Cubs and seasoned reporters flock to underserved communities across the country via nonprofit program with bold ambitions
Journalism jobs are tight, the industry is shaky, the profession is widely criticized, content is relentlessly available, but a certain class of reporter still believes in journalism’s role in a democracy. They’re applying in droves for $28,000 a year jobs in communities that want to deepen coverage of topics such as water, farming and mental health.
Nonprofit Report For America is trying to shore up underserved communities and struggling media organizations, approaching it much like Americorps. In its second year, Report for America, which is associated with the GroundTruth Project, is tilting at a lofty goal of placing 1,000 reporters in the first five years while infusing beleaguered news organizations with fresh talent, and, in many cases, bringing more digital dexterity to small newsrooms.
Last year, the first cohort numbered 13, reportedly drawing more than 1,000 applicants, including 300 for a slot in Appalachia. This year 18 nonprofits, three weeklies, seven public radio stations and more than two dozen newspapers want reporters. As many as eight more reporters could land throughout the intermountain West in organizations associated with the Solutions Journalism Network.
By mid-2019, about 60 mostly young journalists could be attending water board meetings, tracking down legislators and visiting food banks in news deserts – journalism's lingua franca for underserved communities.
“It’s time to really recognize that the crisis in journalism has become a crisis for our democracy,” states co-founder Charles Sennott in a video that summarizes RFA’s aspirations and achievements after the first year. “The collapse of local news is also eroding the fabric of communities and eroding the ability of people to understand each other.”
This was echoed by his co-founder, Steve Waldman: “There's a pressing need for great journalists. In the first round, the Report for America corps members have demonstrated what a big impact they can have. Eleven of the first 13 have wanted to renew their corps, and two of the first three programs actually applied to increase the number of corps members in their newsroom.”
Covering mental health in Buffalo, New York, or energy in Buffalo, Wyoming, is a different route into journalism than the more common route of pursuing a fellowship with tony Atlantic Media in Washington, D.C., or a gig at Buzzfeed or Vice, writing from a desk in Manhattan. Report for America (RFA) journalists want to make a difference with in-person reporting, just as Teach for America’s legions of young educators want to have impact in the classroom.
RFA applicants might end up reporting on Latino issues for the Malheur Enterprise, in Vale, Oregon, or religion in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for an annual salary of $28,000 to $40,000. (The average entry-level salary for a reporter is about $36,000, according to PayScale.com, and the average for a college grad in 2018 was $50,000, according to TheLadders.com)
Texan Michelle Liu graduated from Yale in 2018, landing immediately in the most poverty-ridden state working for Mississippi Today, covering criminal justice and the environment. Molly Born, with a master’s from Northwestern and six years of experience at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, returned to her native West Virginia to cover rural economics for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
From the first batch of applicants, about half landed a spot in their home state; but many say they’re just grateful to be selected. They want to extend their energy and determination to a region where they’re needed, while receiving great experience and both in-newsroom coaching and specialized training by RFA and its partners, which includes Google News Lab.
Ciara McCarthy is a first-year reporter for the Victoria Advocate in Texas, covering local government and Hurricane Harvey’s lingering impact. “I think my willingness to go anywhere and cover any beat had a lot to do with the realization that it’s really, really hard to find a good journalism job anywhere in the U.S.,” she said. She speculates that it might have limited her chances to specify news organizations only in metropolitan areas.
“I’m sure others in the group, particularly those who are at different life stages than me and have partners, family commitments, ties to their community etc., had a more specified idea of where they would take positions, but I was fairly open to any opportunity.”
Newark, New Jersey, Jackson, Mississippi, and Detroit are all in the bottom 10 locations to start a career, according to a May 2018 WalletHub analysis. But Salt Lake City, Charleston, S.C., and Raleigh, N.C., are in the top 10. All are RFA cities in 2019. While some RFA applicants may favor a placement near their hometowns or other familiar territory, others, like Samantha Max, prioritize "being in a newsroom where I'll have the space and support to learn and grow as a reporter.”
Because the Macon Telegraph did not renew its RFA slot, Max will move again in June. After a year of building sources throughout Georgia, she’s confident she can adapt quickly to a new town and beat.
Max admires the work of RFA colleagues like Obed Manuel (Dallas Morning News) and Manny Ramos and Carlos Ballesteros (Chicago Sun-Times), returning to their hometowns to cover under- or misrepresented neighborhoods. "Their personal investment in those communities shines through in the stories they tell, the sources they interview, and the nuance with which they address each story they write. That being said, I think there can also be value in going somewhere totally new and building a beat from scratch. … To make contacts and develop story ideas, I had to put myself out there and engage with as many community members as possible.”
Placements for reporters for 2019 are not all in desolate parts of America, but most are in news deserts, a description for communities that lack boots-on-the-ground journalists ferreting out stories from underserved communities. But they are in areas where the media organization must make a commitment to funding half the position the first year – with half of that from local grants or donations – and the whole amount in a second.
The deadline for reporters wanting to land a position in the RFA corps for 2019 is Feb. 8.
Newspaper chains, impacted by shifts in advertising and readership, are on the RFA bandwagon. Three McClatchy papers in California will fund reporters, including the Fresno Bee; the Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett paper, will position a reporter to cover Northern Kentucky; the Associated Press wants two reporters, one covering crime in New York and in Hartford, Conn., covering criminal justice and state government. Likewise, he Salt Lake Tribune also will finance two, one to cover conflict and change in San Juan county, and the other to report on the state of women in Utah. “Good journalism requires having staff resources — thoughtful, ethical and talented reporters — to tell compelling stories,” Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce said. “This grant will allow The Tribune to cover these two subject areas in more depth than we’ve ever been able to before, amplifying underrepresented voices and helping all Utah residents understand some of the unique issues at play in our state.”
America has plenty of issues to cover, in all corners of the nation. The Report for America project, with aspirations to strengthen dozens of news organizations, is on track to place more than 930 journalists by 2023. For general information, contact Report For America or examine the FAQs for reporters and newsrooms.
The RFA has also assembled contributions from initial funders, including several foundations: Knight, Tow, Heising-Simon, Natasha and Dirk Ziff, Ford, Galloway Family, Select Equity Group, , Samuel I. Newhouse, Arthur M. Blank Family, Joyce Foundation, Steans Family and Henry M. Kimelman Family. Other donors include Facebook, Google News Initiative, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Duo Collective and numerous individuals.
Editor's note: This story was shortened, hyperlinking to articles published by news organizations hiring RFA fellows.