For Greeneville Sun editor Michael Reneau, every news story is personal. His readers will call him at home or confront him on the street if they dislike stories; they hold up copies of the newspaper, or articles they printed off online, at town hall meetings and hearings. The people he writes about every day are neighbors, fellow church members, his kids’ coaches.
Reneau doesn’t take his responsibility lightly. He has worked hard in the past couple years to grow the health and success of his paper. In 2016, he was awarded Editor and Publisher’s “25 Under 35” in the newspaper world.
“Even though so much about our industry is in flux, our core purpose will always be needed,” he told E&P at the time. “People will always need information about their communities. … The good stuff stands out, and readers know that.”
But the Greeneville Sun has also faced difficulties lately—as have most local newspapers throughout the United States. It’s no secret that small-town daily newspapers and other forms of local media have struggled to keep up in the digital era. The American Society of News Media found in 2015 that newsroom jobs had dropped 10.4 percent in 2015, losing 3,800 industry jobs in just one year.
Due to attrition and cuts, Reneau’s newspaper has lost five of its newsroom employees, though he’s still working to churn out the same quality and quantity of content. Since Reneau became editor of the paper in 2015, he’s faced both communal and personal pressure to survive.
“Everybody’s trying to make local journalism more sustainable and better,” he told me in a phone interview. “I do think we’ve got to make it better, make the models more sustainable, but I don’t think anyone has the magic bullet yet.”
A Program That Aims to Reinvigorate the Local Press
One program is hoping that it may, in fact, manufacture that magic bullet: this year at the Google News Lab Summit, Charles Sennott and Steven Waldman rolled out a new program called Report For America that aims to place 1,000 enterprising young journalists in local newsrooms around the country. The Poynter Institute explains:
Here’s how RFA will work: On one end, emerging journalists will apply to be part of RFA. On the other, newsrooms will apply for a journalist. RFA will pay 50 percent of that journalist’s salary, with the newsroom paying 25 percent and local donors paying the other 25 percent. That reporter will work in the local newsroom for a year, with the opportunity to renew.
After the first year, the local news organization will have to pay a larger share of the journalists’ income. But “corps members” in the RFA program will receive continued mentorship and support from the organization after their placements.
While Sennott and Waldman are borrowing ideas from service programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps, they note this program isn’t getting any public funding. It’s sponsored by the GroundTruth Project and the Google News Lab, along with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Knight Foundation, Galloway Family Foundation, Center for Investigative Reporting, and Solutions Journalism Network.
The program’s founders believe that a strong local press is necessary for democracy and communal health, and thus see this as a public service project. “We need a new model that will strengthen journalism, enrich communities, empower citizens and restore trust in media by developing and sustaining a new wave of journalists to serve local news organizations in under-covered corners of America,” the program’s website explains.
Connecting Talented Journalists With Communities
What impact might this program have on the ground? Journalists I talked to were hopeful; Reneau said it might help fill newsroom vacancies that many publications like his have experienced in recent years.
Many young journalists used to start at the local level, then eventually “worked their way up” to a national news job. But as resources at the local level have grown increasingly slim—and as online news organizations have grown exponentially—many young writers are turning to national news sites, not small local dailies, for their first job. That means less resources for local newspapers, more nationally focused stories, and an increasingly coast-clustered press (see Politico for more details).
There’s also often a problem, one journalist told me, when young journalists don’t develop the skills they need to report well at the town or city level. Some may try to nationalize a story that doesn’t really fit with larger trends; others may be ignorant of the workings of local government.
RFA seeks to fix both problems, by bringing funding and opportunity back to local media, and by training young journalists and giving them the resources they need to write well at the local level.
What Are Report For America’s Goals?
RFA’s parent organization, the GroundTruth Project, describes itself as an organization dedicated to on-the-ground, empirical evidence-gathering. They are primarily interested in writing about “issues of social justice that matter for an increasingly interconnected world, including human rights, freedom of expression, emerging democracies, the environment, religious affairs and global health.”
My only hesitation here would be if journalists trained in this program become disappointed by the less glamorous tasks and responsibilities they may need to perform daily at the local level. Not all stories that matter to a small community are about human rights, social justice, and freedom of expression. Sometimes, they are about local parades and graduations, town hall meetings and car crashes.
But well-trained reporters should be able to understand this, and to offer many services and skills—such as data analysis, investigative savvy, or design proficiency—to local communities who need them. Besides, sometimes it is indeed helpful to have someone “from the outside” to provide perspective and objectivity. As Reneau noted, these individuals often ask questions and provide pushback on assumptions that may exist among locals.
In smaller communities like Greeneville, however, he noted that outsiders have to strike the right balance between investigative and supportive. “In small communities like ours, people are already skeptical of the outsider,” he noted. “That’s a given. But there’s still a way you can do your job while letting the community know you’re for them, you want them to succeed and to be better.”
RFA has a “service requirement” for corps members that may encourage this. As they explain on their website, “We think much journalism is public service but we also want RFA corps members to go the extra mile and do service projects in the community. In particular, we’re looking to have them work in high schools and middle schools to help start or strengthen student-run news websites, feeds, TV shows or newspapers.”
How to Help Local Newspapers Survive the Digital Era
Some have argued that local journalism doesn’t have a personnel problem—it has a structural problem. As companies have increasingly moved their advertising dollars to online platforms (which are usually more profitable), newspapers that relied on that ad revenue have taken a significant hit. It may be time for these newspapers to emphasize subscription-based sales, but how do they get readers to pay for content?
Perhaps they could build unique, long-form content: publishing more in-depth pieces, feature stories, profiles, and investigative articles. Another way to do this would be to foster “extras” beyond the print paper, like email newsletters, an expansive and detailed online archive, curated local events, or other premiums. These various features would separate a local paper from the New York Times, and from a local Patch site. But such initiatives require immense time, dedication, and talent—which necessarily brings us back to the personnel problem, and RFA.
As Reneau put it, “The business model matters, the way we earn matters, but so much comes down to content. When we bring someone from the outside to cover our community and do things differently, that can go well or poorly. It just all comes down to how the content is meeting the needs and the desires of the public.”
Journalists Increasingly Live In City Centers
With the exponential growth of TV and Internet, our world has gotten smaller. Happenings in the White House, natural disasters in Puerto Rico, and controversies in Congress are increasingly tangible and experiential for the world’s news readers. At the national level, newspaper and news magazine subscriptions have seen a surprising and significant uptick since November 2016’s presidential election. News sources like The New York Times and Washington Post have garnered as many as 130,000 new subscribers in one month.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, journalists tend to cluster around coastlines. They are most heavily represented in New York, California, Washington DC, Florida, and Texas. On a regional level, they usually work in metropolitan areas like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Phoenix, and San Francisco.
Report For America could end up exercising considerable influence over the local news world, in helping select the journalists who go into struggling newsrooms across the country. With that control must come a sense of responsibility: a commitment to putting truth before bias, and communal service before personal profit. From their website, sponsors, and stated goals, it seems RFA has both that passion and sense of responsibility. But the proof will be in the pudding.