Report for America aims to replenish news deserts hard hit by journalism's 'economic crisis'

Journalism experiencing 'economic crisis'

By BRIAN STELTER, CNN BUSINESS
CNN Video

(CNN) - The overflowing inbox at Report for America is a testament to the troubled state of local news.

Last year, when the project was just launching, the organizers received 780 applications for 13 public service reporting positions.

And when the project looked to add 50 more positions, more than 130 newsrooms said they wanted to host a reporter.

"It's really disheartening, in some ways, to get to hear from these newsrooms, because it really is as bad as we think," Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman said.

He was talking about the diminished state of local news, with so-called "news deserts" all across the country, where communities are underserved or completely unserved by basic reporting about cops, courts and other staples of civic life.

"But the exciting thing," Waldman said, "is that these are all newsrooms that are really trying to be innovative."

Waldman and co-founder Charles Sennott spoke about the expansion of Report for America on this week's "Reliable Sources" podcast.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

On Thursday, Report for America announced its "2019 newsroom winners:" Roughly 35 newsrooms in 26 states and territories that will be gaining a corps member in the coming months. Some newsrooms will have more than one position, and others will be announced later, for a total of about 50 this year.

The application deadline for people who want to be corps members is on February 8.

Sennott described Report for America as a "call to service for a new generation of journalists" to help communities by "doing reporting that otherwise isn't getting done."

As the name suggests, the project mimics the Teach for American model to place emerging journalists in newsrooms that could really use the help. It is backed by numerous philanthropies, plus a couple of giant tech companies. Google announced its support last year, and Facebook announced a $2 million grant earlier this week.

Waldman first wrote about the concept in 2015, several years after he completed an FCC-funded study about "the information needs of communities."

He proposed "a new national service program focused on local reporting would more efficiently deploy philanthropic resources to the media enterprises that need it most, while instilling a new sense of idealism into community-based coverage."

Sennott, the founder and executive director of the GroundTruth Project, was seeing the same need. The two men came together to create Report for America as an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Waldman said the reporting corps tries to address both the "economic crisis" of journalism -- dwindling ad revenues causing cutbacks across the country -- and the "spiritual crisis."

The latter issue, he said, "comes from the fact that so many journalists go into this profession, wanting to do it as a public service, and it gets squeezed out of them by the realities of the economics."

Report for America positions are funded both by the national organization, thanks to big donors, and by local philanthropists and local newsrooms.

One of the goals, Waldman said, is to get "small donors, small foundations to start thinking that community journalism is part of their philanthropic mission."

Often what is being lost at the local level is specific beat coverage within communities.

That's why many of the reporter positions target under-covered subjects as well as specific locations.

Through some of the new positions announced on Thursday, the Charleston Gazette-Mail will gain a reporter to cover poverty in southern West Virginia; the Honolulu Civil Beat will add a reporter covering public health issues; the Modesto Bee will gain a reporter covering children's health in the Central Valley of California; and WCAI will have help covering the impact of climate change in Massachusetts.

Sennott said "there's full editorial control and independence in every agreement," an important point for readers who are concerned about donor influence.

When asked about concerns that Facebook is making donations to news industry initiatives now, to make up for damage it has done to the media business, Sennott said: "The idea that they've hurt the landscape of journalism in our country is true." But it was not intentional, he said. And when "they offer an opportunity" to try a new funding model like Report for America, "I don't think we should rule that out and say, 'You can't be part of repairing the landscape.'"

Listen to the full conversation with Sennott and Waldman on the weekly "Reliable Sources" podcast... Via Apple, Stitcher, TuneIn, or Spotify.

Copyright 2019 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.