Letters to the Editor, re: Report for America’s progress

In May, CJR published a report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled, ‘Can Report for America build trust in local news? A view from two communities.’ Report for America’s president and co-founder, Steve Waldman, responded to our authors’ findings in the letter printed below; we also gave the authors the opportunity to respond to him. Please send correspondence to letters@cjr.org, along with your name, address, and any relevant affiliation.

 

When Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford, two impressive scholars, first asked for permission to spend time studying a few corps members of the inaugural class of Report for America, I was a bit apprehensive.

RFA is a young program taking on an enormous challenge, the decimation of local news across the country. We’re learning every day, and we’ve hit many bumps along the way. Honestly, the odds that a few reporters would have a measurable impact in their communities at this early stage struck me as a tall order. Still, we agreed to let Wenzel and Ford dive in, because we figured that if a program for journalists can’t be transparent and subject to scrutiny, what can?

I’m glad we took the chance. To help diagnose how we’re doing, their piece drew upon community focus groups and interviews, focusing on three RFA corps membersone in Eastern Kentucky and two in Chicagoover the course of six months. Although I may disagree with some of their conclusions, we appreciate that they took our program seriously enough to spend this kind of time. They offered valuable insights and suggestions that are worth discussion, not only in the case of RFA but across the industry as journalists seek ways to repair the local news ecosystem.

In the spirit of contributing to that discussion, I want to share  my reactions to the findings in the piece. I’ve broken them into four categories:

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Ouch: Areas where they got things right (and I wish it weren’t so).

Ahem: Areas where I believe they got things a bit wrong.

Yay: Moments of pride.

Hmmm: Areas where they raised interesting questions that I would love to both respond to and throw open to the larger community for reaction.

 

OUCH

“None of our focus group participants had heard of Report for America or Wright.” It was bracing to learn how hard it is to make a dent in readers’ consciousnessthat people in eastern Kentucky didn’t know that Will Wright was from RFA, that he lived in a trailer in the local area, or that he was writing stories to better represent them. We need to do better at communicating with communities who our corps members are and what they’re doing. (Not incidentally, we’re hiring head of marketing. Apply here!)

The piece also suggested that we sometimes imply there are no reporters at all in the areas where our corps members are placed. This is not our intention. Austin Weekly and Appalachian News Express both do some great work in those areas. In fact, we made a point of including small local outlets in the most recent round of new corps member placements, including the Chico Enterprise-Record, The Ukiah Daily Journal, and the Malheur Enterprise. In the next round, we hope to add more small outlets like these.

We also took note of this: “He [Wright] already struggled to find time for RFA requirements like his service project or mandatory essays about his RFA experience.” The first priority has to be doing great journalism in the community, so we need to watch the additional pressures that we’re putting on our corps members carefully.

 

AHEM

The study suggests that RFA might have a greater impact if the reporters were from the area. “Rather than reporters who already lived in an area, the project would send outsiders in to marginalized communities for limited periods of time.” The implication is that these three “parachuted” in. In fact, Wright, the reporter in eastern Kentucky, went to the University of Kentucky and grew up in Appalachia himself, albeit in Pennsylvania. Both Carlos Ballesteros and Manny Ramos, the two Chicago reporters, grew up in the city, in or near the neighborhoods they now cover. Ramos went to school in Chicago and was already a journalist there when he started with the Chicago Sun-Times through RFA. Ballesteros, meanwhile, returned to his home city from New York to take this position. None of these journalists are outsiders.

In fact, about half of our first-year corps members and a third of our second-year class are from the communities they cover. More importantly, we worked with the news organizations that our corps members now support to solicit applications from local journalists. We believe finding local journalists to cover underserved communities is an important goal, but it is not our top priority. In some cases, the reporter we selected for various positions was the result of the newsrooms’ priorities and requests of RFA, such as reporting skills and experience, language abilities, and issue expertise.

The CJR piece refers to RFA journalists as “fellows.” We prefer “corps members.” Unlike fellowships, we do not employ these reporters. We like using the language of a national service movement because we view RFA as a national service program. We want to underline our view that local reporting is community service. We also require them to do additional service projects within their communities.

 

YAY

My favorite paragraph:  “The pair are rarely, if ever, assigned to breaking crime stories. ‘We can’t just send them to the crime scene,’ Chris Fusco, the Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief said. Because of their agreement with RFA, the two fellows covered a range of community issues—economic development, immigration, educational initiatives, health disparities, demographic trends—anything but crime. Because the Sun-Times had gone through layoffs and ownership changes, reporting manpower was stretched thin. ‘There’s days, believe me, you would love to take the warm body that’s in the newsroom and dispatch it to whatever crisis that is going on,’ Fusco admitted. ‘But we can’t do that.’

And: “When we told Austin residents that this program existed, they were enthusiastic about it—even if the reporting ended up being more about their community than for it.

 

HMMM:

  • “Support coverage for communities.” The report states: If RFA aims to reach outlets that serve marginalized communities, it will need to tell outlets about the program and its process. Otherwise, outlets that are not already looped into the circuit of journalism conferences and collaborations may not learn about it; or they may not believe that the fellowships are being offered to them. True that. In the lead up to our news organization selection deadline for 2019, our small team sent thousands of emails to newsrooms across the country, inviting them to apply. In some states, we reached out to contacts for every newspaper, tiny and large. We saw the effect this had on our application pool, with direct references to the invitation in numerous applications. However, that’s not enough. We’re hiring someone to think about this full-time.
  • “Balance concerns for scale with ability to demonstrate impact.” On the one hand, if we spent more money per corps member, we could have extra help to do things like community outreach. On the other hand, that would mean we’d support fewer reporters. (We’re also trying to bring some of what our corps members do to a national audience, through essays in which they write about their experience for The GroundTruth Project website.) Obviously we are trying to find the right balance. But, if we must choose, should we favor fielding more reporters or investing in community outreach?
  • “Find additional opportunities to support collaborations.” Wenzel and Ford recommend: “Taken a step further, the work of encouraging collaboration could include building a robust asset map of local news and information resources throughout a fellow’s coverage area, or positioning fellows as liaisons between a single regional outlet and one or more hyperlocal outlets across the communities the fellow is covering.
    Yes. Here’s the question: should we require collaborations? And should we play a role in coordinating them? In Appalachia, we coordinated the work of the reporters at the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and West Virginia Public Media. The result, “Stirring the Waters,” was increased conversation and legislative movement around the water crisis in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. In fact, the reporters were just named as finalists for the prestigious Livingston awards for their work. But collaborations are expensive, and we arrive at a familiar question. Should we take money out of our budget to expand in this way or should we focus on placing more reporters in local newsrooms and doing that best?
  • “Source reporters locally.” The report states: “If sustainability is a priority, as it arguably should be given current challenges in local journalism, it may be advisable to look for reporters who have established connections to an area.” We did aggressive social media marketing in the communities where we placed reporters in order to get local applicants. But we then had those people compete with other folks from around the country. If two candidates were roughly equivalent we tended to pick the local. But at the end of the day we left it to the newsrooms to decide. My fear is that if we had a hard requirement that they be local that we would start to see an erosion of quality. Part of why our journalists are so successful is that they’re chosen via a national competition. It’s not that there aren’t great reporters already in town, it’s that in some cases there aren’t reporters who are local and superb and interested in an entry level position and interested in joining a national service program.
  • “Consider supporting communities over time.” The report recommends: “For initiatives that prioritize the communicative health of communities, supporting newsrooms in the same geographic region over time offers a better chance for building trust in local journalism and a culture of participation and engagement.” I like that idea! We’re increasing our presence in Mississippi, Appalachia, and other areas where our work has shown promising results.
  • “Incentivize engagement.” The report suggested that the reporters implement community engagement techniques, including, “having visibility at existing community events; directly hosting meetings about local civic issues; establishing clear digital avenues of communication (such as texts and social media polls) between locals and the RFA fellows; working in a space with ‘office hours,’ whether rented by the outlet or at community gathering spaces, like senior citizen centers; and collaborating with local community organizations and initiatives on stories that highlight local resources available to residents—among other ideas. Regardless of approach, reporters will need time and resources to implement engagement practices.” These all seem like great ideas. The big question is: Do we require it? Incentivize it, by giving selection preferences to news organizations that can implement some of this? Help finance it? Or just suggest it? We don’t want to place unnecessary burdens on news organizations that are already strapped. The beauty, and maybe a flaw, of our model is that we rely on news organizations to know what’s best for their communities. RFA is addressing the crisis in local journalism, but we are not alone the solution.  

Steve Waldman, president and co-founder, Report for America

 

The authors respond:

When we shared our findings about the local news environment in Pike County, Kentucky and the Austin neighborhood of Chicagoand the role of the Report for America program in eachwe were of course curious how the leadership of RFA would respond. While reporting and researching, we had been impressed with their responsiveness to questions and critiques. But we were even more impressed to read the thoughtful, introspective response that Waldman shared with CJR.

We appreciate, for one, the fairness and candor of Waldman’s “Ouch,” “Ahem,” “Yay,” and “Hmm” responses. We fully own our “Ahem” goof of referring to RFA reporters as “fellows,” instead of “corps members.” Further, by recommending that RFA prioritize locally-based corps members, we did not intend to imply that the members we spoke with were all parachuted in. It was clear, however, how important a commitment to the local community was to many residents who participated in our research in these two places. One of our overall findings is that perspectives can differ on what “local” means; even if corps members have ties to a state or to a region, they may not be seen as a local by residents of a particular place, especially one that sees itself as marginalized. For RFA, the corps members, and the partnering newsrooms, it will be helpful to keep in mind these potentially differing definitions of “local,” and to critically examine how disparities might impact the dynamics of earning trust in communities.

We are gratified that RFA has taken time to grapple with our recommendations. We hope RFA will continue to provide the same level of transparency it showed during our research and with this letter. We will continue to follow how they, and others, adapt and respond to the challenges ahead.

Andrea Wenzel, Sam Ford, Steve Bynum & Efrat Nechushtai

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.