RETORT FOR AMERICA

Why is no one questioning the program that countless communities, foundations, and media makers are banking on to rescue local investigative journalism?


I was working as a part-time editor in Boston and still freelancing in 2014 when I first harnessed the mighty force of crowdfunding. Looking to explore a wild tip into a corrupt county in mountainous southern Oregon and unable to do the story on the budgets offered by a few New York-based outlets, I raised $8,500; hired a researcher, fact-checker, and copy support; and booked a flight. Despite only having as much funding to complete my whole project as a major might spend in a single afternoon on an investigative dive, my ad hoc squad unearthed thousands of documents, connected dots, and exposed a web of scoundrels behind an elaborate mortgage scam.

At the tail end of my second fact-finding trip out West, I rolled south to San Francisco, where I spent two days in 2015 at a conference for my newspaper’s trade organization, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN). That year our legion linked up with the Media Consortium (TMC), a since-defunct alliance of diverse progressive publications ranging from issue-based outfits like Rethinking Schools to bigger general ops like the Nation.

With the Oregon experience still heavy on my mind, I was motivated by the possibilities of reporting funded in alternative ways. So in California, while listening to knowledgeable voices from seasoned nonprofits extol their creative strategies, I hatched an idea for an incubator that boosts local news and journalists. I named it the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, or BINJ for short, and right away recruited partners to help build a replicable system.

As I would come to learn, at roughly the same time, another team was forming around a proposal that, at least in some respects, appeared similar to the BINJ concept. But as both of our babies have matured into beacons of hope, to varying degrees, on an increasingly barren landscape, I’ve come to realize just how different they are and what that difference means for how the greater journalism apparatus should be retooled for sustainability.

THEIR WAY

While my crew was still brainstorming, Steve Waldman, an accomplished researcher and former journalist for US News and World Report whose extra-reportorial stints have included advising and writing a book on AmeriCorps, was putting the finishing touches on “a new model for saving local journalism, borrowing from national and community service programs.” Published on his Medium page on July 9, 2015, with a summary run by Columbia Journalism Review the following week, the Report For America (RFA) white paper made a significant splash.

In addition to relationships that Waldman already had in the startup, service, and nonprofit worlds, early on in his endeavor he linked with esteemed media thinker Charles Sennott, a Boston Globe alum who founded Global Post and the GroundTruth Project, both of which have germinated loads of journalism in the dryest news deserts worldwide. With Sennott signed on as a co-founder and RFA pulled under the GroundTruth umbrella at WGBH, a PBS powerhouse in Boston, Waldman attracted many of the most sought-after backers in technology and media, from the Google News Lab to the Knight Foundation. So much momentum snowballed in the past two years, and in 2019 RFA will place 60 reporters in newsrooms across the United States through three programs:

  • “Classic,” for which RFA holds “annual national competitions, recruiting both reporters and news organizations from around the country,” and places the winning reporters in various news rooms for one-year stints that could stretch into two.
  • “Regional or Local Corps,” in which RFA is “working with local foundations and philanthropists to set up special corps in certain areas.”
  • “Issue Based Corps,” in which RFA will establish “special corps to field local reporters covering health care, education, veterans affairs, the environment, religion and criminal justice.”

This all sounds like great news, and indeed much of it is. I will highlight pluses, but this is not another injudicious celebration of Waldman and Sennott’s genius. Because instead of any fair, honest, or obvious criticism of RFA, there has been a coronation and rush by some of the wealthiest foundations to blindly throw money at the program, which aims to train and place more than 1,000 reporters in its first five years. Ironically, it’s largely assisting the kind of essential community shops that, until recently, banner funders have at worst hobbled by propping startup competitor carpetbaggers, and at best humored with microgrants.

You might say the success that RFA is having on the funding front was a forgone conclusion. Waldman’s 2015 report, an endless hodgepodge that reads like media grant app Lorem Ipsum, was underwritten by the venerable Ford Foundation. Since its release, the project has magnetically attracted others with the same historical reluctance Ford has to directly support outlets. Not to mention a propensity for seeding and cheerleading for the latest flavor of the month, then deserting them like so many crowdfunding platforms, browser-based fake news-detecting fact checkers, engagement tools, and other fads.

In his June 2015 RFA breakdown on Medium, Waldman wrote [emphasis his], “Report for America should foster controversy.” He’s specifically referring to integrity and independence, and why public interest journalism shouldn’t be funded by states, cities, or taxpayers. But I think it is time for the concept to itself spur some controversy, or at least conversation, since RFA has been co-signed by innumerable well-respected media entities — from J-schools to trade pubs to the New York Times — without facing any serious public skepticism.

Upon close inspection, Waldman’s white paper is trite and stinks of cherry-picked puff potpourri. In an ocean of supportive stats, there are several points that could be countered using research from the same foundations that have tripped over each other to back RFA. “In short,” Waldman wrote in 2015, incredulously, “journalism is doing great — except when it comes to reporting that is labor-intensive, local and civically-important but unlikely to generate massive amounts of traffic required for a mass-market advertising business model.”

Even if such statements were truer than they are subjective and self-serving, Sennott and Waldman aren’t air-dropping new business models over Appalachia. Instead, they are parachuting troops in. With the millions they are raising, RFA is fast becoming a leading central training and dispatch command center. To decide who gets help, the program presides over an annual Hunger Games. Meanwhile, as RFA sparks competition among applicants, in its own development efforts, the founders bypassed any bluster and staged an impressive philanthropic coup.

Until now, I have avoided pitching such a pointed criticism so as to avoid looking jealous or spiteful (for the record, I am both). In the grand scope of nonprofit media, BINJ is a minimally plugged-in underdog, while Waldman and Sennott, on the other hand, recently appeared on a CNN podcast to bolster their cause. I caught the interview, and since even the network’s typically deft media observer, Brian Stelter, basically gave RFA a free pass, I figured that I might as well fall on the funding sword and speak up.

FRONTALLY CONFRONTING

Before I cut much deeper, it is important to say that I’m rooting for Report For America. I’m not just saying that in the way that a Democratic mayor might claim that they hope the Republican governor of their state succeeds. I actually mean it, and I’ve even sent the application link for RFA to editors and publishers in my orbit, and recommended that some of our more experienced writers check out the available positions.

As big as RFA’s already grown, failure could give way to an abysmal crisis with significant reverberations. It’s just one of many ploys to lift the industry that have been floated, only RFA was hatched by an emphatically connected team, plus it’s funded to the teeth, buttressed by a star-studded roster of professors and practitioners, and at the center of attention among influential commenters. If things go south, everything like it could also be written off, with opportunities possibly vanishing for projects that so much as slightly resemble RFA. That would be a total shame, because despite fundamental flaws that I will skewer further down, Waldman has some admirable ideas.

  • While my biggest beef with RFA is that it isn’t using enough of its resources to equip small fries for survival after this line of funding dries up, Waldman and Sennott are cleverly finding and getting in front of regional foundations in places where they are planting corps members and helping to get those philanthropies in the habit of funding journalism beyond PBS.
  • One clear criticism of RFA is that rather than proactively finding and securing journalists from the communities that its newspaper partners cover, they are dispatching (mostly) established reporters from out of town. Having run into my own problems securing the right people for specific assignments in a market as massive as Boston, I can understand why it’s unrealistic to expect RFA to locate muckrakers-in-waiting everywhere it expands. Considering those limitations, it is encouraging that RFA promises, “Once in the host organization, the corps member would be managed completely by the local editor.”
  • And of course there is the actual reporting done by the corps members and newsrooms they are supporting. The output of Eric J. Shelton at Mississippi Today, for example, is the sort of community coverage every block, city, and region stands to benefit from. RFA is helping ace media makers make media that wouldn’t otherwise get made, and that’s never a bad thing.

My nitpicking notwithstanding, RFA is making strides, even if it isn’t always stepping in the direction of teaching more people to fend for themselves in a media apocalypse. For every dynamite invention Waldman offers, there’s another that neglects to reflect the perspective of prospective local partners. Like this learned bit of science from his 2015 white paper that employs all of the right words, but that could also be used to describe RFA if you sub “Report For America” for “technological innovation”:

Large philanthropists often shy away from direct funding of journalism. They figure that scarce resources should go to creating new, sustainable models that will endure. … Donors invariably want to make a permanent impact, which means funding new platforms or new structures.
This approach is hard to argue with but if donors adopt a Pollyannaish view that technological innovation can solve all problems of media disruption, they will avoid frontally confronting some of the market failures that are not susceptible to that type of remedy.

NO REPORTER LEFT BEHIND

There are any number of reports, opinions, articles, and spreadsheets that can be leveraged to praise or prey on service initiatives like AmeriCorps and Teach For America, both of which have guiding principles and practices that Waldman drew from in designing RFA. On the positive side of that spectrum, there are individual success stories galore. On the damning end, there are embarrassing organizational blunders, takedowns by those who view TFA as anti-union, and a popular sentiment encapsulated in a 2018 headline in the Onion: “Teach For America Celebrates 3 Decades Of Helping Recent Graduates Pad Out Law School Applications.”

Between the cautionary tales and open jokes about the value of such programs, one might imagine that an enormous proposal based on some of its key elements would raise eyebrows. Instead, the funders backing Report For America seem to have not looked beyond Waldman’s account. A former senior advisor to the CEO of the Corporation for National Service, the RFA co-founder concedes, “There has been some criticism of Teach for America and other youth service programs that they rely too much on on-the-job training,” and writes, “There is surprisingly little research, alas, on whether this has actually led to sustainability .” But ultimately offers more hunches than numbers: “It is clear that the matching requirements have at least led to diversified revenue streams”; “Most school districts that get Teach for America teachers very much want to keep them year after year.”

Like other top-down fix-it formulas before it, RFA pits struggling outlets against one another. The tactic follows in the philosophical footsteps of programs like No Child Left Behind that reward winners and penalize losers. In Waldman’s words: RFA strives “to support institutions that really need and want the aid and can put corps members to good use. In theory this happens through the competitive grant making process and is reinforced by the need for a local match which is something an organization will only attempt to do if they value the work being done.”

It’s tough love in this meritocracy, and according to its gospel: “Report for America will provide half the cost of the reporter’s annual salary, the local news organization will provide one quarter, and a quarter will come from a local supporter (individual donor, university, family trust or foundation). If the corps member continues for a second year, the funding formula shifts so the local news organization pays a somewhat larger share.”

Those familiar with the finances of typical small newspapers will explain that it can be impossible to secure an additional 20-or-so grand on top of a dwindling budget. Especially for a true independent, or a nonprofit in a struggling city. Yet in the tournament for RFA funding, such hardship applicants face off against National Public Radio affiliates and outlets owned by some of the same mega clusters that are strangling our industry.

Monash University media lecturer Bill Birnbauer recently wrote in the Conversation, “dozens of state and city-focused news organizations have annual budgets of $200,000 or less, and a survey of Institute for Nonprofit News members found 9 percent had no more than $100,000 in yearly revenue.” In his own writing Waldman acknowledges, “Nonprofits remain very reliant on foundation funding, and few appear to be rapidly approaching a sustainable business model.”

But if the founders are aware of that need to empower, why are they functioning just like a middleman? Setting up a new bureaucracy and application process between funding sources and recipients? With RFA’s panels of judges picking the winners and losers?

THE ALTERNATIVE

While RFA is pushing corps partners and nonprofits to seek out well-endowed local benefactors, for their own funding Waldman and Sennott have reached for the stars and struck lightning. As someone tasked with raising money for reporting, I understand that it’s important to pull gifts in from as many people and places as possible, and that several of those donors may be far from perfect. But it is nonetheless worth recognizing all the honchos flanking RFA — advisory board members range from Bob Woodruff to a director from the Charles Koch Institute — as well as which behemoths are writing the big checks.

To his credit, Waldman has been up front about reparations he believes tech giants should pay to the sector. According to his 2015 RFA blueprint, “So far, the biggest contributors [to journalism] have been the 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.” Such thinking seems naive, while Facebook, which is supporting RFA, hardly deserves a ticker-tape parade for fixing the problem it helps deepen daily, but I nevertheless firmly believe the founders, who in the aforementioned interview with Brian Stelter said their relationship with Facebook has gone better than expected.

In addition to the social network and other Silicon Valley allies, RFA has sought unlikely bedfellows politically. National Review Editor Rich Lowry is an advisory board member, and last December Sennott and Waldman published a call to action on his site titled, “Conservative philanthropists should help fund local reporting, and young conservative writers should consider becoming local journalists.” The piece is a disastrous attempt at pandering that may reveal, however inadvertently, one reason so many foundations that are presumably staffed by Democrats have ponied up big bucks for RFA. “Part of why the national media missed the rise of the Trump voter,” the founders wrote in the conservative magazine, “is that newsrooms outside of these more liberal enclaves have been hollowed out.”

Their questionable olive branch to right-leaning reporters notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that the program’s central mission is to stimulate more journalism. That’s a good thing overall, but it’s not the same as sprouting self-sustaining units that will live forever after. Outside of the critical foundational support of trade organizations like the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and Local Independent Online News (LION), plus the democratic NewsMatch campaign and select university-based outliers like the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, there isn’t close to enough proactive assistance for the scrappy local outlets that so many claim to value. RFA, with its exclusive selection process and five-figure burden for partners, will not fill this void. Nor will ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, even if like RFA it’s bound to yield exceptional journalism.

I actually met Waldman at Montclair State, on the day that he released his paper at the 2015 ENGAGE Local conference hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media. I also presented at the summit, though my pitch was a lot less sexy; my team was simply focused on forging a community-based outfit that was nimble, free of university affiliation, and most of all inclusive. Back then, I didn’t realize just how many others were hungry for resources to replicate and plans to follow. That’s exactly what we wound up developing, though, and since we are accessible, a lot of them have come to us for help.

As of last year, incubators modeled in the BINJ mold in cities including Santa Fe (New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism), Baltimore (Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism), and Little Rock (Arkansas Nonprofit News Network) are crowdfunding and reporting, as are startups closer to our home that we’ve consulted, like the Shoestring in Northampton, Massachusetts. We even built something called BINJ-in-a-Box to show others how we have done everything from forming an initial team to recruiting and retaining talent to engaging readers and fundraising.

While RFA is shipping cod across the country, we are teaching people how to fish. Whereas we are putting power in the hands of local news organizations, Waldman and Sennott have established yet another competition conduit for foundations that want to say they fund front-line reporting but are afraid to dirty their hands.

Since there is no referee in sight, and because I think RFA should be checked before it diverts too much more funding that should go straight to doers on the ground, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Rants like this one get me dirty looks at journalism conferences and threaten my organization’s funding; but while I hate to put grants for my crew and the programs we have helped open elsewhere at risk, I’m also done waiting for peers to speak up. There are lots of editors and publishers who have similar feelings, and while they’re evidently smart enough to avoid angering the pooh-bahs who direct the lion’s share of journalism funding, I’m more interested in nudging those stubborn bastards to water the grassroots from the ground up.