100&Change: An honor, an acknowledgement, a challenge for Report for America

The idea of “ground truth” means even more in an age of uncertainty, as a pandemic rages and a presidential election approaches with a country in turmoil hanging in the balance.

Report for America is our answer to this moment, founded on the belief that high-quality local journalism provides critical information in times of crisis and also holds communities together. We were honored as the MacArthur Foundation named Report for America one of the top six proposals in a competition for $100 million to “fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.”

Being chosen as a finalist for 100&Change is a clear recognition that fixing local news deserts is as important and urgent as improving children’s health, ending homelessness and protecting our dying oceans from further destruction. It is also an acknowledgement that Report For America has demonstrated that there is a way out of the crisis.

We have been battling the problem of growing news deserts across the United States since we launched in September 2017. We have grown to 225 reporters working across 46 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, a diverse and talented group that embodies the belief that there is no substitute for being there to serve a community’s information needs and help create a healthier democracy.

Our proposal, which we’ll develop throughout the next few months in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation, aims to empower Report for America to enact systemic change by placing 1,800 talented, diverse journalists in local news organizations throughout the country.

We have been honored to partner with newsrooms like Mountain State Spotlight, Mississippi Today, Sahan Journal, KERA, Technical.ly and Dallas Morning News as they lead the way in their own communities. And it’s our great pride to share some of their stories here:

It’s hard for me to imagine a place in America that needs accountability journalism more than West Virginia. Our state has a history of being exploited by out-of-state interests who carry away much of the wealth from our natural resources, often leaving broken people, polluted land and water, and struggling communities behind. Too often, our political leadership goes along with this in the name of short-term jobs, at best, or personal enrichment, at worst.

But as the business model for local journalism continued to erode, newspapers in West Virginia have had to cut back on staff and on in-depth investigative reporting that their communities so desperately need.

Report for America has been a great friend to West Virginia, helping to ensure better coverage of our state’s southern coalfield counties and new and more thoughtful reporting on poverty. And Report for America has been a huge partner to our emerging civic news organization, Mountain State Spotlight, and helping us to give West Virginians the investigative journalism they want, need and deserve. Lots of people talk about the crisis in local news, but Report for America is among the groups actually doing something about the problem.

Ken Ward Jr. is a reporter at ProPublica, co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight, and MacArthur Fellow.

“It has been two months since my journey as a Report for America corps member began. These past few weeks have really reminded me why news matters in a time where it seems like the facts are needed most. I have had the opportunity to tell the stories of Latinx community members that would have otherwise never made it to the homes, radios and screens of mainstream media audiences in Charlotte, North Carolina. In fact, my stories have even made it beyond my host newsrooms’ coverage areas thanks to The GroundTruth Project’s partnerships with numerous national media outlets that give our hard, on-the-ground work — and these real voices they elevate — the exposure they deserve.”

Laura Brache, is a journalist with WFAE/La Noticia, a joint project of the Charlotte NPR affiliate and the largest Spanish language newspaper in North Carolina, via Report For America. 

During this historic year, journalism has proved to be essential. Whether a journalist has been reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic or the protests surrounding police officers killing Black people, journalists are usually at the center of it all to make sure that important information is given to the public. Accurate, detailed, informative, and ardent stories keep us aware of the world’s occurrences. It also allows us to begin to craft our own ideas and discuss solutions to issues. There are more stories out there that affect us all, so journalists who are on the ground serve crucial roles in safeguarding our livelihoods. As this year continues to bring surprises, Report For America is helping put journalists on the ground to give you images, video, audio and words to make sure that we are well aware of the world around us.

Eric Shelton is a photojournalist with Mississippi Today via Report For America

Since starting as an RFA corps member last month, I’ve learned the importance of listening and learning from underserved communities. I cover low-income and Black-majority communities in southwestern Illinois, and most of them don’t trust local papers to accurately tell their stories. When newsrooms are dominated by white journalists, it’s easy to understand why that distrust exists in those communities. It’s common to have your story misrepresented by people who don’t look like you and share your experiences. However, through my work with RFA, I’ve been able to gradually start rebuilding that trust between those communities and the local paper by mainly being present at city council meetings and other community events; listening to city leaders; and writing about issues that matter to those communities while providing balanced reporting. RFA has afforded me, a Black journalist, the crucial opportunity to tell those important stories that extend way beyond the over reported crime present in the area.  

DeAsia Paige, is a journalist covering East St. Louis for the Belleville News-Democrat in Belleville, Illinois via Report For America.

Local journalism is a unifying force that can connect us all, regardless of our race, politics, religion, or our nation of birth. That said, local journalism, as it’s often been practiced in places like the Twin Cities, has left readers and communities on the sidelines based on those same distinctions. 

The Twin Cities and Minnesota are home to 90,000 Hmong people, 75,000 Somalis, and 200,000-plus Latinx residents. But looking at our newsrooms—and the stories they produce—you wouldn’t necessarily see them. 

For my whole career—as a student journalist at the University of Minnesota, a staff reporter at Minnesota Public Radio News, and the Star Tribune—I have been striving to create journalism that builds bridges between immigrants and refugees and their new communities. Their stories were often overlooked by traditional news organizations.

As the demographics of Minnesota continues to change, there’s an urgent need to inform the state’s newest residents, the audience of the future. 

At Sahan Journal, we’re filling the gap left by predominantly white newsrooms in the state that are grappling with lack of diverse staff and lack of diverse coverage. We have a small staff of five, three of them corps members from Report for America. These reporters have been producing unique and insightful stories about Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities: Daily stories, breaking news and in-depth features.

I believe strong local journalism creates strong communities. In the past month, we’ve published nearly 40 stories that no one else has covered. Racism within Minnesota’s estimated 150,000-member Muslim community, a brave young Somali woman who broke out of the culture of silence about sexual assault to encourage others to speak out, and an obituary of a dynamic Hmong school board member in St. Paul.

Our journalism exists to truly serve the needs of these culturally distinct immigrant and refugee communities in Minnesota. It’s always possible that the other news media in town will take up this same mission with enthusiasm—and writers and editors of color. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Mukhtar M. Ibrahim is Editor & Executive Director at Sahan Journal, a nonprofit digital newsroom in Minnesota.

It’s only been a little over a month since I started my RFA corps service in North Texas. I’ve already covered the Black Lives Matter movement, how the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting Latinx and Black people, both the LGBTQ and the DACA Supreme Court decisions, the economic impact of COVID-19 on small business and the brutal killing of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén. As I write this in my car during a quick break while covering the Texas primary runoff election, I’m reminded of the importance of local news. The service that Report For America provides is vital for the community to be able to create informed decisions that will determine their future. Local journalism is critically important now with everything that’s going on. And having young journalists of color, like myself, a Latina, helps newsrooms look like the communities they write about and fill in the missing gaps in diverse perspectives.

Alejandra Martinez is a reporter for KERA, a public media outlet in North Texas, and The Texas Newsroom via Report for America (RFA). 

I write about poverty in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the country. A native West Virignian, my desire – the thing that had called me to journalism — was to focus my reporting on the reality and complexities of life in my home state. In 2018, I was working as a reporter in Nashville when Report for America posted the job I’d wanted for years: the chance to write about poverty at a newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia. Now, I write about poverty for Mountain State Spotlight, a new nonprofit, investigative newsroom serving our state. I’m the only reporter in the state focused solely on this issue that impacts so many parts of life, including education and mental health, here in our part of Appalachia. I regularly focus on the cross-section of policy and poverty, and my reporting covers failing government programs, the state’s broken foster care system and the difficult road from homeless to housed. The ability to continue work on this beat has allowed me to ask more nuanced questions, dig deeper in my stories and hold powerful people accountable for programs that keep people in poverty. Report for America brought me home to West Virginia, and I am proud to work for my neighbors.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a journalist at Mountain State Spotlight, via Report For America.

Serving as a Report For America corps member at such a difficult time is a privilege and learning experience I value immensely. As a journalist reporting on tech equity in Philadelphia my first month has been full of stories detailing the ways small businesses have responded to social unrest, protests and the enduring struggles that come with the coronavirus pandemic. Hyperlocal news is important because at a time when people nationwide are isolated in quarantine, knowing what is happening where you live is more important than ever.

As an Afro-Latinx journalist my perspective is something I hold dearly to my heart and I consider it a privilege to help amplify voices that may not always get the recognition that they deserved. My current experience in Philadelphia allows me to do that working on a beat that affects people’s lives in a unique way. Philadelphia is one of the poorest major American cities and because of that, access to digital resources can be disparate. I hope that my reporting can be a tool for a community looking for answers.

Michael Butler is a reporter for Technical.ly, a Philadelphia newsroom that focuses on the impact of technology’s local impact, via Report For America. 

“No one understands the plight of a community like someone who grew up in it. Inequities that are often discussed in reports and roundtables are lived realities for that person. That’s why reporters who are from communities that have been neglected and oppressed are more important than ever not only because they’ve lived through historic wrongs but because they can shed a light on them in a way no one else can. Journalism has a long way to go before it can fundamentally reshape itself to be more inclusive of communities of color and the underserved, but along the way it can tell the stories of their struggles and how people within those communities have for decades fought for justice.

Local journalists like me are in the best place to do this because we’re the ones who know how communities are feeling. We’re the ones who know the organizers and nonprofits that work with people who have been hit hardest by historic, systemic failures and new challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re the ones who have the pulse of our communities. It’s not easy to gain that understanding. It comes from being at community meetings and building sources and not just jumping into forgotten parts of a city when there’s a controversial story to be told. It comes from being there not as a journalist but as a neighbor. That’s why the work of Report For America and the GroundTruth Project is more important than ever.”

Obed Manuel, Staff Writer at The Dallas Morning News and Report For America alum