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June 15, 2015, 12:29 p.m.
Business Models
LINK: www.cjr.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   June 15, 2015

The “bleak reality of local news,” Steve Waldman writes, is that the ad-based revenue model can’t support stories that take a lot of time to write but don’t pull in clicks. The answer, he suggests, is a community service-based model grounded on lessons from “the three-decades-old movement of national and community service programs such as AmeriCorps, City Year, and Teach for America.”

This new, nonprofit media model would focus on types of journalism that “have enormous value to society as a whole without generating much consumer demand.” Stories like these, Waldman argues, are simply never going to achieve the reach that more popular stories do, so it’s unlikely that an ad-supported model will work for them.

Here’s how Waldman — the founder of religion website Beliefnet and author of the 2011 FCC report “The Information Needs of Communities” — thinks his proposed program, which he calls Report for America, could work alongside existing nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica:

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.

Reporters selected for the program would receive special training, and local news organizations would compete to have the corps members work for them, “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.” Report for America would be subsidized by philanthropy, and it would provide “a different model for those loath to support approaches that aid what they view as the failed infrastructure of legacy media.”

Waldman plans to present his proposal, explained more fully here, Tuesday at the Engage Local conference in Montclair, New Jersey.

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