Report for America Supports Journalism Where Cutbacks Hit Hard

Molly Born, a West Virginia Public Radio reporter, has the state motto tattooed on her back. She applied for the Report for America program in hopes of covering her home state.

A group of journalists have decided to do something about the diminution of newsrooms at the local level. They’re making reporting part of a national service program.

Report for America, a nonprofit organization modeled after AmeriCorps, aims to install 1,000 journalists in understaffed newsrooms by 2022. Now in its pilot stage, the initiative has placed three reporters in Appalachia. It has chosen nine more, from 740 applicants, to be deployed across the country in June.

Molly Born, 29, was one of the first three selected for the program. She grew up in West Virginia and has the state motto tattooed on her back: “Montani Semper Liberi” (“Mountaineers Are Always Free”). A reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the last six years, Ms. Born applied to Report for America with the hope of covering her home state.

“I felt like I needed to give something back to a place that has given a lot to me,” she said. “And journalism is the way for me to do that.”

Ms. Born now lives in Williamson, a town of roughly 3,000 along the Tug Fork River, and covers the state’s southern coal fields for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“It’s important to have reporters based in parts of America where some people feel misunderstood,” she said. “It just helps us get a greater understanding of who we are and who our neighbors are.”

Report for America fellowships last one to two years, and the pay is about $40,000, with half covered by the program and the rest split between participating news organizations and donations. Two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, started the project with funding from sponsors.

“People are applying for the same reason people want to go into the Peace Corps: There’s an idealistic desire to help communities, and there’s a sense of adventure,” Mr. Waldman, 55, said. “They want to try and save democracy. People keep saying that.”

Historically, reporters would start their careers at small publications and move on to progressively larger ones. These days, young journalists tend to find work right out of college — but the jobs they end up with often don’t require them to spend time talking to story subjects face to face or learning about different communities.

“Maybe they have done that Brooklyn thing, where you spend a year or two in a cubicle working for a blog,” Mr. Sennott, 55, said. “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.”

In 1990, daily and weekly newspaper publishers employed about 455,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By January 2016, that number had fallen to 173,000.

Before the creation of Report for America, Mr. Waldman ran Beliefnet, a site dedicated to faith and spirituality, and worked for the Federal Communications Commission as a senior adviser. In 2015, he wrote a paper funded by the Ford Foundation arguing for the creation of a national service program for journalists.

The other founder, Mr. Sennott, once worked as the Jerusalem-based Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He has covered wars and insurgencies in more than a dozen countries. In 2014, he founded GroundTruth, a nonprofit organization that trains foreign correspondents. He decided to join Mr. Waldman in establishing Report for America after the 2016 election.

“I was focused on reporting on divided societies and struggling democracies,” Mr. Sennott said. “Then I realized we live in one.”

Because they had seen how Facebook and Google contributed to the destruction of the advertising-based business model that had long kept local newspapers afloat, they asked them to kick in to their project. While Google has committed money and training, Facebook has yet to sign on.

“Mark Zuckerberg could solve the local news problem with the money that’s falling between his couch cushions,” Mr. Waldman said. “Folks like Facebook and Google and the other winners have the money to solve this problem, and it is a solvable problem.”

In parts of the country where newsrooms are filled with empty desks, tracking down stories can be depressingly easy, the organizers said. Will Wright, a reporter who was placed at The Lexington Herald Leader through the program, helped break a major story simply by attending a community meeting in eastern Kentucky and talking to residents who had been without running water for days.

Soon after his reporting, the person in charge of the water district went into retirement, and the state found $3.4 million to fix the water system.

“You don’t need a 20-year veteran investigative reporter to have this impact,” Mr. Waldman said. “It’s so barren out there that just being on the ground can have a really big impact.”

“He showed up,” Mr. Sennott said. “He was just there.”

For the nine reporter slots, 85 newsrooms applied asking for corps members, describing a crucial beat that needed filling. Reporters who make the cut start with eight days of training before joining their host newsrooms. They must also fulfill a service requirement, such as working as mentors to student journalists, during their stints.

The founders refer to those who take part in the program as “corps members,” rather than fellows, an attempt to signal that Report for America is not meant to be simply a chance to burnish a résumé.

“It’s not a reward for bright young graduate students,” Mr. Sennott said. “It’s a call to get in there.”

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