Why do we call Report for America “national service”?

A vintage Red Cross poster urging citizens to join the movement.

Why do we call Report for America “national service”?

Of course we think local journalism IS public service. That’s the point of Report for America. But we also see this program as a synthesis of two different movements – the efforts to reform journalism and the national service movement.

At our training for the 2018 corps at the Poynter Institute, I walked through some of the history of the service movement.

First, there’s a distinction between volunteerism, public service jobs and national service. Volunteering is crucially important and a major part of America’s civic culture. Think of that as occasional and unpaid.  Then you have public service jobs – basically government jobs with a public-facing mission, like teachers, police and fire fighters.

National service is something different. It generally refers to full-time, non-profit, lightly compensated efforts.  In each case, the programs benefit both the people doing the service – i.e. the servers – and the public.

The planting crew at Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California in 1935.
The planting crew at Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California in 1935. (Photo credit: California Department of Parks and Recreation)

The largest national service program to date was the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt started it during the Great Depression to help both the servers (by providing jobs) and the nation by cleaning up the nation’s parks.  There were 300,000 per year at one point. A total of 9 million went through the program.

The goal was to not only instill pride, confidence and appreciation of the outdoors – but it also sought to transform America’s forests and parks.  The corps members planted 3 billion trees and upgraded 800 parks.

The next major service program was the Peace Corps, started in 1961. This was cast by President Kennedy as both a call to idealism and a way to defeat the Soviet Union in the war for hearts and minds in the developing world.  So far 230,000 have been through the Peace Corps.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a different type of national service approach emerged. These programs were created privately and locally. Responding to the sense that the federal government would not be addressing local problems, an amazing group of social entrepreneurs created programs like City Year, Teach for America, Delta Service Corps, Citizen Schools, and YouthBuild.

These programs vary tremendously – some emphasize education, some housing, some education. Some, like City Year, aspire to create a way for people of different classes and races to work together on common civic projects.

Then in 1993 AmeriCorps was created.  It was highly decentralized but it used funding from the federal government to subsidize corps members’ stipends and an education award to pay for college.  Today, nearly 80,000 people serve in 21,000 locations. In total, more than a million people have served in AmeriCorps. They enabled some of those great local programs to expand.

Often, existing volunteer programs like Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers ended up deploying large numbers of AmeriCorps members to lead their volunteers or tackle major projects. More recently, the Service Year Alliance has attempted to knit together private groups (including those not in AmeriCorps) to create and promote programs that let people have a “service year.”

(Photo credit: Americorps.gov)

Report for America is the first major national service program for journalists.  We obviously hope that the corps members benefit tremendously – developing great skills, learning about a new community (or to return to their home community with fresh eyes) and, frankly, having a life changing challenge.

But the benefits to the server are actually secondary to the benefits to the community. If the reporters aren’t doing great work – helping to transform local journalism – then the program won’t succeed.  Just as the Civilian Conservation Corps wouldn’t have been so worthwhile if it hadn’t dramatically improved the nation’s parks, Report for America aspires to help strengthen communities through great local reporting.