A new chapter in GroundTruth’s story

BOSTON – For the better part of 40 years, I’ve been practicing the craft of journalism and the art of storytelling. I’ve covered small town board meetings, big city cops, and courts, breaking national news and reporting from the frontlines of Afghanistan and Iraq. I have always been there on the ground, doing whatever it takes to find a good story.

And the story of The GroundTruth Project is truly one hell of a good story, and now it is time to write a new chapter.

It has been my great honor to serve as the Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Editor-and-Chief of this nonprofit journalism organization and lead a team that has produced 1,000 percent growth in our budget from $1.2 million to $13 million a year and grown our employees from just five at the launch at our home at GBH in Boston to more than 50 employees now scattered across the country and around the world.

Since we first applied for our nonprofit, tax-exempt status in 2012, this amazing team has supported a total of some 1,500 reporters in the field who have been there on the ground doing award-winning and impactful journalism that serves under-covered corners of the world. Together we have authored a dramatic and fast-paced growth of our two service programs: Report for America and Report for the World.

Our whole team shares a byline on a vision that is local and global. We have established important editorial partnerships, produced extraordinary journalism projects and supported emerging talent who all want to take up the call to serve through local journalism. We’ve even been featured on 60 Minutes in a segment about the crisis in local news. But seeing the faces of some 300 corps members in Chicago with their bold Report for America t-shirts all getting ready to march forward into the communities they serve was perhaps my single favorite moment of our decade-long story. It felt like, after all that hard work, we’ve built a movement.

It is indeed an amazing story. So where does the narrative take us from here?

Today I announced that we are launching a national search for a Chief Executive Officer and President of The GroundTruth Project, a single position that will have executive authority over our two service programs, and all of the work we do as a nonprofit organization.

I have decided to step aside from my role as CEO and lean into my role as Editor-in-Chief. I will also continue as Chairman of GroundTruth’s Board of Advisors and as a member of the Board of Directors. The plan is to make this move effective Sept. 15. The process for selecting a new CEO/President will begin immediately with the goal of having the position filled by the first quarter of 2023.

I am also announcing as part of this succession plan that, once a candidate for CEO and President is selected, my co-founder of our Report for America program, Steve Waldman, will step aside from his current role as President of the program to focus more on his title as Chairman of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and the urgent public policy work it is undertaking. Steve, the architect of the idea for a national service program for journalism which was forged into a reality when it found a home at GroundTruth, plans to maintain active involvement in Report for America through his role on the GroundTruth board of directors.

 

Steve Waldman (left,) and Charles Sennott (center) discussed with “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter the expansion of Report for America and its importance for local communities.

 

I have made this decision through personal reflection and in careful consideration with our Board of Directors, a process that began almost 18 months ago. This carefully planned transition to new leadership and the continuity plan for the team that will continue the work of our programs was officially announced to the GroundTruth board on May 5, receiving approval of the plan and the process that will unfold in the coming months.

I want to stress that I am NOT leaving the organization I founded. Both Steve and I are leaning into the roles where we think we can add the most value: Our highest and best use, as the business gurus say. For me, that is on the editorial side of our organization and through sharing my passionate commitment to journalism with our corps in the field and through continuing, my efforts in helping our development team to fundraise. For Steve, that will be through his urgently important work on public policy and as a thought leader in the struggle to rebuild local news and reinforce the idea of local accountability journalism as the foundation of democracy. This policy work is heating up as I write this, and Steve will be accelerating his plan to plunge into an exciting moment of opportunity to push through legislation that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding to support the public good of local journalism.

So why are we doing this? I decided to make this bold move because we have built the right team to take the organization into the future, and because Steve and I believe it is the best way for all of the team to succeed in the ambitious goals the organization has set for itself and to succeed in confronting the mounting crisis in local news.

We need to do this to avoid an organizational malady that often besets successful startups like ours known as “founders’ syndrome.” That’s what happens when a leader who founded an organization fails to see the need for new leadership to take it forward to its fullest potential, missing the cue to get out of the way and allow the organization to take off. I have long been determined not to allow that to happen to us. And now is the time for me to step aside. The stakes for our democracy are just too high and we can’t allow our movement to falter or fail to reach its full potential.

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I am also taking this step as a way to live out the values of our organization by creating room for a new generation of leadership to step up and take the reins, a new leadership that will represent forward thinking and help us continue to execute on our strategic priority to place diversity, equity and inclusion at the center of  of our organization. This is a job that is never done, and we still have much work to do on this front, but I genuinely believe the success we have to date has everything to do with the fact that we are committed to living our core values.

This transition will not be easy, and we will need everyone on our team to work with us on it and support each other. But at the end of the road, this really is what is best for the organization. Our success in accomplishing our mission depends on it.

By taking this first step my hope is to send a signal to prospective applicants that this change is real, and that we want someone to bring their vision for how we can take this to the next level and have the room they need to make it happen. The Board Chair has organized a search committee that will nominate a candidate who will be approved by a full board vote. Steve and I will not serve on the search committee.

So what will my day look like without going over monthly financials, payroll, HR compliance guidelines and the complex details of our shared services team that have fueled the growth of the programs? Well, it will be out of the office and back into the field. In my role as Editor-in-Chief, I will be relaunching our GroundTruth podcast as a way to tell the stories of Report for America and Report for the World corps members who are on the ground doing important and impactful work in so many under-covered corners of the world. I can’t wait to be out there on the ground and to use the podcast as a platform to share their stories. As Editor-in-Chief, I will also be working with our programs to develop editorial initiatives that will draw on the incredible strengths of the reporters in the field to support them in making their reporting as impactful as possible.

 

I’m very excited about this aspect of my role, and also keenly aware that I will also need to continue to be laser focused on fundraising and working with our development team to be sure we continue to increase our revenue. What I will not be doing is running the business side of this operation and I will be relinquishing full executive authority over the organization.

Giving up that control is, honestly, not easy. But It is the right decision and I truly believe it is the best way to set the organization up for success in the future. We are capable of taking our movement to extraordinary heights but only with an executive leadership that is laser focused on the challenges of managing a growing team and on getting this spirited team to all work together in the same direction.

I am aware that this dramatic pace of growth has taken a toll and that many members of the team need to recharge and find a more sustainable pace. We’ve all lived through the incredible time in history that is unfolding with a global pandemic, rising polarization and a feeling like the truth is under attack on every front. And through it all, we kept growing and kept answering the call to the crisis in local news which is continuing at an even more accelerated pace here in America and around the world. And into the void toxic misinformation and disinformation is flowing. It’s tough and brutal against these daunting forces. And, like most everyone on this planet, we are drained. So this will be one of the challenges for the new leadership, to establish that pace for growth that allows us to keep the excitement and the momentum, but also recognizes it must be more measured so we can ensure the excellence of our programs at the highest level.

I am so proud of everyone on this team for the extraordinary work they’ve done.

There are too many members of the team who contribute every day to our success to thank all properly, but I have total faith our leadership team will continue to do the excellent work it has always done including:

  • Co-founder Kevin Grant who has been on this journey from the very start in 2012. He has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to pull the whole team together and to convince donors and partners of the tremendous possibilities of GroundTruth globally and locally. As part of role as Chief Partnerships Officer, he’ll continue to lead the build of our Report for the World program along with our soon-to-be-named Global Director.
  • Chief Operating Officer Susan Leath who has led the team in sharpening our vision and mission statements and assembled a strategic plan which will guide us going forward and who is in the process of making key hires in finance, technology, communications and human resources.
  • Senior Vice President for Development Lauren McKown who has professionalized our process for developing and retaining the institutional and individual support that is the whole reason we are able to get all of this good work done.
  • Our Report for America leadership under Senior Vice President Kim Kleman and Vice President Rachel Rohr who together have so effectively balanced the dramatic growth of our reporting corps in the field with the excellence of the program.

Together, all of us have built GroundTruth through a vision that is local and global. Over the last ten years, GroundTruth has launched hundreds of journalists out into the world through our reporting fellowships in Egypt, Myanmar, India, and our hundreds of corps members who have been embedded into local American newsrooms from Maine to Guam.

In the last five years, we have steadily moved beyond the fellowship model to focusing on the build of our service programs starting with Report for America in 2017 and now Report for the World which launched last year in India, Brazil and Nigeria. We have established important editorial partnerships with PBS FRONTLINE, American Experience, PRI The World, GBH News, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and others. And we’ve produced extraordinary journalism projects from a crisis in clean drinking water in Appalachia to the impacts of climate change on the small islands of the Pacific Ocean. Through it all, we have established a movement of emerging talent who want to take up the call to serve through local journalism.

Okay, so here is a problem. I feel one of the symptoms of the ‘founder’s syndrome’ I mentioned starting to creep into my writing now. It is the unhealthy tendency to tell and retell the founding narrative of the organization and to endlessly list its accomplishments. Sound familiar? For those who know me, it definitely does. To staff, I have gotten used to the eye rolling. With my family and friends, they have started throwing things at me. To funders who have heard me wind up a few too many times, my deep apologies. And, quite frankly, here I am doing it again in this column. So now it is the right time to stop trying to author the story myself and allow the story to unfold in new and unpredictable ways that plunge boldly into a new future.

I’m ready to see where the story takes us. Our mission to save democracy by saving local journalism is more important than ever, so the story of this organization going forward is also more important than ever. I can’t wait to see how all of us work together to roll up our sleeves and write this next chapter.