Report for America: Strengthening Local News in the Era of COVID-19

In the era of COVID-19, local news coverage is more important than ever. Report for America is making that coverage possible.

Across the nation, millions of young students are switching to online learning in response to COVID-19 related school closures. In Utah’s Navajo Nation, that transition is anything but easy. In this arid, rural landscape, internet signals are spotty—if they exist at all. Because of this, a community that has suffered from decades of government neglect risks falling even further behind.

If this crisis had happened five years ago, we might not be hearing this story. Thanks to Report for America, this issue is being covered. 

Local news has a major money problem. The common narrative is that, as the internet grew in prominence over the last two decades, readers flocked to social media and online-only publications, leaving their local papers behind.

According to Report for America co-founder Steve Waldman, that isn’t quite true. “The problem isn’t that readers went to the internet,” says Waldman. “It’s that advertisers left. They went to Monster, then to Craigslist, then to Facebook and Google. A lot of local papers actually have bigger audiences than they used to, but they’re trading analog dollars for digital dimes.”

If newspapers can’t get funding from advertisers or subscribers, they can’t pay journalists to cover local issues—meaning that outside of large urban areas, people aren’t hearing the stories most relevant to them.

SCE’s Catalyst Grants are meant to address urgent issues like this by supporting organizations that approach them in new and promising ways. Last year we offered a Catalyst Grant to Report for America: an organization dedicated to strengthening communities and democracy through local journalism that is truthful, fearless, fair and smart.

Report for America corps member Kate Groetzinger interviews Navajo veteran Benny Fatt at a Veterans Day event.

After the 2016 election, The GroundTruth Project CEO Charles Sennott approached Waldman, a journalist and entrepreneur who had long advocated for greater investment into the collapsing local journalism industry. Inspired by programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps, they founded Report for America.

Emerging journalists and local newsrooms both apply to Report for America, which matches them to one another and partially subsidizes the journalist’s salary. The journalist gains a year of experience in a newsroom as a full employee, covering an under-reported issue that’s much more prescient than the average first-year beat. In turn, the newsroom receives a talented journalist and the ability to cover an issue they might not otherwise have been able to afford. In addition, the newsroom gains invaluable fundraising experience: while Report for America covers about half of the reporter’s salary, they support the newsroom in raising the other half from their community.

Kate Groetzinger is a great example of how this relationship can work. After working at several Texas-based newspapers and receiving a Master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Texas, she landed a position through Report for America at KUER—the NPR station serving southeast Utah—covering indigenous issues. Thanks to this partnership, historically undercovered issues like the digital divide on indigenous reservations now have a major platform.

When Report for America launched in 2017, it did so with just three journalists. This past cycle, they received 1,800 applications for 200 positions. They’d like to place 1,000 journalists per year by 2024—an ambitious goal, but an important one. Says Waldman, “We’re expanding that fast because the size of the crisis demands it.”

An employee of a Cape Cod grocery store takes a phone order in late March.

Today, the local journalism crisis is compounded by another threat: the COVID-19 pandemic. To fight this invisible threat, communities must unify and cooperate. Accurate, relevant reporting is essential to fighting misinformation and educating the public on their role in stopping the spread.

“We talk a lot about the ‘information health’ of a community,” says Waldman. “COVID-19 has made us realize that you need good local journalism to have a community that’s literally healthy, too.”

Waldman is clear-eyed about how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting their local journalism partners. As donations dwindle and revenue-generating events are cancelled, many newsrooms are requesting greater subsidy for their journalists or pulling out of the program entirely.

However, many more newsrooms are doubling down. They recognize both the severity of the crisis and the role they can play in addressing it. Report for America is supporting these newsrooms by offering virtual training and remaining flexible when journalists switch to COVID-19 beats.

Today, good local news is more important than ever. We’re proud to have supported Report for America’s efforts to strengthen reporting in communities across the country—through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Learn more about Report for America today.

All photos © Report for America