media companies like mobile-first sibling sites Billy Penn and The Incline, which serve Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, respectively. Newsrooms had to demonstrate an urgent gap in their coverage—a geographic region, an issue, or a demographic group, for example—and to articulate clear plans for how the Report for America corps member would help address that gap.

Appalachia was a natural fit for the program’s pilot reporters, says Waldman, given that it is an epicenter for many of the pressing issues facing the country, including economic stagnation, failing infrastructure, and opioids—as well as a sparsity of media. According to John Stamper, the Herald-Leader’s deputy editor for accountability and engagement, his newspaper sent reporters to eastern Kentucky as often as possible following the Pikeville bureau’s closure, but stories were inevitably missed.

“I asked the editors what kind of stories they wanted me to be doing,” says Wright, who previously served as editor in chief of the independent student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, also in Lexington. “They were like, ‘Well, we don’t really know what stories are there.’” In the nine months since, in addition to continued coverage of the water crisis, he has written about education, healthcare, and the prospective impacts of state budget cuts to the region—some of which did not go through, as a result of his reporting.

Wright writes primarily from the trailer where he lives, along a creek just outside of the Pikeville city limits. The setting suits Wright, who grew up in rural Eighty Four, Pennsylvania and considers himself a natural outdoorsman. (Wright completed a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail before starting with Report for America.) This spring, while fishing in a nearby lake, he noticed an unusual amount of accumulated trash and debris. He began asking around about where all the garbage came from and, in August, published a story detailing the inadequate efforts of government entities, for years, to clean the lake and curb the flow of debris from upriver watersheds in Virginia. His coverage made the lake a topic of debate in a local election, in addition to prompting calls from state lawmakers for the governors of Kentucky and Virginia to get involved.

Stamper isn’t surprised at the stories Wright has come up with. “It’s not rocket science,” Stamper says. “There are great stories everywhere. You just have to have a good reporter present.”

In Mississippi, Michelle Liu has reported in detail on an unusual spate of prison deaths and a lack of transparency at the state Department of Corrections, as one of two corps members who joined the nonprofit website Mississippi Today in June. Liu, 22, spent her first months in Jackson attending government meetings, poring through old case files, and introducing herself to everyone she could: “the unglamorous work of building a beat,” she explains. By August, she had hit her stride. After publishing a series of articles on inmate deaths, Liu received a tip from the family of a 33-year-old inmate who died amid uncertain circumstances just five days before her scheduled release, leading to an intimate portrait of the woman and the impact of her imprisonment on her family.

Liu graduated from Yale University in May. After a series of newspaper internships during college, in New Haven, Toledo, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she worried she would miss the texture of local reporting if she followed many of her classmates to larger digital outlets on the coasts. “When Report for America came up, I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do,’” says Liu, who had never spent a day in Mississippi.

Other corps members were driven by a desire to get back to their home states and communities. At the beginning of this year, Chicago-native Carlos Ballesteros, 25, was unhappily “farming clicks,” he says, as a member of Newsweek’s digital team in Manhattan. He quit when he saw the Chicago Sun-Times had been selected as a Report for America outlet. Today he reports from Chicago’s South and West sides—including from the neighborhood where he grew up and where his grandmother first landed when she immigrated to the US from Mexico in the 1960s.

At the Sun-Times, Ballesteros has reported neighborhood revitalization efforts,  police misconduct, and the important roles of barbers in some Chicago communities—the latter in partnership with another Report for America corps member, Manny Ramos, who also claims Chicago as his hometown. What he does not report on is crime and violence, stories that are already thoroughly covered, including by the Sun-Times. Such stories are important, Ballesteros says, but they can also result in damaging stereotypes when they’re the only stories being told about a certain neighborhood.

“The best part of this is being able to help develop the narrative of these places, helping shape how we understand and talk about these communities,” Ballesteros says. “That’s a responsibility I’m proud to take on, and I don’t take it lightly.”

About half of the program’s reporters are native to the communities they’re covering, while others bring the fresh eyes of an outsider. Some came to the program straight from college, for instance, and some with a few years of experience under their belts. About half identify as people of color. Corps members’ assignments are for one year, with the opportunity to extend for a second year, if the corps member and the newsroom both agree. They are paid about $40,000 a year, with Report for America footing half of the bill and a combination of the newsrooms and donors making up the rest.

Report for America currently counts a number of well-known media and philanthropic foundations among its backers, including the Knight Foundation (which also helps fund CJR) and the Google News Initiative. Waldman and Sennott hope the program’s early victories will make it even more attractive to impact-hungry donors—which could Report for America help meet its goals for rapid growth. In the meantime, they say the satisfaction of the newsrooms and corps members proves the model is working so far.

Wright has signed on for an additional year in eastern Kentucky with the Herald-Leader. He’s currently at work on a deep-dive multimedia project about water cleanliness across Appalachia, in partnership with the two corps members in West Virginia. Sennott, who is providing hands-on mentorship to the group, says the “capstone” resembles the longform, time-intensive work often supported by the GroundTruth Project–and might serve as a model for projects the GroundTruth Project could fund in the future for successful Report for America corps members wishing to continue service in their region.

“You can feel the pull of a new generation of reporters to the public service mission of journalism,” Sennott says. “The need is there. Now we want to take what we’ve learned, we want to grow it steady and grow it strong.”

Correction: This article originally misstated the number of corps members Report for America will field in 2019. The program will increase in size to 28 reporters, not 48.

Social image credit: Matt Wasson, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.