The number of reporting positions lost in the past few decades puts local journalism on par with the collapse of the coal industry.
“This is a shocking thing for people in the field, but there was a Pew survey last year that said three-quarters of people thought everything was fine for local news and it had plenty of money,” says Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America. “There’s no sense of what a crisis situation it is and it’s such an important part of how democracy works.”
Report for America is trying to help fix that. There are 225 reporters in the field, their salaries split between their local newsrooms and Report for America, to try and enhance and shore up coverage in local media and mitigate news deserts. The organization’s goal is to have 1,000 reporters placed in newsrooms across the country by 2024.
Newsrooms have until Sept. 30 to apply for a corps reporter, identifying how the journalist would help bolster their coverage and explaining where there’s a lack or weakness in a coverage area or region in general.
There are currently 20 to 30 Report for America journalists covering health care, helping provide information on the COVID-19 outbreak that might otherwise get lost in an ever-growing sea of national news.
The lack of local news coverage might be more apparent during the outbreak, Waldman says, because COVID-19 is ultimately a local news story, as much as it is an international one.
“With COVID, it’s so important to get local information,” he says. People need to know the outbreak rate in their communities, where to find testing locations and the availability of services.
There’s plenty of national coverage on COVID-19 as a whole, but a shortage of local reporters and news outlets makes it harder for people to get good, reliable, non-partisan information about what’s happening where they live.
The situation as it pertains to local news media is so dire, after some initial hesitation and the acknowledgment of an “existential crisis,” Report for America and a coalition of other media organizations is now supporting the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Washington), would provide tax credits to businesses and individuals for making charitable contributions or buying subscriptions to a local news organization.
“It also would provide a tax credit to local businesses to buy advertising on local news media,” Waldman says. “We felt that was a really interesting approach. It gets money in the hands of local news, but it’s up to the residents and businesses to decide where to put the money.”
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell is joined this week by Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, detailing how the organization is helping local news outlets address their coverage gaps and the group’s support for new legislation that could encourage newspaper subscriptions.