Local news is tanking. Report for America aims to help save it
FALMOUTH — The biggest news story in Woods Hole is climate change: sand dunes breaching, beaches eroding, thickets of algae breeding. Experts at six science centers here analyze the effects of warming; residents live them.
Yet the National Public Radio affiliate, which was founded almost 20 years ago, does not have a reporter focused exclusively on the environment. That’s about to change.
The station is about to get a full-time reporter to concentrate solely on the human impacts of climate change through the Report for America program. Taking inspiration from Teach for America, the organization deploys early-career reporters to local newsrooms across the country to fill gaps in local coverage. The fellowship lasts for a year; newsrooms can opt to renew for a second.
“We feel like there’s no end of stories to be told about the human impact of climate change. But we don’t have somebody to cover that beat. So here was an opportunity,” said Steve Junker, WCAI’s managing editor for news. Eve Zuckoff, a graduate of Boston University and a producer at WBUR, will be covering the beat.
Report for America is one encouraging response to the crisis facing local news across the nation. The United States has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004, according to a study from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, with 200 counties now having no newspaper at all.
You’ve probably heard the reasons: massive cuts in print advertising, with Google and Facebook soaking up the majority of digital ad spending; declining interest among local readers, who can easily subscribe to national papers or browse free news and social media online; corporate owners like GateHouse Media, which owns dozens of daily and weekly papers in Massachusetts, relentlessly consolidating small papers. (The company just laid off more than 60 journalists, with more cuts to come.) The consequences are far-reaching, affecting everything from tracking infectious diseases nationally (it’s harder to do without local news sources) to government spending (when a newspaper closes, city government costs rise). The closures affect democracy, too.
“Localities without local news actually see an uptick in political division,” said Setti Warren, the executive director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “When there isn’t a local news source, people turn to national political news, which is quite partisan right now.”
This local void is what the nonprofit Report for America, and similar collaborations such as ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, hope to change.
The organization was founded by Charles Sennott, a former Globe reporter and founder of the Boston-based nonprofit news organization The GroundTruth Project, and Steven Waldman, a former editor. It launched an inaugural class of 13 “corps members” in 2018; recently the Knight Foundation awarded GroundTruth a $5 million grant over five years to support the program.
This year it is sending 61 reporters to 50 newsrooms across the country, including the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, the Connecticut Mirror, and the Associated Press in Connecticut. Report for America pays half of reporters’ salaries up to $20,000 for the first year; local newsrooms and local supporters pay the other half.
The program aims to support 1,000 reporters in newsrooms across the country by 2023 to “strengthen our communities and our democracy.”
But with the newspaper industry hemorrhaging about 1,000 jobs a month in recent years, a more rapid decline than the coal-mining industry, Report for America and programs like it seem to present stopgap solutions to an unrelenting downturn. They can provide places like WCAI temporary reporters to cover pressing local issues, but they cannot restore local newspapers to their former place at the center of community life.
Indeed, a recent report by the Columbia Journalism Review about two Report for America locations outlined some of the challenges the organization faces in local news landscapes.
One major challenge is the brief timeline of the reporting fellowship. Will Wright, a corps member covering Southeastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader, told the Journalism Review he was unlikely to stay past two years but that it would probably take about five years to develop deep sources in the area. Other reporters said they were attempting to overcome decades of mistrust between minority neighborhoods and the paper that covered them.
“We’re only one oar in the water,” Sennott said.
In its first year, the program did have some notable successes, such as the “Stirring the Waters” series, a six-month reporting project about the lack of clean and reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. The three reporters who wrote it are now finalists for the Livingston Award, a prestigious prize for journalists under the age of 35.
“It didn’t solve it, but it’s keeping the spotlight on it,” Sennott said.
Ideally, local newsrooms would hire the reporters after the two years are up; the partnerships between newsrooms and the organization are intended to be long-term.
Massachusetts has fared better than many other states: It has no news deserts, according to the University of North Carolina study. Still, newspaper circulation has decreased by almost 40 percent statewide since 2004.
“I do think that things are a little bit better here than they are in other parts of the country,” said Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern and the author of the Media Nation blog. He noted that the state is still home to dozens of local weeklies and dailies, though many of them are owned by corporate chains that have gutted coverage. “Communities are not uncovered. But they are under-covered,” he said.
The daily Sentinel & Enterprise in Fitchburg, for example, was founded in 1838 and now the MediaNews Group (also known as Digital First Media) owns it. The Denver-based company has been criticized by its journalists for shrinking newsrooms to make bigger profits.
In February 2018, the Enterprise paper closed its physical offices, asking reporters and editors to work from home. A few months later, the Worcester Business Journal reported that Digital First had earned $5 million in profit in 2017 from the Fitchburg paper and two others nearby. The editorial staff size dropped by about two-thirds between 2000 and 2018, according to a former staffer. The paper’s publisher and editor did not return calls for comment.
“We’ve lost a good amount of our local coverage, as it comes to local meetings,” said Sam Squailia, a member of the Fitchburg City Council. Squailia founded the Facebook group “Discussing Fitchburg Now!,” which has 18,000 members and has filled some of the void left by the shrinking Enterprise. Recently members of the group posted about a yard sale, a free summer dance series, and a chicken crossing Summer Street.
“I used to get phone calls from reporters a lot,” Squailia said. They’d ask her what was on the city agenda, what her thoughts were on various proposals. But now they don’t call.
Woods Hole and the surrounding area is still home to a number of local papers, including the Cape Cod Times and The Falmouth Enterprise. WCAI, of course, is not a print outlet, and like many public radio stations, it’s growing.
WCAI was the only newsroom in Massachusetts to apply for a Report for America reporter, and soon will have one working out of an old captain’s house on a grassy, dandelion-strewn hill near the sea.
Residents are still hungry for local news. Kellie Porter, a 38-year-old librarian at the Woods Hole Public Library, listens to WCAI and reads The New York Times for national news. She still subscribes to the local Falmouth Enterprise, too. It’s smaller than it used to be, but she’s not ready to abandon it.
“Gotta know who died and who’s in the police briefs,” she said.