AmeriCorps for local news? Report leads conference that includes Wash Post, Dodge

Steven Waldman presents 'Report for America' at Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Steven Waldman presents 'Report for America' at Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Video: ‘Engage Local’ conference live stream

By Kevin Coughlin

Is it time for an AmeriCorps for local news?

The Ford Foundation makes its case in a paper released this week.

“The core economic problem on the local level is stunningly simple: Ad-based business models do not generate enough revenue to pay enough reporters enough money to do enough reporting,” Steven Waldman writes in Report for America.

Steven Waldman presents 'Report for America' at Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Steven Waldman presents ‘Report for America’ at Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Waldman, a former adviser to the Federal Communications Commission chairman, presented the paper on Tuesday at Engage Local, a two-day Newark conference hosted by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media.

Conference highlights included a town hall discussion about media coverage of Newark redevelopment, and Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron talking about billionaire owner Jeff Bezos, the newspaper’s new-media ventures — and its frustrating efforts seeking to free reporter Jason Rezaian from an Iranian prison.

Video: Town hall discussion: Renaissance or Gentrification in Newark

While life as a foreign correspondent is increasingly dangerous, domestic reporting in an era of shrinking newsrooms is becoming ever more difficult and thankless, too, according to Waldman, a former Newsweek reporter.

One career site has ranked “newspaper reporter” as the worst job in America— lumberjacks and prison guards have more desirable gigs.

Yet in-depth, investigative reporting is needed more than ever, Waldman contends. And that’s labor-intensive, expensive, and unlikely to generate the mind-boggling web traffic required to generate revenue.

Citing civic service programs such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Teach for America, Waldman advocates a system of two-year paid fellowships for both young and experienced journalists, who would compete for these positions.

READ “REPORT FOR AMERICA”

TWEETS FROM ‘ENGAGE LOCAL’

Ideally, he writes, a Report for America national organization would be underwritten by philanthropies, with matching money from local groups or communities that would apply to embed these journalism fellows into their projects.

One hundred reporting slots could be started with under $3 million in seed money; $35 million might launch 1,000 reporters nationwide, Waldman writes.

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Over the last three years, he said, “investigative” media projects received $27 million in philanthropic funding — about the same amount contributed toward interactive games.

Some $1.8 billion in philanthropy went to media of all kinds during that period, according to Waldman. The lion’s share came from “fortunes created by robber barons of the 19th century [Ford, Rockefeller, Knight], with insufficient involvement from the winners of the digital economy, such as Apple and Google.”

‘A RUNWAY… FOR TAKING OFF, NOT LANDING’

Another digital winner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, bought the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013.

“Jeff has brought… ideas of his own, opened us to our ideas of what we wanted to do, he’s brought a lot of questions about how we do things, and very importantly, he’s brought capital, to help us make this transition from a period of print to where we are today,” said Baron, former editor of the Boston Globe.

Bezos made it clear that he had no answers, Baron said, “and that we needed to experiment in a lot of different ways.”

Asserting that the newspaper is on a runway “for taking off, not for landing,” the editor rattled off names of new Post apps and blogs meant to connect with younger, tech-savvy readers. A sportswriter’s Periscope live video stream of the newsroom on deadline attracted lots of attention on Twitter.

Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron addresses Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron addresses Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Public response so far sounds encouraging: Unique visitors to the Post’s website are increasing by 65 percent, year to year, and page views are jumping by 100 percent, Baron told interviewer Merrill Brown, founding editor of MSNBC.com and director of Montclair State’s communications school.

“We’re using every tool available, from Tweets, to embedded videos, to audio, to you name it, every kind of tool that you have now on the web. And you can create new storytelling forms that work extraordinarily well on the web and would be difficult to translate in print,” Baron said.

While he could not predict how mobile media will evolve, he said the Post will adapt and deliver news however people wish to consume it.

The Post also continues trying “every which way to get people involved” in a public relations campaign to win the release of Rezaian, the Tehran correspondent arrested in July 2014 and charged with espionage.

“We’re very concerned about his fate, and the fate of his wife, and we continue to protest in every way possible,” Baron said.

‘WHAT DEMOCRACY IS ABOUT’

Public engagement here at home, meanwhile, remains a pressing concern for Morristown’s Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

The nonprofit, endowed by money from the Rockefeller fortune (Standard Oil) and the Remington Arms Company, supported the conference and is backing several programs pursuing new models of sustainable journalism at the local level.

(Full disclosure: MorristownGreen.com participates in one of those programs, the Local News Lab.)

“We’re all struggling, trying to figure out what is the financial model that works here, and how we can make this sustainable. That’s our goal at Dodge,” Chris Daggett, the Dodge president, told journalists from independent news sites, newspapers and broadcast stations gathered at the Robert Treat Hotel.

Dodge Foundation President Chris Daggett speaks at Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Dodge Foundation President Chris Daggett speaks at Engage Local conference. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The former gubernatorial candidate and state environmental commissioner pledged to continue this mission as long as he leads the foundation.  He said he hopes to attract more funders as well.

“Local journalism is providing a service to people to say: ‘What are your information needs? And how can we best provide responses to those information needs?’

“Because if we do that well, then people get engaged in their communities more and more,” Daggett said. “And that’s what … this effort is about, and what democracy is about.”

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