Rebuilding the pipeline for local news

With local news in a free fall, it is more important than ever to inspire a new generation of journalists to cover their local communities. 

We work toward this goal every day with emerging journalists through our Report for America program, but the urgency of this moment means we need to widen the circle and also enlist college and even high school journalists to play a role in serving their local communities as reporters. 

But how do we in good conscience encourage young people to sign up to be reporters when the industry is in a stunning decline, as recent data consistently and distressingly reveals:

  • Nearly two-thirds of the country’s newspaper journalists have vanished since 2005 in a downward spiral on par with the collapse of the steel or coal industry, with a total loss of some 45,000 newspaper reporting jobs. 
  • Ten local newspapers die every month in America, and as a result, there are now 204 counties across the United States defined as “news deserts” with no local newspaper to inform, enlighten and serve as a watchdog.
  • Trust in journalism has plummeted by any measurement from a high point in 1972 when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” Back then two-thirds had a “great deal to fair amount” of trust in the media and, according to Gallup, it is now at a record low of only one-third who feel that way and, for the first time, more people have distrust than trust. 

This distressing data regarding local news will certainly sound familiar to our GroundTruth community, as I often write about the crisis in journalism becoming a crisis for democracy. But I am also consistently and passionately encouraging a new generation of journalists to answer the call to service, especially in local news, precisely because we need truthtellers in these deeply polarized times if we are going to save democracy. 

Students and instructors participate in the Columbus Journalists in Training class. (Photo by Amelia Robinson for The Columbus Dispatch)

We need people willing to provide a trusted set of facts for communities to make good decisions. Democracy can only function if there is strong local reporting that pulls communities together around a shared set of facts brought to them by people who place the facts over any ideology or emotion. In other words, journalism is not just a career, it is a calling. And we are heartened every year to see that there is a small army of young people in journalism programs who understand that and who want to answer the call to be of service as a reporter. And, based on my 40 years in this craft, I can say for sure it can also offer an amazing opportunity for adventure and a sense of purpose. 

I am also encouraging the next generation because this is an extraordinary time of reinvention in journalism, with new business models emerging and exciting new digital startups forming all the time. From the now venerable Texas Tribune, which was one of the first startup nonprofit newsrooms, to exciting smaller newsrooms such as Flint Beat in Michigan or the New Bedford Light in Massachusetts.

With that inspiration to invent and reinvent, we have to keep on recruiting a new generation. But that will not be easy at a time where “the media” is often discredited and young people struggle to find a signal amid the noise of too many information sources that constantly vie for attention, drowning out the resonant chords of journalism like fairness, accuracy and impact? 

In this, Sunday, April 22, 2018 photo, while pushing up against a deadline, students collaborate to put out the upcoming edition of the Washington Square News, New York University’s independent, student-run, newspaper in New York. (Photo by Kathy Willens for AP)

A good place to start is in high school and college newspapers, where student journalists are starting to pay more attention to the stories going on all around them. They are stepping in to fill a void in local coverage. 

In our Report for America program, our reporters, or corps members, as we call them, are required to give back to their local community and for many of them, that service comes through working with the high school newspapers to mentor their reporters. 

This week, Report for America handed out awards to high school reporters who have shown examples of extraordinary community service in their reporting at the first annual Student Journalism Awards. As Report for America service projects manager Denise Tejada pointed out during the ceremony, our corps members have worked with more than 2,800 students in the past year alone, investing over 37,000 hours on projects serving nearly 13,000 students.

Prominent among these service projects is the Columbia Dispatch which offers a training program for high school journalists which has been led by Peter Gill, a Report for America corps member who covers Ohio’s immigrant and refugee communities and who had served in the Peace Corps in Senegal before he joined our program.

 As Tejada pointed out in her moderation of the award ceremony, the service projects and the journalism by the high school reporters exemplify “an amazing collaboration and mentorship by our corps members.”

 “It has definitely helped me realize my passions for journalism and writing and think about journalism as a potential career,” said Audrey Noguera, a student from Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ, who won first prize in the Best Enterprise Story category under the tutelage of corps member Hannah Gross.  

 Jaslie Fang of Malden High School in Massachusetts praised her mentor Tiana Woodard, who serves as a corps member at the Boston Globe, for her guidance on reporting and for fueling her passion for history. Fang’s work was awarded first prize in the category of Best News Story for her powerful and insightful reporting on a project titled “New AP History Rubric: What Does Malden High Think?”

And on campuses across America, the impetus is growing for independent college newspapers to cover local communities where traditional local newspapers have died or been turned into ghost newsrooms. 

Last weekend, I was on a panel at the annual Christopher J. Georges Conference on College Journalism which was celebrating its 20th year at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. The conference is held in honor of Christopher J. Georges who was an extraordinary journalist who went from serving as editor in chief at his college newspaper, to an internship at the Washington Post and eventually a staff position at the Wall Street Journal where he wrote memorable and impactful stories, particularly on poverty and the subject of welfare reform. He did so with a great passion for telling the story of people struggling in a dysfunctional system, which led to policy changes. He died too young in 1998 at the age of 33.

Chris’ legacy and the 20-year history of this conference tells of the important role that college journalists will play in shaping the future of the craft. I have kept up with and have an extraordinary respect for the Georges family and have attended the conference on and off ever since I was a Nieman fellow in 2005-2006. Chris’ sister, Gigi Georges, shared with me why his legacy matters now more than ever:

“As more local newspapers close, college journalists are stepping in to help fill gaps in coverage, even as they continue to cover critical on-campus stories. They’re doing this with energy and enterprise and making a meaningful difference in communities. We’re so pleased … to play a role in supporting their efforts, with sessions and workshops featuring top journalists and opportunities to network with a diverse group of peers from across the country.”

There are so many great examples of college journalism serving local communities that it would be impossible to list them all. But a few standout efforts are emerging out of West Virginia University, the University of Missouri, City University of New York, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Boston College, and the list goes on. 

In this Sunday, April 22, 2018 photo, editor-in-chief Jemimma McEvoy, left, works with deputy managing editor Pamela Jew, center, and managing editor Sayer Devlin to put out the next edition of the Washington Square News at New York University in New York. (Photo by Kathy Willens for AP)

Courtney Mitchell, General Manager of The Daily Tar Heel, the independent college newspaper at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, attended the Georges conference and spoke convincingly of the need for efforts to serve local news deserts through expanded programs for college newspapers that will allow them more resources to serve the communities around them. She pointed out that UNC has a long tradition of having the college newspaper staff cover local politics and local issues and that it has always helped UNC graduates of the journalism program to be well prepared for jobs in the industry.

“This is an effort that is underway, but something that we have to focus on and find new ways to support,” Mitchell said. “The stakes are just too high not to.”