Report for America: Nonprofit Offers Support to Local Beat Reporting

The nonprofit Report for America aims to support beat reporting in areas of the U.S. that have lost journalism resources as a result of media consolidation. The idea, modeled off the Teach for America concept, aims to ensure that people understand what’s happening in their local communities.

Could the future of local journalism take on a nonprofit veneer?

Evidence in this general direction is growing. Last year, the nonprofit news startup ProPublica launched an effort to help cover the salaries of large-scale investigative journalism endeavors in newsrooms that otherwise could not afford it. But while investigative journalism often needs supports, so does rank-and-file reporting.

And a new nonprofit hopes to improve access to this type of public-service reporting by taking a cue from one of the best-known nonprofit program, Teach for America, which puts college graduates into K-12 schools in underserved inner-city or rural areas.

The recently launched Report for America hopes to bring reporters to newspapers around the country, large and small, with the goal of financially supporting basic beat reporting in areas that otherwise would have those beats go uncovered.

As The New York Times reports, the program is currently underway in West Virginia, with the goal of adding 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms by 2022. The competition for the initial roles was fierce—out of 740 initial applicants, three journalists were picked, with another nine being added to newsrooms around the country starting in June. Successful applicants will get $40,000 per year in the programs, which last one to two years, with half of the reporter’s salary being covered by the nonprofit and the other half by the news organization or through donations.

Some news organizations taking part in the program are fairly small—Texas’ Victoria Advocate has a circulation of less than 30,000—while others, like the Chicago Sun-Times and The Dallas Morning News, are among the largest regional newspapers in the country. The program also has multiple public radio and television stations participating, as well as one online-only outlet, Pittsburgh’s The Incline.

The thing that ties these organizations together is a focus on community journalism.

Charles Sennott, one of the nonprofit’s cofounders, told the Times that the idea came to life in part because of changes in the world of journalism that have pushed new reporters away from the small newspapers where they might have started their careers. Many online outlets put new journalists in big cities without the face-to-face reporting that once defined early-career journalism.

“Maybe they have done that Brooklyn thing, where you spend a year or two in a cubicle working for a blog,” Sennott explained to the newspaper. “But that’s not the same as being on the ground doing the real work, knocking on a door and walking into someone’s kitchen.”

Another factor at play is one of community service. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Sennott and his cofounder, Steven Waldman, explained that there’s also a democratic reason for offering nonprofit support—in that a shortage of reporters mean that residents may not know what’s happening in their own community.

“The reporter shortage means residents don’t have the information to make decisions for their families or hold institutions accountable,” Sennott and Waldman write. “They don’t know if their schools are underperforming or their mayor is corrupt or their courts are fair.”

Report for America isn’t designed to create in-depth investigative journalism intended to win awards; its role is to ensure that the public knows what’s going on in their community—which might be an even more important role.

(Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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