Report for America

A new model for saving local journalism, borrowing from national and community service programs

Steven Waldman
40 min readJun 9, 2015

By Steven Waldman

Supported by the Ford Foundation and released at the ENGAGE Local Conference sponsored by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, June 16, 2015 in Newark, NJ

Executive Summary

Innovation has rippled through the news media since the digital revolution first started smashing traditional economic models. We’ve seen new players, like BuzzFeed, HuffingtonPost and Vice, devote significant resources to meaty reporting. We’ve seen legacy media organizations like The New York Times make breathtaking use of new digital storytelling tools. We’ve seen digital-native nonprofit startups, such as Pro Publica and the Marshall Project, making rapid and significant impact.

But one area has remained stubbornly stuck: labor-intensive local journalism. 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. The issue is not words produced per writer (that’s probably never been higher) but hours of reporting spent per story.

This paper suggests that the time has come for a dramatic new approach, focused squarely on the supply of journalistic labor. I attempt to draw lessons from a world not usually thought relevant to journalism: the impressive movement of national and community service programs that has developed in the last three decades. We propose a program that could more efficiently deploy philanthropic resources into the most needed gaps in the media, while instilling a new sense of idealism into community-based coverage. It is time to Report for America. [1]

What Exactly Is the Problem?

It’s important to first be as precise as possible about where the markets are working, where they aren’t, and how philanthropic interventions fit in. To review, technology has improved many if not most parts of the media ecosystem:

Publishing is cheaper — We have a shifted from a system in which almost no one could publish to one in which almost everyone can publish. The revolutionary nature of this change cannot be overstated.

Sharing is easier — First email and then social media enabled the infinitely easier sharing of content one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many, with increasing power and precision.

Story telling techniques have become more robust — New technologies have made it far faster, easier, and less expensive, to tell stories using video, structured data, graphic visualizations and other tools.

Readers are engaged and contributing — Web 1.0 focused on ways of publishers distributing content to the many; web 2.0 gave us thousands of new ways for readers to create and share content. One of the biggest changes is one of the most basic: almost every person now carries a camera on them at all times, with unlimited amounts of “film,” and the ability to share quickly.

Journalists and editors can be more far more efficient — Everything from the invention of the search engine to more recent techniques to capture, analyze and display big data has empowered journalists to do more with less.

The downside, of course, relates to the business models of journalism and content creation, and their impact on the number of reporters and their deployment.

The internet has broken a fundamental principle that has undergirded the content-creation industry for more than 100 years: that to reach a desired potential customer, a business would need to advertise alongside content of interest to that person. Advertisers are no longer restricted by this premise; they no longer need content as a proxy for reach. They can go straight to targeting the consumer in a variety of other ways including social media, programmatic ad buying, search, and mobile targeting. As a result, while ad spending online has increased from $7.3 billion in 2003[2] to $48.8 billion in 2013 [3], a minority of that spending goes to digital content creators, and a miniscule fraction of that fraction goes to news or journalism. Two thirds of ad spending on mobile goes to Facebook and Google[4] and 57.5% of all display ads go to the top ten web companies, none of which are primarily content creators.[5] Moreover, technological innovations have tended to work toward intensifying this effect rather than ameliorating it. As a result of these changes — and the massive tidal wave of ad inventory — digital content creators have struggled to maintain advertising revenue.

Second, the digital revolution made it possible — and inevitable — that each piece of content would be subject to its own Return on Investment analysis. The rise of precision metrics revealed the brutal news: many of the most expensive and civically-worthy forms of journalism were not drawing audience. Media managers can now conjure a profit and loss statement not only for each division but for each article or TV segment.

In the olden days, journalism’s loss-leaders were subsidized by the profitable parts, but the breaking of the editorial bundle has made that difficult.

Consumers can cobble together their own ideal compilation of material, easily and cheaply. There is a bundle but it’s being created by each consumer on the fly based on what is appearing in their social media feeds, what sites they choose to visit, or what emails they get. A person no longer needs to go to the local newspaper to get sports scores because they can get them faster and better from ESPN. This also makes it much harder for media companies to charge for content, since there’s always (or often) someone else able to provide a slice of that for free somewhere else on the Internet.

Effects on Reporting and Reporters

“Newspaper reporter” was recently named the worst job in America — edging out corrections officer and lumberjacks, according to [6] Certainly corrections officers have more job security, and lumberjacks are more beloved.

Our primary concern is not with the happiness of reporters but rather the health of communities and democracy. The problem for democracy (ok, and the happiness of journalists) is this: Projects that take a lot of time or draw minimal traffic — even if they have high civic value — will likely to cost more than they bring in. So while reporters theoretically have the tools to be far more efficient and effective than ever before, few have the time to take advantage of that in the crucial realm of local accountability reporting. At most risk from this “market failure” is investigative reporting, which takes significantly longer and often does not generate page views anywhere near what it would need to make money. At the extreme end, a prize-winning story on acetaminophen cost Pro Publica $750,000. To have made enough money to be financially break-even at a commercial site, that article would have had to have generated by itself 100 million page views (assuming $2 cpm, 3 ads per page).[7]

Local beat reporting can also suffer when analyzed on a cost-per-page-view metric. A certain amount of beat reporting is spent cultivating sources, following leads (and dead-ends), doing numerous interviews, developing expertise and putting in time at meetings. These time investments don’t always produce immediate payout. They pay off eventually with richer content and greater likelihood of “extractive” reporting, i.e. pieces that offer information that the institution being covered didn’t want to disclose. But the new economics of news pushes media organizations to change the nature of beats. They can either spread reporters thinner by having them cover more beats or demand more frequent, smaller, quicker pieces per day.[8]

Freelancers, meanwhile, earn less money per piece. A survey of freelancers reported that “compared to the equivalent investigative project five years ago,” 44 percent reported getting paid less, with 22 percent earning half as much. Some 40 percent said they received under $1 a word for their “most lucrative investigative report.”[9] Obviously the only way to make a living is to master the art of the rapid-turnaround, low-effort piece. By contrast, someone who spent a week reporting a piece for $300 would over the course of 52 weeks earn $15,600, slightly below the poverty line for a family of two. No wonder some journalists are turning to PR or branded content as a way of making a living: “While writing gigs at magazines and newspapers continue to dry up, there are abundant opportunities to write or consult for blogs owned directly by brands.”[10]

“Content farms,” which once seemed like a way of providing extra income to amateur writers, end up mostly paying very little as well. The news and gossip site Gawker posted what they called the “worst writing job ever.”

The ad, originally posted on Craigslist in Portland, is seeking a freelancer to write “news articles, blogs, product descriptions, website content, magazine articles, and SEO work” for a rate of between .009 and .02 per word.

Yes, you read that right. That’s less than a penny a word. A fraction of a cent. The ad goes on to say that most of the company’s writers produce at least two 500 word articles an hour and thus are able to earn $10 per hour or better.[11]

These challenges are multiplied when it comes to local coverage because of the basic nature of geography. A city has a population of a certain size, and most content will be only of interest to a finite number. Organizations like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post have been able to hire reporters to do longer-lead-time reporting because of their massive scale (BuzzFeed is now bigger than the New York Times). They are able, through size, to outrun falling ad rates. Local publications have great difficulty generating sufficient traffic to do that.

Not surprisingly, the most vulnerable types of journalism are those that combine both of those drawbacks — labor-intensive local reporting. Eric Hippeau, the former CEO of Huffington Post and a venture capitalist who has funded numerous content companies, says he is optimistic about future business models for news, except in the case of local and investigative:

“Local is tough. Almost unscalable and therefore likely to remain small. Long-form investigative journalism is a loss-leader at HuffPost and Buzzfeed. Adds intellectual cache but no real revenues.”

In short, 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.

Philanthropic Solutions

The philanthropic and nonprofit community has responded to the disruption of traditional media in a number of ways. A recent study of philanthropic support counted $1.8 billion in media-related grants from 2009 to 2011. Among the best news organizations funded have been Pro Publica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting. These philanthropic investments have been widely and justifiably praised, and Pro Publica has even won two Pulitzer prizes. In these models, philanthropists fund entire organizations, which enables not only the hiring of editors but also the creation of a culture and infrastructure of excellence. At Pro Publica, a newsroom helps create some of the values and information exchange found in newspapers, plus they have legal resources to deal with sensitive issues. Other organizations have been attempting to follow a similar model but around specific beats. For instance, Chalkbeat provides a dedicated organization of education reporters and the Marshall Project has begun to do the same for coverage of criminal justice issues.[12]

These are very promising approaches to journalism, and society would benefit if there were organizations like these in every city.

But there are limitations.

The first is simply that there are too few of them. They do not come close to replacing what was lost during the newspaper collapse and cover a fraction of the need. To be blunt: not enough philanthropic money is going to support journalism right now. Of that $1.8 billion of philanthropy that went to “media” over three years, roughly $527 million went to “journalism news and information,” according to a study by the Knight Foundation. But only $27 million, or 1.5% of the total, went to investigative.[13] Indeed, as much philanthropic money went to “interactive games” as went to investigative reporting. A large chunk, $146 million, went to journalism education.[14] So far, the biggest contributors 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.[15] And there’s evidence that the enthusiasm for this cause may have plateaued. According to data from Media Impact Funders, the total amount of funding for “journalism, news and information” dropped from $186 million in 2009 to $167 million in 2012.

A major report by the Federal Communication Commission on the changing media landscape, of which I was the lead author, summarized the losses in the local media space and suggested roughly what it would take to get to an adequate level of community journalism. The report estimated that it would take between an additional $265 million and $1.6 billion to fill the current gaps in local reporting, depending on how one defined the need. [16]

There should be more philanthropic support for both investigative and basic civic journalism, and a greater emphasis should be on the most acute area of market failure — insufficient funding for labor-intensive reporting and the journalists who do it, especially at the local level.

Second, while some slow progress is being made by the nonprofit media entities in achieving sustainability, many still struggle. A 2015 report from the Knight Foundation reported that 23 percent of the revenue generated nonprofit news organizations was “earned income” — up from 18 percent in 2011 — meaning “Nonprofits remain very reliant on foundation funding, and few appear to be rapidly approaching a sustainable business model.”[17]

Third, philanthropists often feel conflicted as to whether to create new organizations or support old. Many are reluctant to support legacy media projects, not wanting to prop up dying or ineffective models. Yet those organization often do have strong journalistic cultures and substantial reach. New organizations, on the other hand, tend to be more agile and digitally-attuned but often lack sufficient audience or sustainable models of their own. Moreover, some philanthropic resources are no doubt being wasted as a result of duplicated effort among the scattered new organizations.

Fourth, 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. They figure that while funding direct journalism is valuable it is also ephemeral and not a “game changer.” 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 (a.k.a. local, labor intensive reporting).

Fifth, philanthropists struggle for appropriate ways to measure the return on money they invest in news. They are wary of looking at the metrics used by commercial media — for instance, traffic growth or revenue — as that might just mimic some of the pathologies of traffic-hungry for-profit media. But it’s hard to measure — or assess — more subjective types of impact, i.e. making the electorate more informed or engaged.

So, new financing models would be most welcome.[18]

Are there other ways philanthropy could subsidize journalists in an efficient and effective manner — especially ways that would help improve the state of local journalism around the country? Are there ways of doing this where there are no stand-alone robust local journalism nonprofits, where the local nonprofits that do exist are frail or where the practitioners of local news are small for-profit mom-and-pop shops?

The ideas that follow are, of course, meant to supplement, not replace the efforts to create outstanding new nonprofit news organizations.

Learning from National and Community Service Programs

On an inspirational level, national and community service program attempt to instill an ethic of service and give young people a chance to help change the world. On a practical level, these programs have over the years attempted to solve the following problem: how do you get resources, in the form of people, into important but often unprofitable endeavors on a very grass-roots level, without creating significant bureaucracy or overhead? In so doing, they have devised programs that, in effect, provide wage subsidies in areas where there are market failures.

The modern community service movement can be traced to the passage of the 1990 National and Community Service Act, which established a federal commission to give grants to local community service programs. Bill Clinton then ran in 1992 on a proposal to have young people earn money for college by doing community service. In 1994, Congress translated Clinton’s proposal into law, the National and Community Service Act, which gave birth to AmeriCorps.[19]

Rather than setting up a single national service program in the model of the Peace Corps, it created a structure to expand existing community service programs and spawn new ones, under the AmeriCorps umbrella. Many of the most prominent community service programs, such as Teach for America and City Year, started before this act — but grew rapidly as a result of its support.

These programs have accomplished a tremendous amount. Some 800,000 AmeriCorps members have served about 1 billion hours since 1994 at 15,000 different local locations via hundreds if not thousands of different nonprofit entities, including established organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Red Cross, in addition to newly created service programs. According to the government agency that runs AmeriCorps, the programs have “tutored, mentored or served” 5.2 million disadvantaged kids and, just as important, by serving as volunteer coordinators, has managed or mobilized another 4 million volunteers.[20]

Several media scholars and activists have suggested a variations on the idea of a journalism corps, in part to tap into the spirit of idealism that animates these community service programs.[21] That is an important ingredient (to which I will return later) but the most important lessons from the national and community service programs may actually be about structure. These community service programs often achieve the following:

Support people rather than programs. In the case of AmeriCorps, the vast majority of federal funds go to the stipend and educational award for the corps member. Of course these efforts often come with some administrative funds to support programs and even when they don’t, the providing of salaries or stipends or educational scholarships ends up defraying costs for the organization. But the money is still sharply focused on subsidizing the labor itself, which lowers the per-person cost.

Enable a philanthropist (or government) to have a national impact but through local implementation. Many philanthropists and foundations want to have massive national impact, while recognizing that the problems they seek to solve are in the nooks and crannies of communities. National and community service programs solve this problem by providing ways for philanthropists — individuals, corporations or foundations — to support causes of national import with locally grown solutions. They might, for instance, support mentoring efforts and embrace the idea that this has to be done in small-scale, local and customized way but do not begin to have the capacity to research thousands of community tutoring programs — so they support Big Brothers, a program that can deploy mentors locally.

Provide mechanisms to aid small organizations. AmeriCorps often places its members into existing community service programs (e.g. Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers etc.). The VISTA program has gotten particularly agile about placing single volunteers into government agencies and nonprofits.

Encourage sustainability. These programs strive 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. AmeriCorps programs are required to put in some money themselves, a percentage that starts at 15% and grows eventually up to 50% over time. There is surprisingly little research, alas, on whether this has actually led to sustainability — i.e. the positions being continued once the funding goes away. But it is clear that the matching requirements have at least led to diversified revenue streams. John Gomperts — who ran the AmeriCorps program and now is the president of America’s Promise, the service organization founded by Colin Powell — reported that the presence of a national piece of funding was “crucial” in forcing and enabling local AmeriCorps programs to raise local matching funds. In other cases, the presence of the service members provides local proof that the person or slot is beneficial to the community. Most school districts that get Teach for America teachers very much want to keep them year after year.

Encourage camaraderie and learning among the service members without creating large bureaucracies. To varying degrees, these programs attempt to have members serve locally but connect with other members either regionally or nationally, as a way of sharing best practices and improving morale. This makes it possible for positive cultural norms to develop without having to have a huge organization to do it.

Although there are some common themes among service programs, there also are many differences, and understanding those is important to creating a model relevant to journalism.

For instance, while people tend to think of service programs as being for young people, there are actually a variety of approaches to age and skill level of volunteers. Some programs, such as YouthBuild, are explicitly geared toward enlisting and deploying people without skills and then teaching them. Teach for America looks for smart, curious people but it is not necessary that the candidate have significant teaching experience. (There has been some criticism of Teach for America and other youth service programs that they rely too much on on-the-job training.[22]) On the other hand, the Peace Corps has long had a meaningful percentage of volunteers with existing skills,[23] the average age of a volunteer is 28.7 and 8 percent of the volunteers are over the age of 50. An example: they do not view the agricultural assignments as a means to train people new to the field but rather say: “Applicants with a degree must have three months full time experience with large-scale commercial or family-run business involving vegetable gardening, farming, nursery work, tree planting or care, urban forestry, livestock (dairy or beef cattle, pigs, sheep, or chickens) care or management, or fish (freshwater or marine) cultivation or production.”[24] They recently launched a program for already accredited doctors and nurses to serve in developing countries.[25] The Encore Fellowship program, run by Civic Ventures, places mid-career professionals into relevant programs where they can specifically use skills they have already developed.[26] Code for America deploys experienced “rock star” computer programmers to work in local governments to develop tools that better engage citizens in governance. Fellows receive a $50,000 stipend but must start with impressive computer programming skills. [27]

Indeed, it’s clear that in at least one fundamental way the needs and mission of community service programs differ from the needs of the journalism world. We do not have a shortage of young people interested in journalism, nor do we even have a shortage of people with academic training in journalism. In 2008, 4,480 students earned a masters degree in journalism and 50,850 earned bachelors degrees while majoring in journalism and/or mass communications.[28] The issue is that business models don’t produce enough money for civic journalism, which requires feet on the ground. Nor do these models support mid-career journalists who already have many years of experience but are more expensive and in some cases lack sufficient digital skills. At the same time, while there are many journalists — young and mid career — with basic journalistic skills, all journalists in the modern era struggle to keep up with the use of new technologies and resources.

I have dwelled so far on structural lessons to be gleaned from service programs. It’s also important to remember the most fundamental trait of these programs: they are dedicated to service. Because the objectives are fundamentally altruistic — and, for many, inspiring — it attracts both people and money that would not otherwise be interested. You have talented people willing to work for below-market wages because they want to help their communities. They believe that this kind of civically-important journalism concretely improves the lives of residents, strengthens communities and enhances democracy. You have philanthropists who like the double-benefit of helping solve particular social problems while also supporting a character-building experience that may have secondary benefits for years to come.

Journalism is, for most of us who get into it, a service profession. Yet a recent Pew Research Center survey reported that only 28 percent believe journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being compared to 73 percent for teachers, 66 percent for doctors and 65 percent for scientists.[29] Perhaps creating a service program for journalists would be good for the image of the profession, and for its soul.

A New Model: Report for America

Imagine a program geared around providing reporters for local communities — perhaps called Report for America or Cover America.

The mission of this program would be to improve the information and accountability systems for communities by providing more and better journalists.

In a nutshell: It would start with a small national organization — nonprofit and non-governmental — to recruit and train the journalists. Those selected would become Report for America corps members. Existing local news or civic-research operations would apply to lure these journalists to their communities. They would bring with them a wage-subsidy that would cover the majority of their compensation. The program could have a particular issue focus (education, health care, development, municipal government, environment etc.), emphasize particular skills (database, multimedia, jack-of-all-trades etc.) or target certain communities (underserved areas).

Let’s now explore the particulars.


The national Report for America organization would establish an application process for would-be corps members, drawing upon advice from a blue-chip group of journalists and topical domain experts. Would-be corps members would apply to the national organization, which would select the finalists with the help of a jury of professional journalists and journalism educators.

As with the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, the Fellowships could be for two years. This would not be only for young people with no journalism experience. Rather it would also be for early- or mid-career reporters who want to be able to devote more reporting time to civically-important beats. Ex-reporters or retirees might also apply.

The subsidy might be set up in two tiers. For less experienced reporters, Report for America might provide $20,000 of the stipend, with the remainder coming from the local host institution. But our national organization might contribute $40,000 towards the salary of someone filling a more senior slot, with an equal match coming from the local host. The goal would be to make this an extremely selective, and ultimately, prestigious crew. No journalism organization will want to take journalists from another organization without some confidence that the reporters are of high quality. It may make sense to have the overall salary come in slightly below the staff norm, so that there is a sense of sacrifice on the part of the corps member. (Part of the reason the Peace Corps developed such a positive reputation was impression that they were making real sacrifices, a notion reinforced by their slogan, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”) This may help ameliorate potential jealousy from other staffers who might have wanted the luxury of being able to spend time on more civically-valuable extractive reporting projects.

(Open questions: Can a local news organization apply to have one of their existing staff positions converted into a corps member? Should preference be given to applicants who want to return to their own communities? Might there be an advantage to focusing on one cohort or another, either early or mid-career, since the life stages are different and therefore the marketing for recruitment would be different?)

Pre-placement Training

The selected cohort would gather for rigorous special training in the field. If, for instance, the focus of the program was covering health care they might take advanced training in health care economics, science, legal history or other relevant topics. The program would likely want to tap into high-quality programs that already exist at some of the nation’s finest journalism schools, or at independent journalism training organizations. Corps members would also learn concrete techniques for using databases, as well as basic multi-media skills so they can tell stories in a variety of formats. Finally, they would have some training in journalistic ethics in the digital era. Josh Stearns, who is both a media activists and former AmeriCorps member, has noted that Teach for America “is both a recruitment and placement organization, but also an education think tank and R&D lab.” [30] The goal: when these folks arrive in the local newsroom, they will be viewed as contributors applicants.

Selecting host organizations

Local journalism entities would apply to receive Report for America journalists, just as Habitat for Humanity or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps currently apply for AmeriCorps members. A wide variety of different types of organizations — nonprofit and sometimes commercial media — could be eligible. This might include small geographically centered nonprofits, issue-oriented nonprofits with local branches, TV stations, public radio, research-nonprofits, cable PEG-access organizations, news cooperatives[31], journalism schools with active “teaching hospital” models, commercial newspapers and independent digital publishers.

By being organization agnostic, this program can help support journalism while sidestepping the debate over the types of institutions that are likely to survive.

The organization would make the case for why they need the corps member, how they would use that person and their plans for developing the matching funds or a sustainability plan over time. Hosts would have to argue the merits of their organization, their need and their plan for deploying the corps members. The criteria could be designed to favor certain types of journalism including: labor-intensive assignments that might take weeks to produce a journalistic payoff and topics that have high civic value but low advertiser interest and minimal reader appeal. Other factors to consider: ability for organization to raise a match, content distribution strategies or focus on civically-valuable projects. The application process might reward organizations that connect the younger reporters with veterans or retirees as mentors. We certainly would want to include provision for people who are not journalists in the traditional sense but can have high impact on the information health of a community — for instance, a computer programmer who can help with database-driven reporting. There might also need to be special guidelines for the placement of corps members in for-profit entities to insure that the slot funded would not have been supported but for the subsidy. (Other questions: Could freelancers be funded? What happens if the quality or health of the organization degrades during the two years? )

It’s possible that individual sites could team up in a consortium or cooperative to field corps members, sharing resources and achieving some economies of scale.

Organizations that misuse the asset by, say, having their corps members create cat listicles — would either lose the grant or become ineligible for future grants.

Such an approach would help insert a “market test” element that would help smart hosts succeed. The institutions that make most effective use of the corps members would get more of them. Perhaps we gauge the attractiveness of host organizations by giving would-be Fellows a choice in where they serve. Under this voucher-like scenario, a certain number of programs would be certified as valid options and then the fellows would pick. Programs would, in effect, need to prove themselves to not only the funder but also to the journalist, who (being a journalist) would do their own due diligence on each organization. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, reports that over time they have given the participants much more say in where they are placed as a way of increasing participant satisfaction. This would also provide funders — whether foundations or individuals — an additional piece of data about performance, i.e. the testimony of the outgoing corps members themselves.

Once in the host organization, the corps member would be managed completely by the local editor. They would work on stories that would typically take time to develop. If it were a health care focus the reporter do a deep dive investigative piece on the dysfunctional public hospital; mine government and insurance databases to spot which hospitals have the best health outcomes or develop a beat with weekly pieces identifying, in a sophisticated way, which nursing homes deliver the best services. The key: it would be extractive reporting that can only be successfully done with a little bit of time. While they wouldn’t be in a remote Third World village without running water, they would suffer the “hardships” of real accountability reporting which often involves long nights, great tedium and frustration en route to creating civically-important discoveries. The corps member would be fully integrated into the organization, getting regular performance reviews according to the local practice. (Open question: could the corps member be fired? If so, does the position get filled by someone else of the national organization’s choosing? What happens if he or she quits?)

There would also be a support structure connecting these Report for America reporters with each other, and providing occasional networking and instruction. This has proven to be a popular and helpful part of programs like Teach for America. The corps member benefit, but so do the organizations as it becomes a way for best practices to circulate among different local news organizations around the country. Alan Khazei, the co-founder of City Year, the founder of BeTheChange and leader of the national service movement nonetheless suggests that placements be made in pairs (if not larger groups) to prevent the corps members from feeling isolated.

The national organization could play a role in helping to get the stories out via social media and other channels. If the program has a topical focus, the national organization can create a digital magazine based on the journalism created by the fellows. Host organizations could see this as an added benefit — more traffic and exposure — as long as the links were back to the host organization, not the Report for America website.


The program could be broad or have a particular focus, such as:

By topic. Examples of topics would use more person-power on the local level might include education, environment, criminal justice, or development. Although the initial focus is local, it’s easy to see how this could also become a model to subsidize important international coverage.

Accountability reporting in general. The organization would cover a wider range of topics but with the common focus being probing reporting that holds institutions — public and private — accountable. This would include beat reporting focused on city hall, housing authorities, the criminal justice system, planning boards — whatever seems most needing deep attention. By having a philanthropic subsidy, it would enable the local media organizations to remove the pressure for multiple stories per day and allow reporters to spend more time on projects or beat cultivation. Skills training would focus on the art and science of both old-fashioned source development and use of new tools — especially database work — to create accountability-oriented stories.

Statehouse. Perhaps the most under covered area in the current journalism landscape is the statehouse. From 2003 to 2008, the number of statehouse reporters had declined by one third while state spending had risen about 20 percent.

Under-served communities. The economics of labor-intensive journalism are worst in lower income areas. Advertising-based businesses are tough to make work in all communities but particularly in areas with poorer residents and fewer high-revenue businesses. As a result, we see (anecdotally) the same unintentional redlining in digital media that has existed in other sectors. In such a case, it might make sense to have more than one placement per organization, as the corps members could form the heart of the reportorial team and key ingredient to making the local business model work. In this case, the efforts to network together corps members from across the country might focus on the special challenges of providing coverage in under-served areas.

Service programs have long struggled with whether to give their programs a specific focus or allow it to adapt their focus to local needs. In theory, allowing maximum flexibility would allow reporting solutions to address particular gaps in coverage. In one community the problem might be coverage of city hall, while in another it might be prison, and still another might need basic coverage in low income areas. On the other hand, this flexibility often deprives programs of focus and the development of specific expertise. City Year, for instance, started out with a broad portfolio and has evolved into focusing on education.

Funding and sustainability

To be clear, this idea is not meant to replace stand-alone nonprofit or for-profit journalism organizations. Indeed, the nation would be far better off if every major city or every state had a ProPublica-like nonprofit news organization. If AmeriCorps is any sign, the best of the new nonprofit media organizations would be among the greatest beneficiaries of Report for America.

This approach could draw in additional sources of philanthropic and community support.

First, it would make local journalism seem more idealistic, noble and worthy of philanthropic support. Part of the problem facing nonprofit media currently is that there’s a relatively small universe of donors who want to support journalism out of an abstract conviction that “democracy” requires an informed citizenry. Far more people view the press as part of the problem not the solution. Report for America could help re-cast journalism as a service profession — as a cause — drawing consideration from a new cohort of potential donors, large and small. Beyond that, a journalistic organization self-consciously self-defining as a service organization may attract big donors who want national impact, while recognizing that the deployment of reportorial resources should happen at the local level. It can appeal to big ambitions while targeting small markets. It may also intrigue those donors who are deeply skeptical about subsidy plans that involve enabling what they view as the failed infrastructure of legacy media.

Strengthening the sense that journalism is a public service is likely also a pre-requisite for engaging more small donors to support media in their community. A reporter could be sustained for a match in the $10,000-$40,000 range, something within the realm of most communities, and even crowd-funding. And that could become quite important. New tech platforms could help with this task: an organization of community service programs is about to launch a new technology platform — the Service Year Exchange — to help match would-be service volunteers with programs, and to help crowd-fund the positions.[32] Funding a Report for America match could be an ideal role for one of the 750 community foundations, which often want to improve the local media ecosystems but do not have the resources or desire to back whole new journalism programs.[33] Let’s not kid ourselves: to draw community support, journalism has to seem as if it’s deeply helping the community. If it is — and especially if there is the aura of service and sacrifice connected to it — it can build an adequate local donor base.

A community could fund the match on a more permanent basis via an endowment. This would insulate the job from the pressures of newsroom economics — forever. One could even have named chairs, a way of drawing in philanthropy that would like recognition for their contribution, i.e. the “Montgomery Burns Reporter in Local Government.” Or the family of a beloved journalist who has died could raise money for a permanent slot in his or her name. This would also help make these slots prestigious. A community foundation might fund a mini-endowment either for the match or the full slot., or, better yet, a group of slots. The national Report for American organization could facilitate and manage the endowments. A hybrid model might create such endowed slots at universities but only on the condition that the professor spends half his or her time reporting. These “Reporting Professorships” would be especially valuable for seasoned reporters who have much to offer both newsrooms and young journalists. It is even possible that existing endowed journalism professorships could be restructured over time to shift some of the labor-focus toward the newsroom in addition to the classroom, a twist on the “teaching hospital” model appropriately gaining steam at many journalism schools.

One might create a new funding stream by pairing this idea with a super-sizing of journalism prizes. Though we routinely mock awards and the lengths to which some editors will go to get them, the reality is that journalism awards are one of the few ways of actually providing positive reinforcement for civically minded reporting that might not necessarily generate significant short-term revenue. And for all the (sometimes justifiable) complaints about biases in the award process, at least an accepted methodology of peer review has developed over the years to identify and commend high quality journalism. So one might experiment with trying to convert some of the non-market value — the prestige — into market value, using awards to change the economics of newsroom decision-making. For instance, the highest award, the Pulitzer, is prestigious but only provides $10,000 to the reporter. Imagine if it instead paid $100,000 with the bulk going to create a Report for America slot in that community.

Another reason a donor might be more inclined to support journalism through this approach is better political insulation. A foundation or corporate philanthropy department might have difficulty in directly subsidizing a local reporter who then produces some controversial journalism. (“How could you have underwritten that hatchet job?”). Instead, the philanthropist would support the broad Report for America enterprise, without necessarily having their fingerprints on which reporting assignments are generated. This is akin to the dynamic we see with AmeriCorps where problems that arise on a local level cannot easily produce funding cuts on a national level.

Structured properly, many of these jobs could result in permanent journalistic commitments to the community. A local publication or website could use the output of that reporter to show potential funders or to show the community as a whole the value of such work. If they raise enough money for the match, on an ongoing basis, and use the corps members well, the journalistic resource could continue.

One might consider departing from the normal service model in another way: allowing the slot to continue on year after year — if there is community support — allowing a reporter to renew for multiple terms. Longer-term commitments may make sense in this case since journalism’s problem is often not primarily a shortage of “new blood” but a difficulty in sustaining ongoing coverage over a long period of time, and a development of local expertise.

In cases when funding for a particular slot does not continue, the hope would be that some of the benefits would endure. Most service programs report that volunteers develop an ethic of service they carry with them long after their experience is over. In this case, the hope would be that strong values of journalism — accuracy, fairness, empathy, a commitment to truth, and a basic understanding of the values of journalism — would be carry with them throughout their lives. As a result, establishing an alumni network — akin to that created by Teach for America and AmeriCorps — would be worthwhile.

Government funding?

Should Report for America receive government funding? This question has been debated in the past, as has the notion of a journalism-service program modeled in some way after AmeriCorps. In May, 2009, the media advocacy organization Free Press proposed a government-financed “journalism jobs program.” It was based on a proposal by New York University professor Erik Klinenberg, who wrote, “The federal stimulus and bailout programs are pumping billions of dollars into state and local governments (as well as the private sector) at the very moment local news organizations are eliminating their local political beat reporters. By all counts, statehouse and City Hall reporters are disappearing quickly, and thus far no one has emerged to replace them.”[34] Media activists Robert McChesney and John Nichols, in their book the Death and Life of American Journalism, proposed that AmeriCorps itself start a journalism program.[35]

There is much sound thinking in these previous efforts in this terrain, and I make no claim to have invented the concept of a service program for journalists. I share the view of these authors that certain types of journalism — most especially, local accountability reporting that is deeply resourced, often labor-intensive and civically-valuable — are a public good and should, at least occasionally, be treated as such.

I do not, however, believe that Report for America should be funded by the government. First, having AmeriCorps members do journalism would be very bad for AmeriCorps. The shepherds of AmeriCorps have created a bipartisan support by focusing on addressing commonly-accepted societal problems. The enabling legislation explicitly prohibits AmeriCorps members from engaging in political advocacy. This was in part a reaction to the experience with VISTA in the 1960s and 1970s, when volunteers organized protests against elected officials, who in turn pushed to cut the program’s funding. Report for America should foster controversy. It should tweak the powerful, whether in government, the private sector or the nonprofit sector. Creating a trouble-seeking corps would endanger the rest of AmeriCorps program, or any government-funded endeavor, no matter how well-intended.

There is also the broader controversial question of whether any accountability journalism should be supported by the government. On the one hand, some journalism — specifically through public radio and TV — already receives government help. In England, fine journalism is underwritten by the state on the BBC. But most of the money the federal government provides to public TV and radio in the United States is for relatively non-controversial cultural and educational programming. I would be concerned that government funding could cause a journalism-oriented service program to shy away from its most aggressive, challenging projects. I’m not doctrinaire on this point: there may well be ways for the government to help down the road after the model is proven and firewall structures created. For instance, perhaps student-loan forgiveness could be provided those in such a public service program. But on balance, having Report for America financed by the government would manage to harm both AmeriCorps or and for Report for America.

Nonprofit news organizations have taken a variety of positions on whether their output should be open source or operate via a creative commons type license. Some philanthropists have taken the position that journalism created through these means should be available for publication by anyone. While this is understandable for “public interest” money, one might consider a different approach in this case. Allowing a local publication to use the “rights” strategies that work best for them — in some cases exclusive and in some cases not — might make it more likely that the local organizations will put up the match, and work to keep it sustainable.

The name

What should this effort be called? Report for America has been suggested by Bill Densmore and others, an homage to Teach for America and the other service programs that have borrowed the rubric (e.g. Code for America and Venture for America.) The linguistic construction now evokes “service.” I also like the whiff of “Report-For-Duty” patriotism. However, it is a bit, well, derivative. Other possibilities: Cover America, the Deep Reporting Corps, The Dig Corps, Zenger Fellows. The name “corps members” might imply a more inexperienced group. “Fellows” is increasingly popular in the service sector, but may have too academic a feel for a newsroom.

The question of branding has vexed the community service world. AmeriCorps is a national brand but may have had less of an impact on the public mind because in any given community they blend seamlessly into the host program. A Teach for America teacher in the local district is mostly known as an employee of that school district. A City Year volunteer who is supported by AmeriCorps is mostly known as a City Year volunteer. This may have harmed the ability of AmeriCorps to generate a national reputation but it has been successful at getting organizational buy-in. In the case of this program, it’s probably worthwhile to make the same tradeoff sacrificing national brand recognition to get better buy-in from local organizations. Ideally, over time the Fellows would come to have such a strong reputation as top-of-the-line journalists that getting one would become a matter of prestige. But that will take some time. Alan Khazei suggests that there is such a sense of concern about the health of local journalism that it would not be hard to recruit a stellar group to serve as an advisory board — or even a core of mentors or trainers to corps members. This would help improve both the quality and prestige of the program.


The cost of the program would, of course, depend on its size. This approach scales fairly well, which is to say you can support with a stable or even declining portion of expenses going to overhead. The bulk of the cost goes to the wage subsidy. Figuring standard overhead rates, you could support 100 new reporting slots (90 junior slots, 10 senior slots) for about $2.8 million a year, plus local match (assuming the national share as $20,000 and $40,000 respectively). As it gets bigger, it gets a bit more efficient. One could try a small test version for under $1 million a year plus the local match, supporting 20 reporters. Other factors affecting costs would be: does the match remain a fixed percentage, or rise over time (as with AmeriCorps)? Could a community create an endowment not only for the match but the full slot? In a paper in 2009, leading media analyst Ken Doctor suggested that a larger version could field 1,000 reporters with $35 million.[36]

I do not claim that this is the cheapest possible way for philanthropists — whether small or large — to impact digital journalism. But while the philanthropic resources dedicated to innovation and technology in journalism have been hugely beneficial, they fail to address a central problem: there are not enough reporters spending enough time on local, heavily-research journalism. The body count matters. It’s time we face that squarely and recognize that it will cost some serious money. But if it’s done at least in part through an idealism-infused service organization, it has the potential to draw in community support on a large scale and deploy resources quite efficiently.


As a substantive matter, having service-to-community as an implicit work requirement this will often lead journalists to make better editorial decisions. In the absence of such guideposts, we tend to assume that page views and value to the community are always the same. The nonprofit economy has arise out of the premise that raw market factors need to be balanced by other values. Same for journalism. Manifest consumer demand is a crucial factor, probably the most important, but it is not the only one.

This is not to say journalists should become civic boosters; often the best way to serve a community is to turn over the rocks and look in the shadows. In that sense, this form of community service may have a different reaction than, say, tutoring in an elementary school: it might make the “server” unpopular instead of beloved. But more often, injecting a bit more community service spirit into the newsroom will benefit both the reporter, the organizations and the community.


We have seen much philanthropic innovation in response to the collapse of traditional journalism models. We have seen great experimentation in terms of the creation of technology platforms, the improvement of journalism education and the birth of new nonprofit journalism institutions. This paper in no way argues against those approaches. Rather, I believe that the area that is most underfunded — in terms of the amount of philanthropy deployed relative to the need — is in directly supporting journalists working on certain types of labor-intensive areas that have high civic value and low or unpredictable short-term financial value. Often this means topics like: prisons, planning boards, state legislatures, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other crucial local beats. I have attempted to draw lessons from a realm not normally thought of as related — the world of national and community service programs — to conjure some new potential models for supporting reporters and reporting in ways that are efficient, effective, non-bureaucratic, sustainable and adaptable. Beyond that, a service program for journalists would help create, highlight and accentuate what we know to be true from better times: community journalism is a service to the community.

At the end of the day, a program like this enables reporters to do what many joined the profession to do in the first place. Do some good, using the particular set of skills we happen to have. A journalist friend of mine once cautioned me that “journalism is not one of the healing professions.” That’s true, but it should be one of the “helping professions.” Report for America won’t eliminate the various maladies of modern journalism; but it would give a way to strengthen the most worthy elements, instead of the most cynical.



Special thanks to the Ford Foundation and its former Freedom of Expression Director Jonathan Barzilay for funding the writing of this paper.

This was based in part on interviews or email exchanges with: John Gomperts, Shirley Sagawa, Alan Khazei, Paul Steiger, Ernest Wilson, Nick Lemann, Wendy Kopp, Steve Coll, Eric Hippeau, Laura Walker, Elizabeth Green, Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, Angela Covert, Josh Stearns, Michelle Ferrier, and Bill Densmore.

Thanks, too, to Debbie Galant at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University for her excellent editing, and to Merrill Brown for releasing the paper at the ENGAGE Local Conference sponsored by the school’s Center for Cooperative Media.

About Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman has been a journalist, entrepreneur, government bureaucrat, digital content pioneer, and advocate for robust accountability journalism.

Waldman spent the first part of his career as a magazine journalist, including for Newsweek, US News and World Report and The Washington Monthly. In 1998, he co-founded, a multifaith religion site, which became one of the most respected content-and-community sites of its era. It won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence Online and the Online News Association’s General Excellence award.

From 2009–2011, he was Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He was the lead author of the report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age,” which NPR’s “On the Media” program called “one of the most comprehensive overviews of the US media ever produced.” After leaving the FCC, he became chair of the Council on Foundations’ Nonprofit Media Working Group, a task force of foundation and nonprofit leaders that recommended IRS changes to encourage the creation of nonprofit news organizations.

Waldman’s other stint in government focused on national and community service. In 1996, he served as Senior Advisor to Harris Wofford, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps. There he worked with Wofford to craft a bi-partisan deal to prevent the program from being eliminated. Waldman had written a well-received book about the law creating the program, The Bill: How the Adventures of Clinton’s National Service Bill Reveal What Is Corrupt, Comic, Cynical — and Noble — About Washington (Viking/Penguin, 1994).

He is now CEO and Founder of a new startup, which will provide a platform for online commemorations around major life milestones.


[1] This name was earlier used by respected media scholar and activist, Bill Densmore ( Indeed, several other media scholars and activists have proposed a national service corps for reporters. Although my proposal has some major differences from these earlier ideas — and some development of the specifics — there are also quite a few similarities and I make no claims to having invented the idea of a service program for journalists. Indeed, I’m grateful for the thinking and advocacy put into this already by the likes of Josh Stearns, Bill Densmore, Ken Doctor and others.

[2] Interactive Advertising Bureau Revenue Report April, 2004.

[3] Internet Advertising Bureau, IAB internet advertising revenue report, 2013 full year results, April 2014.

[4]Google, Facebook Solidify Hold of US Mobile Ad Market, eMarketer, August, 2013.

[5] Facebook and Twitter Will Take 33% Share of US Digital Display Market by 2017,

[6] “The Worst Jobs of 2015,”

[7] “Use Only as Directed,” by Jeff Gerth and T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, Sept 20, 2013: Email exchange with Richard Tofel, President of ProPublica.

[8] Information Needs of Communities: The changing media landscape in the broadband age, by Steven Waldman the Working Group on Information Needs of Communities:, page 43

[9] “Untold Stories: A Survey of Freelance Investigative Reporting, Project Word, 2015:

I have found no systematic study of wage rates or age levels for full time slots but one blogger assembled the following list of freelance rates:

· Daily Beast $250 flat fee (commentary) $300 and up (reported) “writers they like” are said to get $1/wd and up

· $30 flat fee for a 200-word email newsletter

· $150 flat fee for articles around 500 words

· Orbitz under $.50/word

· AOL Travel $250-$400 flat fee (750 words)

· (“In Transit” blog) $50 per post

· $50 per post

· Slate $0.50/wd

· Smithsonian $0.50–0.60/word

· Tablet $0.50/wd

· WebMD $700 flat fee (800–1000 words)

· $75 flat fee (100 word post with picture)

· $500 flat fee for a post of 250–1200 words

· $.75/word

· Preservation $250 flat fee; length ranges 350–1000 words

· Miller-McCune $1/wd.

· (now fashionablebride) $1/wd.

· Technology Review $1/wd

· OnEarth $1/wd

· MSN $1/wd

· Momentum (Unit of Minn. eco journal) $1/wd

· Travel & Leisure $1000 flat fee for a slideshow

· (Harvard Business Review) $1.20 — $2/word

· $1.50/wd

· $1.70/wd

[10] “Journalists Take Refuge in the World of Branded Content,” by Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke, Feb 4, 2013:

[11] “Worst Writing Job Ever Offering ‘Between .009 and .02 Per Word,” Gawker, by Cord Jefferson, October, 8, 2012:


[13] “Growth in Foundation Support for Media in the United States, the Knight Foundation, November, 2013:

[14] “Report on foundation funding for media ignites crucial discussion,” KnightBlog, by Steven Waldman:

[15] “Report on foundation funding for media ignites crucial discussion,” KnightBlog, by Steven Waldman:

[16] “Information Needs of Communities,” Waldman/FCC: , chapter 25, “How Big Is the Local Reporting Gap and Who Will Fill It?,” page 262–263.

[17] “Gaining Ground: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” Knight Foundation, 2015:

[18] In addition to the model proposed here, many other ideas are being explored fo015r new financing models. For instance, the Reynolds Journalism Institute published a paper on Information Trust Exchange would be a “non-stock, public-benefit collaboration of news, academic, entertainment, financial and technology companies.”

[19] The Bill: How the Adventures of Clinton’s National Service Bill Reveal What Is Corrupt, Comic, Cynical and Noble about Washington, by Steven Waldman (Viking, 1995).

[20] “AmeriCorps Fact Sheet,” Corporation for National and Community Service:

[21] “Report for America: The national service corps for news,” by Bill Densmore, for Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute of the Missouri School of Jounalism:; “It’s time for a News Corps,” by Ken Doctor, Newsonomics, May 26, 2009:; America Media Corps, Reese News Lab, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill:; professor Michelle Ferrier advocated for a “Media Corp” for “deploying journalism resources to underserved communities” during at Journalism That Matters conference; Len Downie and Michael Schudson suggested a national fund for journalism, administered through the states. “Reconstruction of American Journalism””

[22] Angela Covert, who helped support Teach for America as the education program officer for Atlantic Philanthropies, observed, “I don’t think you can take someone in 6 weeks and train them. Read some of the stuff corps members have written. They felt totally overwhelmed. Didn’t feel like they were prepared.”

[23] “What Peace Corps is Looking for in a Volunteer Applicant,” website of the Peace Corps: There are some unique programs in the Peace Corps for which specialists are keenly desired. Examples include agroforesters in Mauritania and Paraguay, engineers and urban planners in Mexico, deaf education teachers in Kenya, and university-level teachers in Eastern Europe and China.”

[24] “Agriculture Assignments,” website of the Peace Corps:

[25] “First Class of Peace Corps Global Health Service Partnership Volunteers Sworn In at the White House,” July 18, 2013:

[26] Website of

[27] Website of Code for America:

[28] Lee B. Becker, Tudor Vlad, Paris Desnoes & Devora Olin, Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communications Graduates(James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass communication Training and research, Grady college of Journalism & Mass communication, University of Georgia) (2009): ate_2009/Grad2009MergedB&W.pdf.

[29] “Public Esteem for Military Still High,” July 11, 2013, Pew Research Center:

[30] Unpublished paper by Josh Stearns

[31] Website of the Banyan Project:

[32] Website of Service Year:

[33] Community foundations description on the website of the Council on Foundations:

[34] Wiki page of the Media Giraffe project:

[35] “Why We Need to Subsidize Journalism. An Exclusive Interview with Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols,” by Matthew Rothschild, January 24, 2010:

[36] Ken Doctor, Newsonomics:



Steven Waldman

President and Co-Founder of Report for America. Previously co-founded Beliefnet, LifePosts; worked at Newsweek, FCC, AmeriCorps.