What happens when the presses stop rolling? Who will tell the stories of touchdowns scored, heroes honored and neighbors lost? We asked news industry innovators to share their visions for what comes next, and what fills the void.
The most aggressive response to the collapse of local journalism has come from hundreds of upstart news outlets that have formed over the last 15 years. We asked several industry innovators — three founders of local digital operations, and the architects of a program aimed at bringing legacy newsrooms into the digital era — to share their visions of what local news can look like without a local newspaper.
- We Want You: Journalism as National Service
- Beat Reporting With a Laser Focus on Schools
- Front-Porch News, Delivered by Text Message
- A Pledge to Ante Up for the Community
We Want You: Journalism as National Service
By Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott
The crisis in local journalism is catastrophic — and it will get worse. More than 1,300 communities across the United States are without local news coverage, and thousands more have inadequate journalism. At the next recession, the collapse will accelerate.
Studies have now validated what we all know intuitively: The disintegration of community journalism leads to greater polarization, lower voter turnout, more pollution, less government accountability and less trust.
This problem is not going to be solved by a new phone app or an increase of a few pennies in digital ad rates. It’s time to try something dramatically different.
The local media ecosystem of the future must have a much bigger role for nonprofit media and philanthropy. We accept this reality in the worlds of education and health care. It’s time to embrace it for local journalism. We believe people have an obligation to support libraries and symphonies. Now they have to support good accountability reporting.
But let’s do this in a way that improves on what came before.
Report for America started almost two years ago on the premise that journalism had as much to learn from the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as it did from big media companies like Gannett, Sinclair or GateHouse. Local journalism needs national service.
Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, runs two competitions. In one, talented emerging journalists make a case for how they can have substantial impact. We had 940 applicants for 50 slots this past year. Meanwhile, news organizations, including nonprofits, identify civically important gaps in their news coverage, such as health care, the environment, schools, criminal justice or whole regions or communities, for which they would use a Report for America reporter.
We then split the funding for an entry-level salary. We pay half. The other half is paid by a combination of the local newsroom and local donors. By drawing new local dollars off the sidelines, we hope to enable these positions to persist for years to come.
We now have 61 reporters in 50 newsrooms across 30 states and Puerto Rico, and plan to deploy 250 next year, with an ultimate goal of placing 1,000 reporters in the field across the country.
This approach helps with both the spiritual and financial crises of local journalism. These young journalists commit one or two years to these communities because they believe local journalism is a public service, just as much as being a teacher or a nurse. By being on the ground, and present, they let the community see reporters as their advocates, in it for the right reasons. Trust will improve.
Report for America reporters have already helped communities in significant ways. One of our first reporters in Kentucky, Will Wright, wrote about the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in the eastern part of the state for The Lexington Herald-Leader. His pieces stoked public outrage, and unleashed several million dollars to help repair the system. Other stories by corps members include an account of a raft of mysterious deaths in the Mississippi prison system, a report that explained why South Dakota has the highest rate of young children not attending school, and an account of how the trade wars would affect the uranium mines in Johnson County, Wyo.
By significantly reducing the cost of employing a reporter, the program enables news organizations to do what they wanted to do all along: cover crucially important, neglected areas. For instance, six of the beats in the second Report for America class involve covering Native American communities for newsrooms in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho and California, an overnight quadrupling of the number of reporters exclusively covering Indian country for mainstream media outlets.
We’re now taking applications from newsrooms for the next class, 250 reporters who will hit the field in 2020. Report for America isn’t the only solution. We need more nonprofit news outlets. We need public radio to improve its efforts to do local journalism and to reach a broader range of people. We need commercial media to continue to improve their business models.
But Report for America can provide much of the people power and, more important, a new spirit — local journalism as public service.
— Mr. Waldman is president and co-founder of Report for America. Mr. Sennott is co-founder of Report for America and CEO of The GroundTruth Project.
This month, facing word that two online charter schools took in $40 million in taxpayer dollars for enrolling students who didn’t actually attend, including at least one who had died, one of Indiana’s top education officials asked an important question: “How did we miss this?”
The answer involves the lax oversight of some charter schools, which operate with more freedom than traditional public schools. But it also has to do with something else altogether: the news business.
Because if it weren’t for a few dogged reporters at Chalkbeat, the nonprofit where I work, which covers public schools in Indiana and six other states, that education official most likely wouldn’t have known about the schools’ malfeasance at all.
While other nonprofit news organizations take on important national topics, at Chalkbeat, our mantra is local first. After all, most decisions affecting public schools, including budgets, facilities, testing and curriculum, happen at the local and state level. Indiana’s virtual schools resemble those in other states, but they are governed by laws that are unique to Indiana, and as we found out, they need regular and focused attention to untangle.
Chalkbeat exists because without us, that attention just wouldn’t be paid. According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 47 percent between 2008 and 2018, to about 38,000 from about 71,000. At the papers that remain, the education beat has been decimated. Where metropolitan dailies might have had four to six education reporters a decade ago, today they’re lucky to have one.
Even fewer reporters are focused on the 41 percent of children who live near or below the poverty line, the population most central to our mission at Chalkbeat. There are plenty of think pieces, and there is no shortage of shouting. But beat reporters covering education on a daily basis will remain an endangered species unless new business models like ours gain strength.
Building new business models for news when the old ways of paying for it (mainly through advertising) are quickly disappearing isn’t easy. But we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve made. In the past two years, our monthly readership has doubled to half a million, proving that there’s an audience for local education stories. Our team now numbers more than 50 people, and our revenue for the fiscal year that ended on June 30 reached $9 million. That local-first mantra also applies to our revenue philosophy, with the majority of each bureau’s funding coming from the local community, a mix of philanthropy, membership contributions, ticketed events, a paid jobs board and corporate sponsorships. As we grow, we’re building a new community of supporters for local news: Nearly all our donors had never given to a journalism organization before Chalkbeat.
But readership and revenue aren’t the only measures. Impact — such as what we saw with our reporting on the two virtual schools in Indiana — is our ultimate goal, stories that influence both the conversation around education and actual decisions.
This year, the administration of Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee lowered the annual income threshold for eligibility for education savings accounts after we highlighted inconsistencies between his initial messaging and his proposal. In Denver, our reporting this past winter on the city’s teachers’ strike offered context no one else could provide. And in New York, city officials and labor leaders just reached a deal to increase salaries for some pre-K teachers after our persistent reporting on the wide pay gap between teachers who work in community-run preschools (often women of color) and those who teach in classrooms overseen by the Education Department.
As we look to our next five years, with plans to expand further, we remain committed to our original mission of lighting the path to better schools for all children, especially those for whom a quality education remains elusive. But we’re also committed to lighting the path to better local news that is sustainable, accessible and equitable. The crisis is too great to sit on the sidelines.
— Ms. Cipolla is the executive editor of Chalkbeat. She has more than a decade of experience as a reporter and an editor.
Front-Porch News, Delivered by Text Message
Over the last two decades, Detroit has filed for bankruptcy, seen auto plants struggle and close, and hundreds of thousands of residents move away from the city. During this era of upheaval, the city’s news organizations have shrunk, with fewer reporters covering the most pressing issues.
Stories that begin in Detroit matter deeply to people in the metro area, and often resonate across the country. But even as local reporters help people outside our borders better understand our city, those who live here face a stunningly large information gap. We started Outlier Media three years ago to address this gulf. First, we used call center data from United Way’s 211 service to identify the issues about which Detroiters most frequently asked for help. The data told us their top priorities were housing and utilities.
More than 90,000 properties are owned by the city, with nearly 25,000 of those in various stages of blight. It is a city where tens of thousands of homes are at risk of foreclosure every year and where the utility provider, DTE, has on average shut off more than 150,000 accounts annually in the metro area. While we write big-picture stories about these issues, we also look at the number of people affected and how our reporting might make a difference in their daily lives. We have built databases from our reporting that Detroiters can access on demand via text message, since most residents don’t have broadband at home or generous data plans.
Anybody can enter their address into our system and find a menu of information, including answers to common questions, such as whether the house they rent is on the tax auction list or if the landlord has a history of receiving blight tickets from the city. They can also access the most recent inspection and information about who owns the vacant house down the block. We added that because it was such a common question. For those with questions our database does not answer, or who would like an actual person to follow up with them, we reach out within 48 hours. We talk to about 200 people a week while also working on enterprise stories with newsrooms around the city.
We are a small and nimble operation. Our team of three women of color includes me (I report and edit), a data reporter and our boss, whose priorities are raising money, handling our outreach and building partnerships with newsrooms across Detroit and across the country. It is a heavy lift, but we take our responsibility seriously.
We strive to give back as much as we receive.
Our stories have pushed investors to stop buying houses in tax auctions, they have prompted the city to change regulations and they have caught errors that cost city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those stories do not make it any easier for residents to navigate these broken systems, but the text service we built does exactly that.
A few weeks ago, William Nunley was evicted after a real estate investor who was financially backed by the University of Michigan bought the house Mr. Nunley was renting at a tax auction. For the next rental home he and his family move into, Mr. Nunley can use the system we built to make sure it is not at risk of being sold at a tax auction.
Accountability reporting has always been — and will always be — a scarce resource. Newsrooms much bigger than ours can’t investigate everything. We want to redistribute that function by giving our audience much of the same information we have so everyone is better equipped to hold power to account.
We wish for a time of abundance for the people in our city and for everyone who works in service of and to their communities. Until then, we will try to thrive, or at least be useful, in a time of scarcity.