Media Veteran Founds ‘Report For America’ to Provide Quality Journalism to Underserved Communities
Steve Waldman, a former Washington political journalist, believes that many parts of our country are underserved when it comes to quality local news coverage. Pulling the best elements of AmeriCorps, Teach for America, the Peace Corps and the nation’s best nonprofit news organizations, Waldman, along with Charles Sennott & the GroundTruth Project, found Report for America, an initiative designed to harness the talent of emerging journalists and the creativity of local news organizations and mission-driven nonprofit newsrooms.
Local news is in crisis. Newspaper newsrooms have been decimated, and it’s triggering a real crisis in democracy. First, people can’t get critical local information–like whether their drinking water is clean or their schools are good. Second, they can’t hold elected officials accountable. This also contributes to polarization. We come to know our neighbors less well, and the vacuum in local news is filled by more partisan cable news.
It’s loosely based on Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps (started by Sargent Shriver!) We recruit super-talented emerging journalists from all over the country. News organizations then compete to host these reporters. The corps members then deploy into local newsrooms around the country.
They make a minimum commitment of one year. If both the corps member and the news organization want a second year, then there’s a second year, too.
It’s highly selective. We want people who want to save democracy through local reporting (a modest goal, eh?).
In our first class of 13, the placements include rural areas (Eastern Kentucky, the coal fields of West Virginia, the Mississippi Delta, southeastern New Mexico) as well as under-served parts of Chicago, Dallas, Macon, Georgia, and Pittsburgh. These folks then become employees of the news organizations, truly embedded in that community. They’re covering crucially-important issues like health care, water quality, immigration, and city hall.
They also do a service project, like working with local high school students to create student-run publications or broadcasts.
We want people who are both talented journalists and who believe that local reporting is a true public service. It’s usually a starting salary and is decided by the local newsroom (it ranges quite a bit depending on geography, from $28,000 to $47,000). Report for America then pays half the salary.
4. What is your criteria for selecting news organizations?
They first have to demonstrate that they have severely under-covered communities, topics or geographic areas. Like the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky had one reporter covering 24 counties. So we added one who was able to re-open the Pike County bureau. He quickly did path-breaking stories about how residents there had no clean running drinking water. Before long, the state put in more money to fix the problem!
They then have to prove that they have a good plan for using the Report for America corps member well, including a plan for mentoring. Before they get started, we do an intensive training, which is a real specialty of The GroundTruth Project, the organization that launched Report for America
5. What Talk about your funding structure and do you plan to expand?
Our goal is 1,000 reporters in 2022. We have funding so far from the Google News Initiative, the Knight Foundation and others, but to have a truly big impact, we need to raise considerably more.
To make a donation, go to www.reportforamerica.org/donate/
If you’d like to get involved in other ways–being a reporter or a host news organization, for instance–go here.
This essay was featured in the July 1st edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.