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May 6, 2019, 12:47 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   May 6, 2019

Report for America — the ambitious two-year-old initiative from Steve Waldman and Charlie Sennott aiming to put 1,000 journalists into underserved U.S. newsrooms over five years — was modeled in part after Teach for America, another ambitious network with its own set of issues.

It’s one thing to get a large applicant pool, another to secure the funding to pay them, and then to do it again. Those indeed are feats to be recognized! (And yes, they got a New York Times profile.) But the question that hasn’t fully been answered is the impact of these reporters in communities whose local media had been washed away — or maybe never really trusted to begin with. And it was up to these new-to-town reporters, who may not stay put after funding runs out, to work on it.

“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,” Sennott told my colleague Laura Hazard Owen when RFA launched in September 2017, though he also noted “great value” in half of the corps members coming from within the communities they reported in.

RFA has now been through a few cycles of reporters — so, any luck? Andrea Wenzel, Sam Ford, Steve Bynum, and Efrat Nechushtai — all fellows at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism — have compiled a report, based on six months of research and actually talking with local residents, about this very question.

“Entering communities where mutually beneficial relationships between residents and news outlets may have collapsed — or were never established — where can Report for America fellows begin? Can they build trust? And how do they balance their mission to offer coverage for the communities they are covering with the structural necessity to appeal to the broader audiences of their outlets?” they write.

The authors examined RFA’s work in Pike County, Kentucky, and Chicago’s majority-minority Austin neighborhood. The former had one RFA reporter tasked with reopening the Lexington Herald-Ledger’s bureau covering 13 counties and the Chicago Sun-Times hosted two RFA reporters to provide more nuanced coverage of two-thirds of the city where many black and Latinx residents live. Important note: “Each case demonstrates why anyone attempting an intervention in a local news ecosystem must be mindful of place and power dynamics.”

Here are some of their top findings from focus groups with Kentucky and Austin residents, as well as recommendations:

  1. “Residents in rural Kentucky and inner-city Chicago shared a sense that RFA fellows’ stories were more about their communities than for them, but participants acknowledged that circulating more complete narratives about their communities was not a small thing.” Might the Herald-Ledger and the Sun-Times make a push for subscribers and higher readership in these areas? It’s possible, but…
  2. “One primary question remains, both for RFA and for other projects like it: How can newsrooms both meet the information needs of communities they cover, and simultaneously appeal to the outlet’s general audience?”
  3. “In our focus groups, residents envisioned a variety of additional pathways through which they could be involved in the reporting process. And the structure of the fellowships — where reporters were tasked with covering vast areas, and required to conduct service projects but not community outreach — made it especially difficult to establish deliberate feedback loops that would have served both journalists and the residents in our focus groups.” RFA said it provided suggestions during the corps members’ training on how to get to know the community beyond reporting, like fishing or following a local sports team. And the Kentucky corps member, Will Wright, did indeed hunt and fish, but…
  4. “Is a one- to two-year contract long enough to deepen these necessary relationships? A year in, Wright said it would probably take about five years to have really deep contacts…. Wright was given a second one-year contract, so he had some time after that first eight months of relationship-building. He seemed doubtful that he would be able to stay in the area past the two-year mark, though he said he hoped the Herald-Leader would continue to cover the region.”
  5. “When we told our study participants about Wright, both groups asked the same question: ‘Is he a local boy?'”
  6. Manny Ramos and Carlos Ballestros, the Sun-Times’ reporters, both grew up in the neighborhoods they are now covering. The Sun-Times, like much other media in the city, had mainly reported on crime and less-than-positive breaking news in Austin and other South and West Side communities. “Because of their agreement with RFA,” the pair is supposed to focus on community issues beyond crime. But: “This is not to say that Ballesteros and Ramos don’t occasionally get sucked into second-day crime stories.”
  7. “Ballesteros co-hosted a bilingual candidate forum in the electoral ward where he lived, and planned to participate in another forum organized by the Sun-Times. Other than that, the RFA fellows were unable to find time to organize community outreach outside their reporting duties. When asked about community engagement, [editor-in-chief Chris] Fusco suggested that he associated these efforts with other departments, like marketing.”
  8. “Just as in Eastern Kentucky, because of the size of their coverage area, the work the RFA fellows produced could feel like a drop in the ocean.”

Alrighty. Here are the topline recommendations the authors (and focus group participants) came up with, with more detail in the full report:

  1. Support coverage for communities.
  2. Balance concerns for scale with ability to demonstrate impact.
  3. Find additional opportunities to support collaborations.
  4. Source reporters locally.
  5. Consider supporting communities over time.
  6. Focus on adequate communication and mentorship support.
  7. Incentivize engagement.

RFA received almost a thousand applications for its 61-member 2019 cohort, where “one-third of the corps members will be reporting in a place they call home.”

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