Chapter 7

Challenge No. 6: Boosting your diminished staff and content

In April, The Washington Post made an unusual request to local journalists across America: Contribute freelance articles to a special Washington Post Magazine issue designed to “show what the American public misses when thousands of stories are not told.” This fall, those stories will fill an entire issue showcasing local issues that have been underreported due to declining resources in local newsrooms.

Besides the magazine’s traditional goal of telling compelling stories, says editor Richard Just, there’s “an additional mission, which is to show that these types of stories —  stories that are vital to our democracy, our culture, and the ability of all Americans to understand our society — are not being told in many places throughout the country. We want readers — both those who live in areas where local news coverage is in trouble and those who live in places where news outlets are thriving — to understand what we as a country are missing out on when these stories aren’t told.”

Asked if those stories could be shared with those troubled local news outlets for republication at no charge, Just responded: “We are committed to finding ways to make sure that these stories are available to readers in the communities where the stories are taking place — including potentially working with local news outlets as publishing partners.”

Opportunities for sharing and collaboration — whether planned, prodded or organic —  are more available than ever. The walls of journalistic competition haven’t exactly crumbled, but spaces have clearly opened for smart collaborations among all types of media.

Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media, says that shared projects, reporters and content among local news organizations have become more common over the past year — including in newsrooms that had little interest in collaborating in the past. “It’s like someone poured gasoline on an already well-stocked fire, and that was in part because it was necessary” due to skill gaps, information gaps and generally overworked journalists. That was the perfect storm that hindered coverage of COVID-19 in some places — and the perfect opportunity for collaboration. Iowa Watch, Side Effects Media, Wisconsin Watch and Reveal, for example, reported on overwhelmed health-care systems in small towns through a project led by INN.

Several news organizations in Chicago teamed up for the “Lens on Lightfoot” project — a look at the status of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promises. Journalists on the project came from the Better Government Association, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, La Raza, The Daily Line and The TRiiBE. And across the country, publications for Spanish-speaking communities have joined with mainstream newsrooms to swap stories in both English and Spanish. (To get started, see the News Media Alliance’s new guide for media partnerships and collaborations.)

But what’s particularly striking about news collaborations over the past year is the increase in partnerships between a community’s journalists and non-journalists, especially in local COVID-19 and social justice coverage. A former CNN news director, S. Mitra Kalita, left her position and started the Epicenter-NYC newsletter — a collaboration of community volunteers, contractors and a few journalists who, among other efforts, have helped thousands of residents get vaccination appointments. “What good am I as a journalist if I don’t use those skills of journalism to better uplift my neighborhood?” Kalita says in a Poynter interview.

True community-newsroom partnerships, however, aren’t always accepted in mainstream local journalism. “There are far too many legacy news organization leaders who still view the community at an arm’s length,” says Murray, and instead focus on “this faceless audience that they’re trying to grow.”

Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:

Matt Cabe, editor of the Victorville Daily Press in California, didn’t pull any punches in his note to readers in April. The newspaper’s job, he said, was to give readers the information they need to make informed decisions “based on facts obtained or uncovered by my reporters [but] that daunting task is compounded when your newsroom is short-staffed,” he told readers. In 2015, the newsroom had more than 20 employees; today, there are just four. Cabe says readers in the city of Barstow, population 24,000, “arguably suffered the most. The Daily Press has not had a reporter dedicated solely to that city since January 2017 when Mike Lamb left the High Desert for the Marshall Independent newspaper in Minnesota. That’s more than four years of stories that went largely untold in a city that deserves better.”

Then Cabe presented the good news: A new reporter, the first hire since 2018, was joining the staff, thanks to Report for America. This year, RFA will send 300 journalists to about 200 local newsrooms in 49 states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. “They are newsrooms like ours, in desperate need of help,” Cabe said in his column.

Announcing this year’s corps members — chosen from more than 1,800 applicants —  RFA co-founder Steve Waldman says, “The crisis in our democracy, disinformation and polarization, is in many ways a result of the collapse of local news. “We have a unique opportunity to reverse this decline by filling newsrooms with talented journalists who not only view journalism as a public service, but who can make trusted connections with the communities they serve.”

And more newsrooms are vying for those placements. For this year’s group, in “a testament to the need out there,” says spokesman Sam Kille, RFA saw a 37% increase in newsroom applications for reporters.

Cabe must raise 50% of his new reporter’s salary through donations; as of May 9, he had raised $2,040 of his $20,000 goal.

If you’re looking to augment your staff — even if it’s just for the summer — search for organizations that provide vetted interns or fellows who work directly for media organizations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, just announced its new class of 29 fellows who will be placed in newsrooms across the country for 10 weeks this summer. The fellows are paid through the association’s Mass Media and Science Engineering Fellowship program, which has been around for more than four decades, and some newsrooms also have participated for years. The science fellows “have really helped us tell stories we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” says Thad Ogburn, metro editor of The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, who has worked with the program for more than a decade. “They are smart students who can explain complex topics in an easy-to-understand way” and are versatile — sometimes tackling other topics like education and government.

The Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship matches a young journalist with a newsroom for a year-long program, with the newsroom paying 40% of the fellow’s salary. The Collegiate Network program provides and pays for summer internships and year-long fellowships in newsrooms. (Do your research: The program is supported by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute.) Search the NewsFuel journalism funding directory for more fellowships.

A word of caution: If your editing staff has been cut, think carefully about whether  overworked editors will be able to guide a young journalist through one of these fellowship programs or a summer internship. Report for America reporters get regular training and volunteer mentors from RFA. The Poynter-Koch program also includes regular training by Poynter staff. If you need help, take advantage of mentoring programs including the all-volunteer Media Mentors.

Increasingly, news nonprofits are providing their work to for-profit newsrooms and others at no cost and with few strings attached. It’s worth your time to stay informed about those offerings — especially if you have a newspaper to fill or your web content is diminished or stale. Newsrooms can use content from Carolina Public Press, for example, with a few caveats but no fees; CalMatters offers free content to hundreds of media partners. Nonprofit Spanish language local news outlets often share content with news organizations that have Spanish-speaking readers but can’t afford translation services. Many college journalism programs like the CU News Corps can provide government stories, particularly when the state legislature is in session. Check with Kaiser Health News, org, ProPublica and the Marshall Project about republication of their stories that deal with issues important to your community. The non-profit States Newsroom has a new syndication service that allows other news organizations to republish content from its 20 newsrooms.