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Sept. 19, 2017, 10:41 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Report for America wants to place (and help pay for) young reporters in local newsrooms that need them

“This was once something that a whole generation of journalists got to do to start their careers. Sadly, we’ve seen it disappear. We want to restore that tradition.”

Being a local news reporter should be something that young people want to do — and it’s okay if they don’t want to do it forever: That’s the idea behind Report for America, a program that launched this week that aims to put “emerging journalists” into local newsrooms for a year of service.

Report for America, a partnership between the GroundTruth Project and Google News Lab with support from the Lenfest Institute, the Knight Foundation, and a number of other journalism organizations, has the ambitious goal of putting 1,000 journalists into underserved newsrooms across America over the next five years (though it’s starting small, with 12 journalists across four regions in 2018). The national organization, cofounded by GroundTruth founder and CEO Charles Sennott and Steven Waldman (the author of the landmark FCC report “Information Needs of Communities“), will pay 50 percent of each journalist’s salary in the first year, with the local news organization offering 25 percent and local donors providing the remaining 25 percent. After that, if the reporter stays on, the newsroom will take on a larger share of the salary.

Waldman has been named Lenfest’s first entrepreneur-in-residence and will focus his time on building out the project.

I spoke with Sennott about how Report for America will work, how it will balance between reporters who already live in communities and those who come from outside, and how local newsrooms and journalists can apply.

Laura Hazard Owen: What kinds of reporters will you be hiring? How many will be local, and how many will come from outside the area?

Charles Sennott: We’re working with the newsrooms to find out what fits best for the local community, but in general, we’re thinking about smart, talented, emerging journalists. That could be people who are straight out of college and have no journalism experience; it could be people who have some expertise. Let’s say you’re pre-med and want to be a journalist for a few years: We want to give people a chance to do that if they can demonstrate interest and skills.

If half of the corps members are from the communities that we’re serving and half come in from the outside, we see great value in both those approaches. We see huge opportunity in someone not from that place, seeing it for the first time, and getting to know a different part of the country. That’s a good skill for a journalist: You come with really fresh eyes, but you also have to know that you’re going to into a community to serve the community. We’re trying to toggle between the two.

Owen: Where are the first newsrooms that you’ll be working with?

Sennott: I’ve been out in communities in different parts of the country, where we’ll be working with the first round of news organizations. We’re announcing very soon where we’ll start this, but I can tell you that the places I’ve been traveling are rural Appalachia, the deep South, the Southwest, and the Rust Belt Midwest.

Owen: In addition to the projects that these reporters do for their local newsrooms, will there be any sort of broader offering that brings together all the work they’ve done, like a website?

Sennott: The idea is really that local reporters are assigned to a newsroom. But we will also curate that content on the GroundTruth site — always in coordination with the local newsroom. Imagine if we have these reporters out there in four different regions, writing about their experiences, telling us some of the best stories they’re working on, generating stories about their journey and what they’re finding. We’d love to put that on the GroundTruth website. But the purpose of it is to work for the local news organization.

Owen: What kind of training will you provide?

Sennott: With the GroundTruth project, for almost five years, we’ve been doing trainings around the world and in the U.S. We’ve developed a formula for some basics and some custom-tailored modules that work for the different places we are. We’ve been doing a lot of reporting on climate change, for instance, so we developed modules for that. But we also work with young journalists just to train them on the basics — how to capture standards that are core and essential.

We recently went over to the Podcast Garage [PRX’s studio space in Boston] to train some journalists for a separate project called Crossing the Divide, where we took five journalists from red states and five from blue states and sent them out to cover America. We gave them civil unrest training from the same safety instructor who trained our teams to cover places like Tahrir Square, Burma, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s an interesting and sad commentary on our time that a lot of the things we did to train journalists to cover struggling democracies are the kinds of trainings we are providing right now in America to cover this divide. It’s not just basic training for physical safety: We also do trainings around hidden bias, conflict resolution, how to do your job without adding fuel to the fire or causing more of a disturbance.

Owen: So in the case of Report for America corps members who are coming in from outside the community, you’ll be training them about the culture of that community?

Sennott: The trainings will be regional, if not specifically local, and members of the host news organizations will be part of the training.

Owen: Are there specific issues that you want these partnerships to cover?

Sennott: We really want to get those from the newsrooms themselves: We want them to drive this and tell us what’s needed and work with them to answer that need. Based on our discussions, though, healthcare comes up as a big issue, education comes up as a big issue, and how the community is being governed. Those are always and forever big topics for local news organizations — so we are going to think about how we can prioritize needs, based on what the newsroom wants to cover. Maybe it will be something it hasn’t been able to cover before.

Those issues will be consistent themes, but another important area is geographic. If a news organization has had to constrict its coverage, because of budget cuts or other circumstances, and forgotten some rural communities, we want to help them go back — maybe reopen local bureaus, do outreach to rural parts of their readership or their viewership or listenership.

Owen: What does Report for America take from other programs, like Teach for America and the Peace Corps?

Sennott: We want to learn from some of the challenges they’ve faced but also capitalize on the way they’ve built a movement and restored something lost. We’re hoping this can bring in a young, adventurous, maybe idealistic crowd, to see what it’s like to go off into a small town or rural community or corner of a big city that isn’t getting covered, and tell that community’s stories. This was once something that a whole generation of journalists got to do to start their careers. Sadly, we’ve seen it disappear. We want to restore that tradition.

Owen: Tell me a little bit more about the application. What kinds of news organizations can apply? And how many corps members are you hiring to start?

Sennott: Newspapers, public radio stations, digital news organizations, pretty much anyone that has a commitment to excellence, to being independent and fair, and that has a culture of mentorship — that’s an important piece of this, that we find mentors in the newsrooms who can do a good job helping these emerging journalists.

For our first year, we’re going to try to do 12 corp members and do it really well. We’ll be in approximately four regions to start. We’re starting off modestly and we hope to grow and build as we go on.

We hope, next week, to announce a call for applications for the first round of reporting fellows. Or, I mean, corps members. We called them “fellows” at first and we got rid of that term: It’s something we realized that communities and journalists really don’t relate to that much. So, it’s Report for America corps members. Or just — reporters! That’s a good word. I like that word.

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2017, 10:41 a.m.
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