Report for America
by Steven Waldman
June 10, 2021
Steven | Report for America is a national service program that places talented journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercovered topics and communities. I'm also the chair of something called the Rebuild Local News Coalition, which is a public policy advocacy group trying to help rejuvinate local news.
frank | What pushed you into starting Report for America? Is it a similar business model to Teach For America?
It's similar in one way, which is that we recruit talented people from all over the country who want to go out into communities to serve those communities. It's different from Teach for America in that most of our reporters are not right out of college. They are people who have a few years of experience and know they want to be a journalist. It is not a training program or program trying to convince people to become journalists; this is a program to help them actually do the work where it needs to be done.
The local news system is collapsing.
There's been a 60% drop in the number of reporters since 2000.
That's a collapse on the scale of the coal industry, for example. That has left thousands of communities with no local news, which is a huge crisis for democracy. We place reporters into local newsrooms. Right now, we have 300 reporters in the field in 210 newsrooms.
The way it works is we have two competitions. We have a competition for people who want to become reporters. We also have competition for the newsrooms that want to be in the program. They have to prove that there's a serious news gap and that they're going to use these reporters well to really address the severe needs that these communities have.
And is there a part of this that buttresses the financing of those local newsrooms?
How does that work?
We pay half the salary in the first year, and the newsroom pays the other half. We work with them to help raise their half from the community. We are focused on helping them create a sustainable business model at the same time that we're helping them produce local journalism.
How much money does each reporter get?
We refer to local news as a public service profession, and that means a lot of things. One, it means, unfortunately, they don't get paid much. The average salary is around $40,000 a year, but we have some that are as low as $30,000 — it varies from community to community. We don't set the salary rate, the local newsroom does.
Where does the money come from on Report For America's end?
We raised it from national philanthropic organizations, primarily. The Knight Foundation is a big supporter. Facebook is a big supporter. And various individuals, like Craig Newmark.
Is Facebook interested in sustaining local news?
The whole picture is complicated. Both Facebook and Google put some money into sustaining programs like ours. At the same time, we know that Facebook, Google, and the internet in general, have been part of what has undermined the business model of local news.
Can you explain how digital changed the world of journalism so significantly and so quickly?
The big thing is that advertisers no longer needed local newspapers to reach local consumers.
The loss of advertisers is much more important than the loss of readers.
People tend to think the internet took readers away, but that wasn’t what killed the business model.
It used to be that if you wanted to reach a certain type of person in your community, you would need to place an ad next to content in the newspaper. Now, Facebook, Google, or even just your phone will track you wherever you've gone, and can reach the consumer directly without having to use content as a proxy. It used to be if you wanted to reach a 40-year-old woman, you'd advertise in a glamour magazine.
The whole notion that the way to reach people is to associate with content that they're interested in getting blown up. It doesn't work that way anymore. And there are so many ways to reach people now. That is the main thing that killed all local news business models.
Of course, there are other elements.
People got used to getting content for free.
For a while, news organizations weren't charging for subscriptions, now they are trying to but it's hard. The internet has made it so much easier to find content that’s of interest to you. Local papers are not just competing against other local news organizations for attention, they are competing against everything.
You mentioned earlier that with the decimation of local news comes this greater threat to democracy. Can you explain why it's such a threat to democracy?
The lack of local news crushes democracy in a few different ways. One is lack of accountability. People in power in a community will get away with corruption and bad decision-making if no one is watching. There are many, many examples of that.
In a less dramatic way, it is also how communities solve their own problems. You can't know how to clean up the toxic waste dump in your community if you don't know it exists or who the elected officials are that are supposed to be dealing with it. If your drinking water is not clean, you won't be able to get it cleaned without having a sense of who else has unclean drinking water, why is it that way, and who you should talk to about it.
Fundamentally, democracy breaks down when you don't have information to advocate for yourself, your needs, or the needs of your family.
More recently, we've seen another reason, which is that these vacuums get filled with disinformation and conspiracy theories.
It's also, in a more indirect way, part of the story of the spread of polarization and the fragmenting of communities, local news often has this binding effect of teaching people about each other and focusing on local topics You get to know people in your community, not as cartoon characters, but as actual people. And they are not viewed as threats to the country in the same way as when you're seeing national news about people you don't like across the country.
Do you think there's a tie between the nationalization of local politics and the decimation of local news?
Senator Jeremiah Denton is interviewed by reporters. US National Archives.
That is a little bit of a chicken and egg situation, as to which came first, but they certainly reinforce each other. If you don't get local news and you're into politics, you're going to read national political news. It's often the case that you will get more information about the hot congressional race across the country than in your own community. That definitely leads to the nationalization of politics.
The more local the race, the less likely it is that you'll have good information about it.
Anything that's competitive is covered by national entities, but that doesn't happen with city council races or planning commissions or the school board, even though those things have so much impact on people's lives.
We're coming out of a month on philanthropy, so forgive me for the tie-in, but do you feel like this is a place where philanthropy should step up more? Could rich people save local news?
Absolutely. The irony here is that it's a hugely consequential problem, but not a particularly expensive one, in the big scheme of things.
A relatively modest shift of philanthropic resources to local news absolutely could solve the whole problem, and it's just maddening that that hasn't happened.
We know that one way or another, the nonprofit sector of local news is going to have to be bigger than it has been in the past. Traditional commercial models for local news are not going to get back to where we need them to be. We have to think in much more innovative ways. Philanthropy absolutely has to be a key player in that. We estimate that it would take about an increase of about a billion dollars a year to solve this problem, which sounds like a lot of money to me and you, but that would be less than 1% of charitable giving.
The head of the Knight Foundation, Alberto Ibargüen, used to say that local news should be every foundation’s second most important issue. We are not saying you shouldn't still primarily care about healthcare or domestic violence or hunger, but if there's no good local news system, good luck actually making progress on those issues if no one's covering them. I think people are starting to realize that the primary victim of the collapse of local news isn't journalists — they'll get jobs somewhere else — it's the community itself and its ability to solve its own problems that is impacted.
Right. I guess philanthropy is the place where you don't need a direct return on investment.
I like to think in terms of Civic Return On Investment. It's totally legit to have high standards about your philanthropy having a real impact. You should do it to actually improve things, you shouldn't just give to make yourself feel better.
We have both bookstores and libraries.
We think both are important. In local news we need businesses and we need nonprofits and the nonprofits have to be supported by philanthropy. That can mean $5 donations from individuals who are members of a new news organization, as much as it can mean a big grant from a wealthy person or a foundation.
I think people sometimes think of philanthropy as temporary giving, but I guess it can be done in a more continuous way over time.
I've had this argument with people who say philanthropy is a good temporary solution until the new business model is created. I say philanthropy is the new business model.
That actually has to be a permanent commitment from philanthropy, viewing local news as a civic good and a civic responsibility, just the same way you do libraries and schools and hospitals.
These are things that are important to the community and important to democracy, whether there is a commercial business model for it or not.
We have to get over the idea that this is a temporary blip and that a vibrant commercial model is going to come roaring back as soon as there's a new phone app invented for it.
What do you think about the government's involvement in journalism? Both in terms of funding [like PBS] and policy.
It's a great question. It's a really puzzling issue because if you look at the scale of the collapse of local news, there is an obvious case for government intervention. The damage that's being done is so severe, that you would expect a government response. The problem, of course, is the First Amendment and the very real and legitimate concern that government money will warp journalism, undermine editorial independence, and jeopardize the free press. That is a big problem. I think that there are ways to do it.
For instance, there's a piece of legislation that we're advocating for called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. What this does is, instead of a PBS-style grant program, they essentially give tax credits to residents of the community that they can use to buy a subscription to a news organization, or make a donation to a local nonprofit news organization. It also has a tax credit for hiring journalists and another tax credit for small businesses to spend on advertising of local news. It gets government money pumped into the system, but the decisions about where it's going are essentially being made by consumers, not by someone who works at a government agency.
I think something like that could work as a way of helping local news and essentially pumping more money into the system without running into the problems of government control.
Interesting. The negative potential makes sense. But I think if you were to ask a random person on the street about news networks and trust, PBS would be at the top of that list.
The polls have said that PBS is a trusted brand, but that is, partially, because they have tended to shy away from journalism.
They are trusted because people think of Sesame Street and educational programs and things that are non-controversial.
And the news that they do, like NewsHour, is not uncontroversial. It is an open question if you did that on a local level, whether you could pull it off. I'm not opposed to trying experiments in vain, but I do think, having just lived through the Trump administration, it's not that hard to imagine how, if it were done without serious firewalls and protections, the government could use it as a way to manipulate the press.
Yes. Do you think policy, or the FCC, can really make an impact?
God, I used to have a lot of opinions about that because I worked at the FCC for a couple of years, and the truth is that the regulatory regime had all sorts of impacts on local TV and local radio, but most of what's caused the current crisis is just a different set of problems. I would say that the regulatory regime right now is neither helpful nor harmful.
I do think there are huge opportunities for them to do more to help. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission periodically auctions off spectrum, which is what allows you to have wireless access and is also used by local TV stations. The FCC has been trying to get TV stations and radio stations to give up some of their spectrum, so it can go to AT&T and Verizon to give our phones faster access.
It makes total sense through a public policy lens, but what I would like to see happen is the government uses the proceeds from these auctions to help sustain local news. It generates billions of dollars and right now it just goes back into the Treasury.
Renato Ruggiero, Director General of the WTO (L), and Neil McMillan, President of the Negotiation Group on Basis Telecommunications, use their mobile phones after negotiations on the pact to liberalize world telecom trade in Geneva, February 15.
If it is this fixable, why is no one fixing it? Is it something people don’t actually care that much about?
I think the transformation of local news is such a recent phenomenon in some ways, it's just taking people a little time to understand how big a problem is and why we have to think very differently. It really wasn't that long ago that there was a perfectly healthy commercial business model for local news. The collapse has been so fast and so severe, but I do think it's fixable. Honestly, Report for America is part of what makes me optimistic, because you see these reporters covering mental health in Buffalo, housing in Charlotte, the rural economy in Wyoming, or education in Mississippi. Very quickly, they're doing stories of serious impact because there's so much that's not being covered right now. It may not be a financial impact, but you can see the impact on the community.
Sometimes the return is in dollars and cents. One of our Corp members named Zak Podmore, who works at the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, covered a story about how San Juan County in Utah, the poorest county in the state, was being double billed by their law firm. He found this just by going through the city budget. They were refunded about a hundred thousand dollars.
There's another study that showed that in communities where there wasn't enough local news, bond prices went up and the bond ratings went down, literally making it more costly for the city to operate. Usually, that leads to higher taxes or cutting spending because no one was watching and the investors knew. There are all sorts of studies that show when you have less journalism, you have more corruption and more waste.
It really is the case that there's a very high civic return on investment in communities from journalism.
Have you noticed particular outlets succeeding where others have failed?
That's a great question. The ones that seem to succeed, aren't relying mostly on advertising anymore. They either rely on subscriptions or it's a nonprofit from membership, or, before COVID, many were doing live events as a way of making money and as a way of engaging with the community. The most common thread is that they have to view themselves as community organizations. They're not just writing an article, putting it out there, and having that be the end of the relationship with the reader.
You need to build community to be successful. If you don't do it, you won't succeed. If you do do it, you still might not succeed, but it's a prerequisite. It's an essential part of it because it's how you make people feel like you're providing something of worth.
I could pull at this thread forever, but I want to be respectful of your time. Thank you.
It is sort of an exciting time at the same time that it is terrifying. There's more innovation going on on a local news level right now than we have seen in a long time. The desperation has led to all sorts of experimentation.
It's not all about the money, but a lot of it is. There's a lot of really good ideas and models out there now on how to do local journalism. If we can solve business model problems, we really will make a lot of progress.