Public-service journalism program pitched in CJR lands funding

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There’s widespread agreement in the news media that the crisis in journalism threatens democracy. But there’s some confusion about what exactly the crisis is, and therefore what the solutions need to be.

Journalism really faces two crises—one of the pocketbook and one of the soul. To address these twin problems, we will need a dramatically new approach at the local level—grounded less in the traditional commercial model and more on a reawakened spirit of public service among reporters. We need a privately-financed national service program for journalists.

In a 2015 CJR article, we sketched the broad strokes of the idea. Remarkably, the concept is becoming a reality, launched today at the Google News Lab Summit, as an initiative of the GroundTruthProject, Google, and others.

Let’s first quickly review why a radically different approach is needed. The first crisis, as CJR readers know, is one of business models. It’s often described in terms of news organizations losing readers to the internet. That’s a bit off. The primary financial catastrophe has been news organizations losing advertisers to the internet—especially on the local level. As local businesses have shifted their dollars to digital platforms like Facebook and Google, newspaper revenues have plummeted. The local news economy is broken.

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As a result, local newsrooms around the nation have been hollowed out. Since 1990, the number of newspaper jobs has dropped by almost half. The number of statehouse reporters has fallen by more than a third. Critical issues like the quality of schools, the competence of city government, the health of residents get ignored or covered superficially.

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The crisis of the soul, meanwhile, has a few elements. For starters, Americans mistrust “the media” more. The mistrust numbers among Republicans skyrocketed after Donald Trump launched his persistent campaign to convince people that journalists are the enemies of the country who routinely make up their information.

Perhaps it’s of some consolation that people seem to distrust the media but love their local news. So rebuilding local news, in which residents interact with journalists in a more direct way, is one path to restoring trust.

The other part of the spiritual problem relates to the kind of work reporters do. Those local journalists who do still have jobs feel pressured to do clickbait over deep reporting, opinion over fact, and in-the-cubicle social media over on-the-ground investigation. Volume is up, depth is down.

Not surprisingly, Americans often see reporters as a rather loathsome group. While 73 percent of Americans believe teachers contribute “a lot” to society and 65 percent say scientists do—only 28 percent believe that of journalists, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. This is frustrating since most of the reporters or former reporters we know got into this line of work out of an earnest desire to make a positive difference.

That’s why we need to try a dramatically different approach based on the national and community service model created by organizations like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, Venture for America, and City Year.

Report for America will deploy an emerging generation of journalists in communities around the country doing civically important reporting in local newsrooms. Ultimately, RFA will put at least 1,000 local reporters on the ground.

Report for America will deploy an emerging generation of journalists in communities around the country doing civically important reporting in local newsrooms.

Here’s how it will work. Emerging journalists will apply to Report for America, making the case why they are committed to truth and local public-service journalism. They may be right out of college, or have a few years reporting experience or be older people with special skills. For instance, veterans who have worked in public affairs operations have both journalistic chops and a proven ethic of service.

Local news organizations will then apply to get Report for America journalists, making the case that they will deploy these precious assets to do the kind of civically important reporting that is too often ignored. A wide range of local organizations will be eligible: newspapers, digital native news sites, public radio stations, local TV stations, wire services, or journalism schools.

The selected corps members will then be deployed to work in the newsrooms of these winning news organizations. There is no shortage of great local news organizations thirsty for this kind of reporting. Indeed, while newspapers have struggled, a new wave of digital startups, many of them nonprofits, have sprouted to fill the gaps. Report for America will eventually provide a powerful boost.

The program will not be funded by the government. Rather, it is structured to spread the cost and involvement between privately-financed national and local players. The national Report for America program will provide 50 percent of the cost to fund the annual salary for a local reporter. The local news organization and local donors will each provide 25 percent. Over time, the local share will grow.

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One other element that makes this program different. While we believe that journalism often is public service, Report for America corps members will help in other ways too. Each will be required to do service in their community—in most cases working with local high schools and junior highs to create or improve the student-run news website or newspaper or to convene a public listening event that can bring the community together in a discussion framed by their reporting on an important subject in the community. We hope that this interaction of the reporters with the community also will help to improve the public understanding of and trust in the media.

Report for America will soon be taking applications for both would-be reporters and local news organizations for service projects throughout 2018.

These jobs will be tiring, hard, often unglamorous, and modestly paid. But they will be important. Our hope is that Report for America will permanently increase the local reporting capacity in the United States, and that these members will help provide the innovation necessary to rejuvenate community journalism. But those corps members who do not remain in journalism in the long run will be able to have an impact for the rest of their lives. They will return to their own communities knowing how to tell a community’s story and what it’s like to pursue the truth so hard that the fear of making an error causes you to wake up in the middle of the night. They’ll strengthen democracy by explaining to their neighbors what journalists aspire to do.

Most reporters have not stopped caring. It’s just that thanks to the modern economics of journalism, they no longer have the opportunity to serve. It’s time for a new approach—one that is unabashedly patriotic and that calls upon idealistic, honest, whip-smart, and indefatigable reporters to go into under-covered towns and city neighborhoods around the country and tell stories. And it’s time for national philanthropies and local communities to support these efforts.

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Steven Waldman and Charles M. Sennott are the co-founders of Report for America. Sennott is founder and CEO of The GroundTruth Project and co-founder of GlobalPost as well as a longtime reporter for the Boston Globe. Waldman is founder of Beliefnet.com, LifePosts.com, and author of books about both local news and AmeriCorps.