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Welcome to Rebuilding America, produced in partnership with New Politics. We’re here to talk about national service: what is it, why do we need it, and can it rebuild America?
Last week, we talked about the well of trust the American people have in the military. Today, we’re shifting to an institution with significantly less trust these days - the media.
Can national service help rebuild trust in journalism? Steve Waldman thinks so.
Steve is a veteran journalist and advocate for national service. Among many other projects, he wrote a book in 1996 called The Bill, about the passage of the national service bill and the creation of AmeriCorps. And two decades later, he teamed up with the GroundTruth Project to found his own national service program - one focused on improving local journalism.
After my conversation with Steve, we’ll hear from a current Report for America corps member, Yadira Lopez, who spent last year at a paper in rural Oregon and is now at her hometown paper, the Miami Herald.
But first, my conversation with Steve Waldman, about Report for America.
Steve Waldman: Our mission is to strengthen communities through journalism, information and trust and community cohesiveness. It is very much modeled after AmeriCorps, Teach For America, City Year, Peace Corps, to some degree the military. I worked at AmeriCorps a long time ago and wrote a book about it. And then later on 20 years later a little light bulb went off in my head. Someone referred to it as an acid flashback without the acid where I finally put these two things together. I was doing work on trying to help address the crisis in local news, and I was going to all these conferences of like, "What are we going to do to fix local news?" And I kept thinking, "A lot of these problems that you all are talking about, I think that these former 24-year-olds in the 1990s who created this wave of new community service programs like City Year and Teach For America actually figured a lot of this out already, often drawing from military models. And that if we could learn from the experience of national service programs, we could create a much better approach to local news that would actually create a better system than we've had before." And the learning was both on an operational level and I guess what I'd call a spiritual level. The operational level is just there- it's all sorts of ways that national service programs, I think, figured out how to get into nooks and crannies of communities in non-bureaucratic ways and also how to ensure that the communities themselves are bought into what you're doing. And then on a spiritual level, it's the idea of local reporting being a public service. We're trying to reignite this notion that being a local reporter is a public service job and that that's really meaningful. That is the way you should look at it. That's the way that community should look at it. There's trust in journalism and then there's trust in each other. The trust in journalism part I think comes related to if you have people on the ground- first of all, just being there is actually important. Actually being at the school board meetings and being seen at the school board meetings so that people in the communities know that you're actually there representing them. The other part of it, though, the getting to know each other, is that that's one of the functions at its best of a healthy local newspaper or news organization is it's not just about accountability. It's about teaching each other about each other, what your neighbors are doing, what they're thinking, what their trials and tribulations are, who died. Newspapers don't even have staff-written obituaries anymore. So there's this community cohesion element, which I think we all get viscerally. Now, by the way, there's academic studies that prove it, that if the newspaper goes away, polarization goes up. We tend to think of news as being divisive, but actually at least in the local context, when the newspaper goes away, polarization gets worse.
KH: I'd love for you to just share a little bit of the research behind that, particularly the relationship between local news and civic participation and trust because I've been diving into some of what Report for America is generating on that front. And the numbers are striking. Something like half of those who don't follow local news or don't have local news feel like they don't have any say in what government does, as opposed to those who do the fraction is significantly less.
SW: Yeah, that statistic that you just said really was very striking to me, because that explains those two dots, those two data points. Well, why would it be that having less information leads to more polarization? People feel helpless and people feel disempowered, like they've got nothing- these people in power don't understand me or my problems. “I have no say over it.” That makes people more and more pissed off. And then the other part of it is having a common sense of efficacy that what you can do can have an impact and having a common sense of facts. It's not like local issues are non-controversial. It's a myth to say, "Well, national things are controversial. Locals are everyone gets together and solves problems." Oftentimes local issues are very contentious, but they tend to follow different fault lines than national news. You can be on one side in national news and be on another side when it comes to whether or not there should be a sewage treatment plant in your community. That's a good thing because it means that you're interacting with your neighbors in a way where you're not just assuming they're enemies. They're not just in the enemy camp. They're on the wrong team. The teams are shifting and you come to think of people as individuals you're working with to solve problems instead of people who are on the wrong team or the right team.
KH: Sell us then on the value of having an actual reporter, a professional covering these issues. Because I think a number of people listening to this are going to think, "You know what? We have a glut of news already. We can barely consume what is out there." And with the advent of social media, and everyone having an opinion on Twitter, is there really a shortage of accountability? I can pull out my phone right now and hold an official in my community accountable. What does Report for America bring by adding the professional to that equation?
SW: Well, I once heard someone say the definition of journalism is reporting things that someone doesn't want you to know. There's no shortage of ways of getting the word out if a public official makes an announcement. Also, you're right, there's no shortage of information out there. So first point is national versus local. There's a glut of national news, there is a shortage of local. Second point is reporting versus news. Reporting is what the shortage is. In a way, there isn't really a news shortage. I sometimes use the wrong term. On the face of it, it doesn't seem like there's a news shortage. As you said, everywhere you turn there's news. You get it from every second of your life, on every device you can get news. If you ask the question, is there reporting? Is there original reporting about their community? That's where the collapse is, and it's often a bit invisible to people because they don't think of it that way. And when you're deluged with information, it seems maybe like a weird thing, but think about this statistic I gave earlier of there's thousands of communities that have no reporters in them. So what happens in those communities? If you get any information at all, you're getting it through social media. So we know that sometimes that's fine, but a lot of times it's inaccurate. Secondly, it tends to not be information that involves some extraction, like where you're finding out stuff that maybe they don't want you to know about or didn't get around to telling you. And we have so many examples in Report for America. I'll give you an example of how this might work. We placed a reporter in Eastern Kentucky through working in the Lexington Herald Leader, Will Wright. And he got there and on his second week on the job he was at a community meeting about how they didn't have running drinking water for weeks. And it wasn't the first time, for months. You can imagine if New York City where I live if they went several months without water, you'd have a little noise over it. But these people had been complaining about it for a long time. And it wasn't like Will did some big investigative story. He was just there and listened and heard and followed up. Well, he got it in the paper and it got to the state legislature and they eventually allocated three and a half million dollars to improve the water in Eastern Kentucky. Or another example is we have a reporter in San Juan County, Utah who, he was just doing a story about how the county commission there had been lobbying against the Bears Ears Monument when the people were in favor of the monument. And that was kind of the scale. But in the course of doing that, he discovered that the county had also been double billed by their law firm or their lobbying firm. So they got a refund of, I don’t know, it was $150,000 or something like that. But I love that example because it's not “they found billions of dollars of cost overruns”. It was $150,000 from a local reporter, but I love it because that's one-
KH: Probably his salary twice over.
SW: Exactly. He got back for the community something that was twice his annual salary, or actually three times his annual salary. So it gives you a sense of there's civic value to this stuff that isn't necessarily caught in dollars and cents, but is really profound.
KH: I take it that the hollowing out of newsrooms would map pretty neatly over the hollowing out of rural America. I mean, there is got to be an urban-rural divide in this story like there is in so many economic stories.
SW: That's definitely a component of it. That's I would say the first rung of it is there's a real issue in rural communities, but then the deeper you look into it, there's some interesting twists, which are there's a lot of big news deserts in suburban and exurban areas. And I think what happened was during the nineties, when newspapers were really healthy, they built out all these suburban additions that covered those communities, and then those have all gone away. And so there's these big gaps there as well. And then you find these news deserts within cities by neighborhood, which is its own special thing where you will be in these cities that actually on some level are not news deserts, they got three TV stations and a newspaper, but then you go to particular neighborhoods and there's just no coverage.
KH: One of the other stats that really struck me, and this is going beyond the role of newsrooms to help rebuild trust and knit communities together, it's directly to the accountability question. When you have that news desert, you have less accountable government, and that is actually measurable. You mentioned in either a recent article or interview the effect on bond prices. Which to me is hard to ignore.
SW: It was such a clever study that these academics did. It's a little bit intuitive, and journalists have been saying for a long time, "Oh, if you don't have journalists there, it's going to lead to corruption." I think David Simon, who was the creator of the TV show, The Wire, and years before had been a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, testified once before Congress saying, "We're entering the golden age of local government corruption. I will tell you right now from watching what happened in Baltimore, this is what's going to happen because of the decline of local news." But it had never been quantified before, so they came up with this clever approach where they looked at cities or municipalities that had lost their local reporting or local news and what effect it had on bond prices. And sure enough, the areas that had less coverage had higher bond prices, and it was because the assumption among investors was that the community was worse run, that the government was either more corrupt or more wasteful or they were raising taxes in order to cover for waste or general malfeasance. That it was just going to be a less well-run city. And it actually got baked into the pricing.
KH: So this is all good and well. I understand the emphasis you place on local reporting as a mechanism for rebuilding trust and for holding government accountable. So why national service? In addition to that being an effective model in terms of a business proposition and how to organize your effort, why is it also a theory of change for Report for America? Why does it matter on a moral level to frame this as service?
SW: Well, part of it is that for us to solve this problem as a country we have to look at local journalism and local reporting as a public good. I mean it partly in the way that economists talk about public good, which is to say something that's really important that might not be picked up entirely by the private sector, but also on a just more common sense level that this is a civic function, like having a library that communities have to support in some way. On some level it's really that simple. Community journalism is not going to survive without the support of the community. And that's actually a very different way of thinking about local journalism, when you think about it. I mean, until very recently this was just a profitable happy business that just took care of itself. That age is over. That is over. So we need to think about this in a different way. We have to think of this as a whole new era where it's not that there aren't going to be commercial entities, but as a society, we have to view this as a civic responsibility. So once you start with that premise, it leads to, at least for me, a notion of national service because you want to be describing the function of it as a civic good and you want to attract reporters who view it that way also, that they are going into this world in the same way, to finish the analogy, that a librarian would, which is to say you're not doing it for the money. You're doing it as a calling. We want people like that as journalists and we want them to be thinking that way. Now, there are other secondary benefits to thinking of it as a national service program and as a movement. One is that we have, as part of Report for America, a requirement that they do community service in addition to their reporting. Now we think local reporting is community service. But in addition to that, we have them do kind of pay it forward. They work in middle schools and high schools to help the next generation to create media, to do youth-created media, whether it's a school podcast or a newspaper or website, something like that. So they're creating an ethic around journalism and information and empathy, learning from each other. And then the final part of what makes me think of national service, which is a little more mechanical, is I think the national service programs in the country that have worked well view it as shared investment. It's not just like the old CCC model where you're just plopping people in and they do great work. It's a shared responsibility, and we do that too in the sense that we pay half the salary of the reporter, but we actually require the news organization and the community to pay the other half. And that's both to create a model of sustainability, so this isn't just about charity, and because it gives them skin in the game and makes them feel committed to this as a public service too.
KH: What you're proposing is a wholesale upending of more than a century of journalistic tradition back to Hearst and even beyond that revolves around self-sustainability and profit, right? But the gutting of newsrooms today isn't a result of reduced consumption of news or even reduced subscriptions. It's the advertising model. It's that entire assumption about profitability that you are attacking head-on by trying to reframe it in moral terms as a public service. How many fellows are you into this project and what is the whole scale of the challenge if you're actually going to change the way news is thought about in America? Fractionally, how far are you into the project?
SW: Yea, well we have 226 reporters in the field. Our goal is to have a thousand in the field by 2024. If we can raise more money, we can do more than that. I think ultimately the country needs about 5,000 reporters put back into the field. I mean, it could be great to have more, but to get to a baseline of what communities need for basic functioning, I think it's on the scale of 5,000 or something like that. And it's doable. I mean, it's a lot of money by your standards and my standards, but by the standards of how much money people donate to philanthropy each year, it's pretty small potatoes, and it can be done. And by the way, I will say, I don't think that 100% of local media is going to be done by non-profit groups. I still think there is going to be a role for commercial news organizations, but it's going to be different in a few ways than the previous model. One is they're just not going to be big enough to fund the kinds of labor-intensive reporting that they used to be able to do, so there'll be smaller, more niche, they'll be doing some really good work, but they're not going to be able to do especially the kinds of reporting that really require extra time and extra research. So what has to happen is the creation of hybrids that mix commercial entities and non-profit entities. So for instance, Report for America, half of our placements are in non-profit organizations, but the other half are in commercial newspapers. And it's really interesting to see what happens when you put these amazing non-profit reporters into for-profit newsrooms. It helps the for-profit newsroom’s business model, but it also changes things on a spiritual level. It shifts the focus towards public service even within that commercial entity. So it is a really different way of thinking about it, but it doesn't necessarily eliminate the role of there being commercial media as part of the local news systems.
KH: It occurs to me that you are flying in the face of a lot of inertia in the other direction. And I am thinking of other institutions that serve a public good, the military, the post office, the VA, for which there has been a ton of pressure to either privatize or find a way to make more money. I mean, you have the current administration talking about turning the military into a profit center for the American government, much less the post office and the VA. And you're talking about swimming upstream against that and taking a profit-driven enterprise and reframing its mission around the public good and engaging philanthropy and communities in that effort.
SW: Well, I didn't come to this by thinking on a philosophical level, "Hey, journalism is really important, so we should look at it as a public good." I came at it as, "Holy crap, the bottom has fallen out on the ground in communities." I'd be perfectly fine if there were a commercial model that still worked. It would be better, frankly, because it's more self-sustaining and you don't have to worry about trying to convince people to donate money, but it isn't. It's irreversibly broken. And it shouldn't surprise us in some ways because through a lot of American history local news hasn't really been a viable formula. So in a sense, this period that we're in now is not that new. In the olden olden days, in the first 100 years of our society, newspapers were subsidized by political parties in the government. And then more recently there were subsidized by advertisers. So it's kind of never been the case that subscriptions floated local news. In that sense, it's not contrarian, but on your bigger point, it's true. We had our run of 150 years or longer where we didn't have to think of it this way. I find myself dragged into this reality initially unwillingly. But once you look at it, you realize we've really got to face this frontally because the longer we think that there's going to be some magic, a new phone app that's going to come along that solves the local news problem, the worst it's going to get and the deeper in the hole we go. We have to confront the fact that we need a wholly different way of thinking about this.
KH: One of the defining features of national service is its commitment to uniting participants in a shared mission. When you talk to AmeriCorps members, they are keenly aware of the fact that though they might not have met or served alongside an AmeriCorps member in a different part of the country, they are part of the same mission. Is that something you care about at Report for America? And if so, does it in some way conflict with journalistic principles?
SW: We do care about it. And I don't think it does conflict with journalism principles because a good journalist is one who is listening and empathetic and getting a variety of different perspectives. So having a range of different types of people in the program, which I think is also a trademark of good national service programs, makes for better journalism. In this corps we have a half a dozen military veterans who have gone from being in the military service to being journalists. We have I think 42% of our reporters are journalists of color. Many of the journalists though come from rural areas. So it's a really interesting mix of people from very different backgrounds who will teach each other. And I also think that there's an element of esprit de corps. One of the things we always have to explain in the beginning of our corps is why do we keep calling them corps members instead of fellows or reporters? And I think it strikes people as a little weird, frankly, initially like, "I'm here to be a journalist. Why do you keep calling me corps member?" But it's quite intentional, A, because we view this as a national service program, but B, we want them to think of each other that way. We want them to think of themselves as being in a common mission and a common adventure with each other and support each other. I think it's so fun to watch when the new corps hit the ground, watching the corps members who were already there from the previous year and who are still reporting from their news sites welcoming them and just without even knowing them just, "Hey, I know that city. I used to live there. Let me know. I can tell you where the best coffee shop is and things like that." And then on a deeper level to help each other with the challenges. It's hard being a local reporter out there right now. They're all under-financed, these newsrooms. They're out covering really, really hard stories before COVID hit. Now it's even harder. And they are sometimes viewed as enemies of the people, and so they need each other. They need an esprit de corps to get through this with a spirit of optimism.
KH: I have to give you a chance to address that critique, this idea of the fourth estate is an enemy of the people. Do you feel that journalism done right is itself a patriotic act?
SW: I really do. There's only one profession that's actually mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and that's the press. And the reason that's the case is that the founding fathers viewed it as absolutely essential to democracy. And you've probably heard all the quotes of Jefferson saying, "If I had to choose between government and the press, I'd choose the press," which by the way, most of his other quotes were about how much he hated the press.
KH: But that one is really eloquent. It's government without newspapers or newspapers without government, right? I would choose the latter every time.
SW: Yeah. Exactly. And I think it's because they just as a democratic government ... It's not if you want to go with an authoritarian regime. You don't necessarily need this, but if you're going to go with the democracy route, as we have chosen to do, you need to have an informed population. And that's just absolutely fundamental. That's on a theoretical level. On a more practical level, what it comes down to is the ability of communities to solve their own problems. And you cannot have healthy communities without having good information. So I think having communities and having a country that has any coherence, if we want this to continue to be the greatest country in the world, we have to have a healthy news media. And there's all sorts of studies out there that associate decline of news media with authoritarian regimes. Free press is in fact one of the things that soldiers have fought and died for, and to allow the press to die this silent death through neglect and indifference or attacks from our leaders is really sad and unfortunate and something that has to be fought with great energy.
KH: We’ll hear from a current Report for America corps member in just a minute, but first, let’s hear about New Politics, the sponsor of this podcast. Listen to founder and Executive Director Emily Cherniack tell us about the work New Politics does to lift up servant leaders into elected office.
Emily Cherniack: New Politics, which is an organization that I founded and now run, we are a nonpartisan organization that aims to revitalize American democracy by recruiting, developing, and electing servant leaders who put community and country first.
We help these outstanding leaders who have served in the military, or national service programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, run for office because we believe leaders who have dedicated their lives to serving our country are the kinds of proven leaders we need in politics.
We think that leadership should transcend "party". So we'll talk to, and consider, supporting anyone who has served and embodies those servant leadership values.
I would say to anyone who feels disillusioned and hopeless about our politics to not lose hope, because there are a wave of leaders coming up through the pipeline who have what it takes to change our politics. These are amazing servant leaders from across the country who are stepping up and answering the call to serve again, and as candidates and campaign staffers and volunteers. Leaders like James Talarico who is a Teach For America alum, and in Texas was the youngest state rep to be elected and he has already done some big wins with bipartisan efforts on education reform.
Or you look at David Crowley who is a Public Allies alum and Milwaukee state rep who, after scoring big wins for his community, is already positioned to even make more meaningful change as the first African American elected to the County Executive in the history of Milwaukee. They embody what it means to put the country first and they are sort of the hope and the inspiration that I feel when I think about the future of our politics for America.
KH: If you’re thinking about getting involved in politics, visit newpolitics.org to learn more about taking the next step in your service career.
Current Report for America corps member Yadira Lopez is in her second year of the program. Now, she’s based at her hometown paper in Florida, the Miami Herald, but she spent last year in rural Vale, Oregon, at the Malheur Enterprise. She was drawn to Report For America in part for the community service project all corps members do.
Yadira Lopez: So one of the things that attracted me to Report for America actually was the service project. I like volunteering, I've always done that on the side, and I like the idea of having something similar to Peace Corps but a little more practical. This was a nice compromise for me because I was getting to do practical things and things that I had experience in, reporting mainly. So, I liked that, and I like the expectation that I was still going to be volunteering on the side. So the service project has to be related to journalism and youth, so it has to mix both of those. What I ended up doing was I, because I covered Latino affairs in Vale, I got pretty close to the migrant education program at a local high school, and I found out that they already had a newsletter for migrant parents. It was a bilingual newsletter aimed at parents and making sure that parents are informed about what's going on in school. I thought that was a great segue for my project because I really wanted to be in a helping role. I didn't want to create something new. I liked the idea of really just coming in and helping make something better. So the way that I did that, this newsletter was created by the staff. So, I thought why not have the kids do it and have the kids write to their own parents about the projects that they're working on?
One thing I want to say about the service project though, I wasn't Hilary Swank in the Freedom Writers. That was never the aim for me personally, and I think for a lot of us it's not the aim either. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We really just are trying to be a part of a community, and I think that's the big key with the service project is that we're not in there to solve any problems. I don't know, we're not in there to change anything or be white saviors, at least the way I see it. That's not what we're trying to do. For me, the service project is really always about being just a part of the community instead of being an outsider where you're just reporting on what's happening. The service project gives you an opportunity to actually be embedded.
That for me was my way of refreshing a little bit and falling a little bit more in love with journalism sometimes after the grind of a heavy day because you get in there and you sell journalism to these students. You tell them all the great things about it, and through doing that, you remember, "Oh, this is why I'm here." So, in that way the service project really helps keep that passion going.
One of the big lessons that I learned in Vale at the Malheur Enterprise was that it's not true, this narrative that people hate the news or they hate journalists or journalism. I don't think that's true anymore. After living in such a small community that really appreciated and valued its county newspaper, there was a lot of love there for what we did and a real thirst for it. I didn't think that we were going to get letters from people thanking us for what we do or so many donations from especially older people who would send us like five bucks. It's like, "This is part of my grocery bill for the week, but I just really believe in what you're doing." That was, for me, a shock because I was expecting to go in there and not be very well liked, and it was the total opposite. They still want good journalism and good newspapers, and they value them when they have them.
KH: Next week on Rebuilding America, we talk about trust more broadly. Our country is in a period of intense polarization and tribalism. We don’t trust one another. Can national service help? I’ll talk to Francis Fukuyama, political scientist and author of the 2018 book Identity, about the current state of trust and tribalism in America. I’ll also talk with Dave Isay, founder of the oral history and media program StoryCorps, about what they do to bridge divides and repair broken trust.
Subscribe to Rebuilding America to get all ten episodes in your podcast feed as they come out every week. And don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.
A service year is a paid opportunity to develop real-world skills through hands-on service. Explore thousands of available service year opportunities at ServiceYear.org/podcast.
Rebuilding America is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, made in partnership with New Politics. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Associate producer is Leon Pescador. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Rebuilding America, a podcast about national service.