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April 23, 2020, 2:11 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Report for America — remotely? Despite coronavirus, RFA will put 225 journalists “in” newsrooms across the country

“We used to say trustworthy information is important to democracy. And now we should say trustworthy local information is a matter of life and death.”

It’s one thing to report on a community from your kitchen table or living room couch when you already know it well. You know the people to keep in touch with, the sources to call, the players to watch; you have the context of having reported dozens or hundreds of previous stories there. It’s tough, but doable.

It’s another thing altogether to report remotely about a city you barely know — maybe even one you haven’t even arrived in yet.

But that’s the situation at least some of the 225 journalists in the new Report for America class, announced today, will find themselves in. They’ll be navigating a new beat covering a new community without the usual place-bound infrastructure.

“The biggest onus is going to be on the newsroom to figure out smart strategies for doing that,” said Steve Waldman, Report for America’s co-founder and president. “There are some types of stories that it’s just not going to make sense to give an RFA corp member because they just don’t know the community yet. There are others where their reporting would be as useful as anyone else’s. The editors will have to just get clever about best use of people like that. These are really good reporters, so they are capable of figuring stuff out. Still, there’s a limit to how much they can get done.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, RFA is placing those 225 journalists (some of whom are among RFA’s current 59-member class) in 162 newsrooms across the United States and Puerto Rico. They are a diverse lot, especially in comparison to most American newsrooms: About 40 percent are journalists of color, more than a quarter speak Spanish, and more than three-quarters are women. Their average age: 27.

Today’s announcement of 225 reporters is 25 fewer than what RFA had previously expected. Waldman said some newsrooms had to step back from their commitments to take on a corp member. Host newsrooms pay between 25 and 50 percent of their reporters’ salaries, and we all know times are not good in American newsrooms.

News orgs apply to receive an RFA corp member, making the case for why they need another reporter and the specific beat they’d cover. Once the newsrooms are selected, journalists apply and indicate what their top newsroom choices are. Report for America pays for half of the reporter’s salary; the newsroom puts up the second half, with the option to fundraise for half of their half.

In New Orleans, the recently merged Times-Picayune and Advocate was originally slated to add five new RFA corp members, in addition to current newsroom RFAer Emily Woodruff, who covers (the obviously timely) public health beat. The new beats would have been education, business, higher education, and covering suburbs and parishes.

Then coronavirus struck, and the company furloughed about 40 people, with the remaining staff moving to four-day work weeks. Metro editor Jerry DiColo said it was disappointing to have to back out of Report for America because having five reporters would have been a game changer for the paper’s coverage.

“The reason we’ve been so successful in our first year of RFA was that we still have a really strong newsroom culture, which means that reporters are working with editors, we’re debating how we put ideas into context and how we explain things, and making sure we’re just generating the best product everyday,” DiColo said. “Trying to get five new reporters into a newsroom and working from a mobile basis, particularly in a situation here where the health and safety of our reporters is so important, we just didn’t know if we were going to be able to bring the same type of experience to these corp members and to Report for America that we expect we should be bringing.

“The financial reality of it is that there’s funding from RFA but we’ve had furloughs for our staff, so when we were having to make this decision in early April, we just didn’t know what the environment was going to look like on June 1. The amount of uncertainty that we’re facing made it so that we didn’t feel comfortable bringing on this huge amount of new reporters at this time.”

At the same time, some newsrooms have requested additional reporters to try to help fill the information gaps in their communities.

“The crisis has underlined both the challenges of local news and their essential nature,” Waldman said. “We always talk about local journalism being important for the information health of a community. Health was a metaphor, and now it’s about the actual health of the community. We used to say trustworthy information is important to democracy. And now we should say trustworthy local information is a matter of life and death.”

RFA has had to make some adjustments to the program. The first is that its usual in-person training for corp members will now have to go virtual and will likely be scattered throughout the year. Last year, the training was held at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Houston.

It also gave newsrooms more flexibility to use the reporters on different beats if needed. Usually, corp members go into a newsroom with a fixed assignment, but given the staffing changes in some newsrooms, RFA will allow the corp members to help out where they’re useful.

Typically, corp members start their new jobs on or around June 1 and have arrived in their new cities by then. But with the restrictions on travel and financial constraints, some corp members will likely not be able to move by then. RFA and the newsrooms will have those reporters work remotely — in other words, like everyone else in journalism right now — until it’s safe to move. For some, that will mean covering a totally new beat and community, without ever having been there.

Steve Leone, the editor of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, had originally applied for an RFA corp member to cover healthcare and related issues affecting seniors — obviously a crucial beat right now. Around the time the virus broke out, Leone requested a second corp member to cover education — another beat that’s seem massive dislocation the past two months, from childcare to K-12 to universities. The Monitor currently has five reporters, so adding another two through RFA, and then a few summer interns, will be massively helpful.

“We tend to move fast and move aggressively,” Leon said. “But we also want to be able to step back gives certain stories the attention that they need to develop and that becomes harder when you have to produce a paper on a daily basis. Having the capacity is huge because those are two people that you otherwise wouldn’t have had in your newsroom.” (Its RFA reporters will be Teddy Rosenbluth on healthcare/seniors and Eileen O’Grady on education.)

Leone said that in addition to gaining two reporters, Report for America forces newsrooms to explore fundraising as a new revenue stream, which many outlets have been slow to adopt.

“Report for America was really good for that because it requires news organizations to start thinking in a different way,” Leone said. “It’s a model that I think is is pretty easily explained to potential donors. It ties in the call to service, which is pretty central that to how a lot of journalists see themselves anyway and how the community sees a lot of journalists. This is not maybe a place where you’re going to make a million dollars, but it is a place where you can you can do really important work that benefits your community in all directions.”

POSTED     April 23, 2020, 2:11 p.m.
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