Report for America corps members, family, friends and staff came together virtually this past weekend to celebrate the graduation of more than 130 journalists from the national service program—its largest ceremony yet.
The grads have all completed at least one year of service with Report America with several having two to three years in the reporting corps under their belts. The majority intend to stay in local news and more than 20% were hired on by their newsrooms.
NPR’s Nancy Barnes, senior vice president for news and editorial director, delivered the commencement address. She shared the successes and challenges that have come with her decades of journalism experience—beginning at the local level—and reminded the corps members of how vital their work is.
“I first fell for this business, for the love of storytelling, then for the love of journalism that makes a difference. But in recent years, my passion has hardened and become something more than a love for my work. It has boiled down to understanding that we need to fill an even more basic need—standing up for the essential truths, providing safeguards against the failure of democracy—as has long been envisioned for journalists,” Barnes said. “As Joseph Pulitzer said, ‘our republic and its press will rise and fall together.’ That starts with reporters at the local level, not the elite national press.”
Barnes has spent nearly 30 years leading high-performing teams in delivering award-winning journalism to the public. She joined NPR in November 2018, after serving as executive editor for Hearst Texas Newspapers and the Houston Chronicle. Barnes also served as executive editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune Media Company from 2007 to 2013, leading the newsroom to a Pulitzer Prize in local reporting, as well as other national awards.
“I promise you, there is tremendous reward and often joy in participating in a career that allows you to talk to people, ask questions, tell stories, uncover hidden truths, and affect life for the better for those you’re trying to serve,” Barnes said. “This is a life’s calling that is fulfilling and rewarding and vital.”
The role local journalism plays in strengthening democracy was echoed throughout the ceremony. Report for America’s co-founder and president, Steven Waldman, praised the corps members for the lasting impact their stories will have, numbering in the thousands.
“Accountability. Useful information for residents. Information that enables communities to confront their problems. In many cases, information that helps the community know itself better, helps residents go from being, you know, strangers or viewed as enemies or traitors, to being viewed as neighbors,” Waldman said.
And the importance of local journalism was not lost on the graduates.
“It has been incredibly rewarding to see firsthand the way local journalism can empower communities and hold the powerful accountable. Report for America is integral to bringing the freedoms and privileges of democracy to underrepresented people. It has been an honor to make a contribution to this organization and the country,” said Kassidy Arena, who spent the past two years covering covering Latino, Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities for Iowa Public Radio.
Arena is now headed to KBIA, the NPR affiliate at the University of Missouri (her alma mater). Beyond reporting, she looks forward to promoting media literacy and inspiring the next generation of journalists.
Acacia Coronado is among those who have been hired on by their newsrooms. She will remain in Texas to cover statewide government for The Associated Press. Coronado shared her appreciation in a tweet following the ceremony—writing that Report for America gave her “the opportunity to join and learn from the most amazing team at AP, the best partner classroom, incredible mentors …to say I’m grateful is an understatement.”
Dozens of new and renewing corps members will take the grads’ places in newsrooms across all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam, this summer. Waldman told the graduates that the continued success of the program is because of them.
“They’re there because of the work that you did. So you are part of this movement that is showing the country and the world what public service journalism on the local level means,” Waldman said. “And that means that your work is also going to live on in the future work of the corps members that are just starting. So you’ve paid it forward big time.”
In his closing remarks, Charles Sennott, co-founder of Report for America and chief executive officer of The GroundTruth Project, reiterated how in an age when truth is so under attack “that the truths you can reveal by being there on the ground as a reporter have a profound value.”
However, he also encouraged the emerging reporters to relish this moment in their careers.
“I want to say welcome not only to the movement, but to the adventure. This is an incredibly exciting craft … It’s vitally important, but it’s also an amazing journey in life.”