Report for America: applying the idea of national service to journalism

Report for America goes live this month. The idea? To marry the field of journalism with the ethos of national service (think Peace Corps or Teach for America). It’s an idea with obvious appeal, and one which clearly fulfills a need and we were delighted to find some time to speak with VP for Strategic Initiatives, Kevin Grant, to find out a little more.

Kevin, Report for America is an idea that’s particularly timely. How did it come about?

Steve Waldman and Charlie Sennott, our co-founders are both journalists by trade, as am I, but in addition Steve has a background in public – or national – service and worked at the FCC for a while. He quite literally wrote the book on Americorps.

We started to see that public service and national service might be a fascinating model to apply to journalism and one that hadn’t really been explored yet. Steve drafted the very first concept plan for what Report for America could look like back in 2014, with support from the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. He published a paper on this in 2015 which gained a little bit of traction and also it generated a bit of debate about whether or not it should exist beyond that concept document. At the time it didn’t take off, but when he started talking to Charlie about it around the election year, they realized it was an idea with legs.

That sounds like it escalated from an idea into a scheme quite quickly after that….

Yeah, it did. The three of us got together in January and talked about how the GroundTruth Project could help launch Report for America and the timing was obviously good, because in a pretty short amount of time we found it was up and running as a working idea.

You mentioned earlier the idea of it being a public service. How’s that notion gone down?

Broadly speaking, really well. On an intuitive level, journalists already believe that they are doing a public service by reporting the most important stories of the day and by explaining difficult stories to audiences. The next step is to turn that sentiment into an actual institution and that’s what we’re in the process of doing.

We’re not trying to replace the existing ways that journalism and publishing works – there’s clearly a need for those structures – but we see ourselves more as a support system for the industry. We’re there to connect resources: to bring together journalists with the newsrooms which need them.

Why’s there a need to connect journalists with local newspapers?

As you know, the economic picture is just extraordinarily bleak right now. The layoffs in the industry have been frequent and increasing over the past several years and many local newsrooms have already had to cut their staffing levels to the bone.

There are lots of newsrooms which have found really creative ways to continue to bring in revenue, but there are also many which simply aren’t able to do the kind of coverage that they were once able to do – and which they need to do to survive and thrive. That’s where we come in.

Am I right in thinking the aim is to get a thousand journalists in newsrooms in five years?

That’s exactly right. That is our stated goal. We’ll have a dozen reporters next year, increasing to 28 in 2019, 250 the following year and from there we’ll just keep scaling. So whilst it’s an ambitious goal, it’s one we think we’ll be able to achieve.

How does this work from a journalist point of view?

From their point of view, it’s perhaps not so different from just getting a job, albeit one with a spirit of public service. What makes it unique is the funding model. That’s the game changer.

We’re able to help offset the cost of hiring the reporter. It’s a 50/25/25 model, meaning Report for America brings together 50% of the reporter’s salary from a national American funder, then 25% comes from the newsroom itself and we work with the newsroom to raise the balance.  

So in other words the newsroom is only paying one quarter of the overall cost of the reporter, but from the journalist’s perspective they are a full time employee of the newsroom with full benefits. And so their job is to do the work that needs to be done.

How about the location of these newsrooms? Are they concentrated in one area?

We’re launching the pilot of Report for America this month and the three newsrooms in this first wave are in Appalachia: The Lexington Herald Leader, The Charleston Mail Gazette and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. That’s where we’ll begin and we’re obviously in the process of determining which areas to move into next.

We’ve had interest from just about every region of the United States: 85 newsrooms from across the country have applied for what are going to be between four and six newsroom slots remaining in 2018, so there’s obviously a huge demand.

Is there any particular reason why you started with Appalachia?

All regional newspapers are subject to the macro trends in the industry – so they’re suffering from revenue loss and the implications of the rise of internet and digital publishing. From an economic point of view that region has been hit really hard: the decline of the coal industry has really devastated many communities in the region and unfortunately that’s carried through into the local news organizations which serve those communities too. There’s been a commensurate decline in the number of journalists who are able to cover the region. It’s all related.

Do you mean there’s been a journalistic brain drain from the region? Are reporters moving towards the more media-centric cities like New York and Washington?

That definitely is the case. You have extreme overconcentration of journalists in places like New York and Washington D.C. and of course that’s a real problem.

What’s fascinating – and really heartening – is that we’re getting a lot of candidates who want to return home. They’ve often moved to the metropolitan areas for work, because that’s where the jobs are, but ultimately they want to work in their local communities.

So that leads me on to something I’ve been ruminating on the last few days: what about the role of the journalist as member of community? What value is there of being an insider?

I think it’s really important that, wherever possible, journalists become members of the communities that they cover. Our ethos is that it is all about relationship building. It’s about being there and spending time in the place that you cover. There is very much a sense that being a good journalist comes with being a good citizen and building your work on the relationships that you form with the people, the issues and the area around you.

This is in no way a new idea, but we’re celebrating it and making a point of it in a way that I don’t think has been done before.

How are you likely to be measuring the success of the project? What’s fascinating, talking to you is that the traditional measures of analysis don’t really apply to you in the same way, do they?

Yeah it’s a good question. We’ve been thinking a lot about how we’re going to measure success for Report for America. Obviously creating positions for new reporters is a success in and of itself, especially in the climate at the moment. But more than that, we need to be looking at how the work these reporters are doing is impacting their community. What’s the meaning of the work for that community?

So, you know, we could be looking in terms of voter turnout and other sort of measures of civic engagement: there are a lot of different ways to measure it, but what I think you’re asking is about publishing metrics, right? And, I don’t think that’s really in the spirit of what we’re doing here. We of course want to know that plenty of people read and see the journalism that our core members do, but we’re also looking at the impact of that journalism.

Those are very complex data sets!

Yeah, I mean voter turnout is definitely a more aspirational idea because, as you say, it’s tough to measure and it may just be the case that journalism just isn’t the best driver of voter turnout one way or another. We have something like 20 different metrics that we’re looking at to track our stories, some of which are simple, some which are more complex.

Really, though we’re looking at the impact that having an additional person being able to report from a community has.

In the project we’re looking at coverage and our ability to report stories that haven’t been able to have been covered. So, if there were say five stories about health care in a particular community in 2017, but because we’re able to put an additional reporter in this year that total goes up to 15 or 20, then that’s a huge success story as far as we’re concerned.

A lot of things you’re saying here seem to be common sense. I wonder what you think the national and international news brands could learn from this approach to journalism?

The first thought that comes to mind is the trend we’ve been seeing on a global scale towards journalists being defined as oppositional – and often this is being framed as oppositional to the best interests of society. I think we’re trying to put forward an alternative: that of journalists as public servants, as people who are trying to find truth, put forward accurate depictions of reality even if it contradicts the accepted norm. By doing this, we’re hopefully creating an environment to

enable people of a community – whatever its size and structure – to make better informed decisions.

I think that’s an important shift in perception. Journalists do a lot of good in their communities and we think there’s a way to demystify the process and help them to be more accessible to a public that has lost a bit of trust in the profession for that reason.

That’s interesting. So that’s a third thing: it’s creating a more transparent relationship between the journalist and the public?

Absolutely! That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

At GroundTruth we spent a lot of time trying to engage young people and help them tell their own stories and really broadcast from the bottom up to elevate their voices and their stories and their agency. At the same time I don’t think that means there’s no place for a more traditional approach to journalism, as you might see in the New York Times or the Washington Post – I just think right now we need to engage people and I think the best way to do that is by establishing a direct line between journalist and reader, and the local newsroom is a great place to start.

Find out more about Report for America by visiting their website, here.

Image credits Samaruddin Stewart/SPJ/Google News Lab

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