Because I’m not a politician, I don’t have to wear an American-flag lapel pin. (I’ve never seen a photo of, say, Dwight Eisenhower, or FDR, or JFK, wearing a flag pin. Richard Nixon did it occasionally, in the Vietnam War era. It became de rigueur for public figures some time after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.)
But this is the story of a pin I’ve started wearing recently. The pin says Report for America, as you can see below. You could read those three words as an imperative-mood reminder of what people in the journalism business are supposed to do (at least the Americans). They also represent a promising movement, in discouraging times.
The fate of local news looms very large in the fate of smaller-town America:
Cities and regions need to hold their business and public leaders accountable. National news is not going to do that for them.
They need to understand what Deb Fallows and I have called “the civic story”: what makes this town different from others, what challenges it’s gone through and what opportunities it might seize, and where it stands on an arc that might lead to a more promising future. Only their local publications will help them refine and share those stories.
They need simply to have a forum for connection: What businesses are opening (or closing) in the town, what people are moving in and out, what opportunities there are for children, older people, those interested in music or sports or history or gardening.
Independent local publications are of such tangible importance that (according to a much-noted academic study last year), bond ratings go down, and the cost of issuing bonds goes up, for cities or counties that don’t have viable local newspapers.
Yet nearly every place we’ve gone, we’ve heard about the economic pressures on local newspapers, websites, and other publications as being even worse than those weighing down the press as a whole.
Which brings us to: Report for America. Earlier this month, in Houston, Deb and I met the 60-plus young men and women whose photos you see at the top of this item. They’re part of the second “corps” of Report for America members headed to newspapers, broadcast stations, or other news sites mainly in rural or small-town America, where they will add coverage on issues that will shape those communities’ futures.
Last year, for its first corps, Report for America sent out a total of 13 reporters. This year, more than 60. Next year it’s aiming for 250, toward a goal of 1,000.
The Report for America project is part Peace Corps, part Teach for America, part something entirely new. No one innovation or source will in itself be the answer to local journalism’s crisis. But a lot of experimental approaches might add up to an overall answer—and Report for America has the potential to be an important part of that solution. (For the record: Deb and I have no connection with RFA except being given the lapel pin and some RFA-branded reporter notebooks when we spoke at the training session in Houston, plus having known its co-founder, Steven Waldman, for many years.)
What’s the Report for America concept? It is—from my perspective—a shrewd combination of short- and long-term incentives and ideas.
The Report for America story began roughly three years ago. Before then, a former Boston Globe reporter and editor named Charles Sennott had set up The GroundTruth Project, which was designed to foster a new generation of innovative reporters in the United States and around the world. Sennott had also worked for the New York Daily News and PBS, and had founded an international reporting site called GlobalPost.
Not long after the 2016 election, Sennott approached a writer and entrepreneur named Steven Waldman about a possible collaboration. Waldman had been a Newsweek correspondent, and was national editor of U.S. News & World Report while I was the editor there. He also had written a wonderful short book called The Bill, about the tangled legislative history of creating AmeriCorps in the 1990s; had founded an influential faith-based site called Beliefnet; and during the Obama administration had written a report for the FCC about the impending crisis in local-news coverage.
After the FCC work, Waldman had begun thinking about new ways of supporting local journalists and journalism. In the summer of 2015, he published a paper in Medum called “Report for America.” The subhead was, “A new model for saving local journalism, borrowing from national and community service programs.” He also discussed this idea in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Sennott had heard about these ideas and knew of Waldman through mutual friends. After the 20216 elections, he called Waldman to discuss the possibility of developing Report for America as part of the GroundTruth organization. They began raising money, initially from (among other sources) the Galloway Family Foundation and from Google’s News Lab, and last year they selected and trained a corps of 13 reporters, destined for local news rooms.
What’s distinctive about the Report for America approach? First, its funding model. The total investment for each RFA corps member—being sent to West Virginia, to Wyoming, to the Central Valley of California, wherever—averages about $40,000 a year. Philanthropists: If you’re thinking about how your money can really have impact, reflect upon that number.
RFA provides about half that money itself. Of the remaining share, half is supposed to come from the news organization that the reporter will be working for, and half from local philanthropic sources in that community.
Waldman told me this week that the multi-source funding model drew from the experience he had when working for a year at the fledgling AmeriCorps, under its then-director Harris Wofford.
“AmeriCorps had a matching system, where local nonprofit programs were supposed to put in money, in addition to the money the national program was sending them,” he told me. “For RFA, this struck me as an important way to hit our ultimate goal of a thousand reporters, and also to make the program sustainable.”
A bad result for RFA, he said, would be if “we created a great program for someone [the young reporter] for two years—and then they go away, and everything goes back to the way it was before. I thought that if we wanted to transform local media ecologies, we had to lure out local philanthropic money. And of course we also had to ask for the local-newsroom share, to ensure quality. The surefire way of making the quality of the experience horrible would be to give newsrooms ‘free’ reporters.”
Also worth noting: the Report for America mission. Despite the naming-similarity to Teach for America, RFA struck me as being a fundamentally different operation. TFA took people mainly right out of college, and hoped to interest them in the world of teaching. Most of the RFA corps members have already spent a few years as reporters—so they are older, and better prepared for the newsrooms they’re headed toward. And, according to Waldman, Report for America has a more explicit goal of shaping the environments of the cities where its corps members work.
“We view this as a ‘helping communities’ program, more than a ‘helping journalists’ program,” he told me. “Sure, we want to do everything to make it the best possible experience for the journalists. But helping them is a means to an end. The end is that local communities can hold authorities accountable, improve their schools, have clean drinking water. And if there are secondary benefits to the reporter—as with the Peace Corps, the excitement of being part of something bigger—then that is great as well.”
There was, though, a significant point of similarity with Teach for America, Waldman said. “One thing they did well was creating this sense that being a teacher was a noble and worthwhile goal,” he said. “We hope to do the same thing with the nobility and worth of being a local reporter, with the emphasis on local. And we’d like to revive this spirit that being a journalist is a public-service job.”
You can read the stories of the 2019 RFA corps members we met in Houston here. They are headed all over the country: Several to tribal areas. Several to Puerto Rico. Several each to Appalachia and Mississippi and the Central Valley of California. Others to smaller cities on the East Coast. Most are women. Well over one-third are nonwhite.
We spoke with them and, while hearing their questions, were impressed by their combination of passion and realism. How would they arrange time off from their newsroom jobs for the several hours a week of local public-service activities that were part of their contracted obligation? How should they take part in local civic and religious organizations? When would they feel they knew “enough” about a new setting to begin expressing any judgments about it? What would it be like, living in this new little town?
Their RFA mentors gave them advice. The corps members understood that things would look different when they were actually on the job. Some concerns they were worried about ahead-of-time would melt away. Others they hadn’t thought of yet would emerge.
“Community journalism won’t survive if the community doesn’t support it,” Steven Waldman told me this week. “We hope to build a broader definition of what that means. And the best way to restore ‘trust in journalism’ would be for people to see lots of reporters on the ground—at the local school-board meeting, writing about dirty water, being part of the community.”
To the 61 members of the latest Report for America corps, and to all supporting the effort, I say: Godspeed. I’m wearing my pin.
It has been another rough period for the financial models behind journalism in general, and local news outlets in particular.
Last month Brookings released a sobering report about the spread of “news deserts” across the country, driven especially by the collapse in newspaper advertising revenue. In 2000, according to this report, newspapers took in more than $70 billion in total ad revenue (measured in 2018 dollars). By 2018, that number had plummeted to about $14 billion. Local papers have been harder hit than the industry as a whole. As Clara Hendrickson, the Brookings author, put it: “While [Google and Facebook] account for 58% of digital advertising revenue nationally, the two companies account for 77% in local markets.”
Also last month, a merger between the country’s two largest newspaper chains, Gannett and New Media Investment Group (parent of GateHouse) was completed. GateHouse, which owns hundreds of newspapers and community publications across the country, has a richly earned reputation for accelerating the destruction of local papers. Its track record with small papers—for instance, in this Massachusetts example—is to boost their profit margin in the short run, by slashing expenses (notably in the newsroom). As the publications dwindle into local insignificance, revenues and expenses chase each other down. Eventually the withered titles are combined into a regional chain or shut down entirely.
Will this formula now be applied across the Gannett empire, from USA Today on down? Last month I posted a brave defense of reporting ambitions from the editor of a Gannett (now GateHouse) paper in Tennessee. We’ll see how things turn out, there and elsewhere. One ominous indicator is the contention from both Gannett and GateHouse that their combined company could “save” hundred of millions of dollars in operating costs. As Richard Edmonds wrote last month on the Poynter web site:
Big layoffs are looming as the combined company (to be called Gannett) attempts during the next several years to deliver a promised $275 million to $300 million in cost-saving synergies….
At both companies (as throughout the industry) newsroom staffs have been reduced as revenues and profits contract. That is particularly true in the smallest markets. Sources have told me that at each company at least a third of the titles are so-called “ghost newspapers” with as few as one, two or three locally based reporters or editors.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the #SubscribeSunday concept, apparently originating at TheBoston Globe, gain traction—which I hope will increase over the years. Yes, it’s become a gimmick to piggyback names for the post-Thanksgiving sequence of themed days: first “Black Friday,” and then, “Small Business Saturday,” “Cyber Monday,” “Giving Tuesday.” But I’m all in favor of promoting the idea that people should think consciously about paying for journalism. Many nonprofits receive a huge share of each year’s donations in the final few days of that year. In part that’s because as December 31 draws near, many people (including me) start to think: Gee, I really should be giving XX amount this year, what are the main places I’ve left out? Developing a “gee, I really should … ” consciousness about reporting will take time but is important. (For instance, with this very magazine.)
Every element of today’s journalistic establishment is trying to experiment its way to a new financial footing and a new connection with communities and readers. This week there is genuinely positive news about one of the experiments I wrote about this past summer: the Report for America initiative, which sends experienced-but-still-rising reporters and editors to news outlets across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas hardest-hit by the pressures on local news. It’s growing four-fold, from its second year of operation to its third.
In 2018, when Report for America first started, it sent a total of 13 reporters to local news rooms. This past summer, Deb Fallows and I met in Houston with a group of 60-plus journalists, who made up RFA’s second annual corps. This week, Report for America announced that it would send 250 reporters to 164 newsrooms in 46 states across the country. “This is probably the largest hiring blitz in local news in recent memory,” Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and tech entrepreneur who is co-founder of Report for America, told me after the announcement. “I think it ought to give people a sense of hope that this crisis of local news is solvable.”
You can see the whole list of news organizations here, along with the beats to which the new reporters will be assigned. For instance, “Vietnamese and African American neighborhoods,” for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. Or “Rural healthcare” for the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Step one of RFA’s annual process, whose results are just being announced, is securing commitments for new reporting slots, and choosing the news rooms best qualified for RFA support. Step two will be choosing among applicants for these postings. Applications for these positions are open until the end of January next year.
That these are new beats is an important part of the Report for America model: It asks publications to specify what they’d do if they had more resources, then helps them fill that gap. Its funding model, described in detail here, is also designed to pull new money into local journalism, including from local foundations and donors in each area. To oversimplify: the local newsroom, the national Report for America organization, and local philanthropies all share the cost of employing additional reporters. The annual cost of a new reporter averages about $40,000. Report for America puts up about half the money; the news organization and local philanthropies share the rest.
“We’ve been putting out the message that community foundations and others can have really big impact for their dollar, if they invest this way,” Charles Sennott, a former Boston Globe reporter who is head of The GroundTruth Project which launched Report for America, told me this week. “If they invest $10,000, they can make a significant difference in local coverage.” Toward its goal of mobilizing more city-by-city philanthropic support, Report for America recently hired Todd Franko, former editor of the now-closed Youngstown Vindicator in Ohio, as its “Director of Sustainability.”
“Of course everyone is focused on the bleakness out there [in local journalism], and it is quite bleak,” Steven Waldman told me. “But there is also a lot of great creative energy.
Waldman said that the first part of the conversations he, Sennott, or other RFA representatives would have with local newsrooms could be depressing. “Sometimes it was heartbreaking, the kind of fundamental accountability-reporting that just wasn’t getting done any more,” he said. But then, he said, “It was also inspiring to hear from editors all around the country, who were trying against great odds really to address these needs.”
Waldman said that local journalists or civic figures naturally had a more acute sense of the gaps that needed to be filled in local coverage—compared with an outsider’s guess. As an example: immigrant and ethnic-minority communities began growing in many small towns, at just the time local newsroom staffs were shrinking. Thus many of this year’s newsroom slots involve coverage of these communities.
“We have seen a tremendous appetite among creative newsrooms, and talented journalists, and quite a few philanthropists” to devise new approaches, Waldman said. “So if we bring them all together, and wrap it in a spirit of public service, we can really create something better than we’ve ever had before.” He said that his conversations with local editors and reporters had reminded him that they “already have in their bones the sense of news as a public service. They just need a way to keep doing that.”
“We see some light, at a time that feels like it’s dusk in American local journalism,” Charles Sennott told me. “We can see that emerging journalists are answering a call to service. We’re starting to feel momentum to restore journalism from the ground up.”
For weeks, Americans looked on as other countries grappled with case reports of rare, sometimes fatal blood abnormalities among those who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19. That vaccine has not yet been authorized by the FDA, so restrictions on its use throughout Europe did not get that much attention in the United States. But Americans experienced a rude awakening this week when public-health officials called for a pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, after a few cases of the same, unusual blood-clotting syndrome turned up among the millions of people in the country who have received it.
The world is now engaged in a vaccination program unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, and with it, unprecedented scrutiny of ultra-rare but dangerous side effects. An estimated 852 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered across 154 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. Last week, the European Medicines Agency, which regulates medicines in the European Union, concluded that the unusual clotting events were indeed a side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine; by that point, more than 220 cases of dangerous blood abnormalities had been identified. Only half a dozen cases have been documented so far among Americans vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and a causal link has not yet been established. But the latest news suggests that the scope of this problem might be changing.
Beth Van Duyne was at the center of a controversy over Sharia law. Now she represents a congressional district Biden won.
In 2015, in the Dallas suburb of Irving, the fates of two very different Texans collided.
One was 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a precocious kid in a NASA T-shirt who had built a clock out of spare parts and brought it to school in a pencil case. His English teacher decided it might be a bomb, and the school called the police, who arrested Mohamed for bringing in a “hoax bomb.” Because Mohamed’s family was part of Irving’s large Muslim minority, many liberals saw this as a baseless case of Islamophobia.
The other Texan was Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, a blond 44-year-old with Disney-princess bone structure. She defended Mohamed’s arrest on Facebook, then went on The Glenn Beck Program to repeat the “hoax bomb” lie and complain that the child hadn’t given police enough information. “We’ve heard more from the media than the child ever released to the police when we were asking him questions,” she said calmly.
Concerns about blood clots with Johnson & Johnson underscore just how lucky Americans are to have the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
A year ago, when the United States decided to go big on vaccines, it bet on nearly every horse, investing in a spectrum of technologies. The safest bets, in a way, repurposed the technology behind existing vaccines, such as protein-based ones for tetanus or hepatitis B. The medium bets were on vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, which use adenovirus vectors, a technology that had been tested before but not deployed on a large scale. The long shots were based on the use of mRNA, the newest and most unproven technology.
The protein-based vaccines have moved too slowly to matter so far. J&J’s and AstraZeneca’s vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19—but a small number of recipients have developed a rare type of blood clot that appears to be linked to the adenovirus technology and may ultimately limit those shots’ use. Meanwhile, with more than 180 million doses administered in the U.S, the mRNA vaccines have proved astonishingly effective and extremely safe. The unusual blood clots have not appeared with Pfizer’s or Moderna’s mRNA technology. A year later, the risky bet definitely looks like a good one.
Just months after leaving office, the former president has all but disappeared.
The president was insistent as he left office: “We’re not going anywhere.” It had been a turbulent end of the presidency—impeachment, appalling pardons, and a lengthy dispute over the outcome of the presidential election—but he knew that he had a devoted following, and he had every intention to remain a force in politics. And not just him: His family was eager to cash in on his electoral success, too. Usually a former president laid low for a while after leaving office. He wasn’t going to do that. He’d remain a political force, and the dominant figure in his party.
But the plan didn’t go well. The president sat at his new home—he had decamped from his longtime home state—guzzling Diet Cokes and calling friends to rage about how unfairly he’d been treated and complain about overzealous prosecutors. “You get tired of listening to it,” one friend confessed.
The CDC has finally said what scientists have been screaming for months: The coronavirus is overwhelmingly spread through the air, not via surfaces.
Last week, the CDC acknowledged what many of us have been saying for almost nine months about cleaning surfaces to prevent transmission by touch of the coronavirus: It’s pure hygiene theater.
“Based on available epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors,” the CDC concluded, “surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low.” In other words: You can put away the bleach, cancel your recurring Amazon subscription for disinfectant wipes, and stop punishing every square inch of classroom floor, restaurant table, and train seat with high-tech antimicrobial blasts. COVID-19 is airborne: It spreads through tiny aerosolized droplets that linger in the air in unventilated spaces. Touching stuff just doesn’t carry much risk, and more people should say so, very loudly.
In 1974, John Patterson was abducted by the People’s Liberation Army of Mexico—a group no one had heard of before. The kidnappers wanted $500,000, and insisted that Patterson’s wife deliver the ransom.
Illustrations by Leonardo Santamaria
This article was published online on April 15, 2021.
The Motel El Encanto in Hermosillo, Mexico, served a lavish breakfast that John and Andra Patterson liked to eat on the tiled deck near their suite. The couple would discuss the day ahead over fresh pineapple and pan dulces while their 4-year-old daughter, Julia, watched the gray cat that skulked about the motel’s Spanish arches.
On the morning of March 22, 1974, the Pattersons’ breakfast chatter centered on their search for a permanent home. They were nearing their two-month anniversary of living in Hermosillo, where John was a junior diplomat at the American consulate, and the motel was feeling cramped.
After breakfast, Andra dropped John off at work. Because this was his first posting as a member of the United States Foreign Service, the 31-year-old Patterson had been given an unglamorous job: He was a vice consul responsible for promoting trade between the U.S. and Mexico, which on this particular Friday meant driving out to meet with a group of ranchers who hoped to improve their yield of beef.
More Black storytellers are turning to the horror genre to unpack the traumas of racism. But some viewers are growing tired of these stories.
Updated at 6:40 p.m. ET on April 17, 2021.
In the trailer for Amazon’s new horror series, Them, Diana Ross’s “Home” soundtracks a tender scene: A Black husband and wife in the 1950s survey their new house in wonder and dance in the living room with their two daughters. “When I think of home / I think of a place where there’s love overflowing,” Ross sings. But, as in the song, the tenor of the trailer changes. We learn that the Emory family has moved to a white part of Compton, where residents don’t take kindly to the demographic shift. “They came from someplace worse. We’ll have to make this place worse,” one neighbor says. A montage of racist harassment follows: White classmates make ape noises at one Emory daughter; golliwog dolls hang from the family’s roof; a church is set ablaze.
The joys of money are nothing without other people.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.
In 2010, two Nobel laureates in economics published a paper that created a tidal wave of interest both inside and outside academia. With careful data analysis, the researchers showed that people believe the quality of their lives will increase as they earn more, and their feelings do improve with additional money at low income levels. But the well-being they experience flattens out at around $75,000 in annual income (about $92,000 in today’s dollars). The news materially affected people’s lives—especially the part about happiness rising up to about $75,000: In the most high-profile example, the CEO of a Seattle-based credit-card-payment company raised his employees’ minimum salary to $70,000 (and lowered his own salary to that level) after reading the paper.
In early March 2020, Rick Phillips, 63, and his wife, Sheryl Phillips, quietly cloistered themselves in their Indianapolis home. They swore off markets, movie theaters, the gym, and, hardest of all, visits with their three young grandchildren. This April, three weeks after receiving her second shot of Pfizer’s vaccine, Sheryl broke her social fast and walked into a grocery store for the first time since last spring. Rick has yet to join her. He received his shots on the same days his wife received hers. By official standards, he, too, can count himself as fully vaccinated. But he feels that he cannot act as though he is. “I personally remain scared to death,” he told me.
Rick has rheumatoid arthritis, which once rendered him “barely able to walk across the room,” he said. He now treats the condition with an intensely immunosuppressive drug that strips his body of the ability to churn out disease-fighting antibodies. Rick credits the treatment with changing his life. But it might also keep him from developing lasting defenses against COVID-19.
Progressives thought they knew what a Biden presidency would look like. How did they get him so wrong?
Washington in the first days of the Biden administration is a place for double takes: A president associated with the politics of austerity is spending money with focused gusto, a crisis isn’t going to waste, and Senator Bernie Sanders is happy.
People like to tell you they saw things coming. But as I talked to many of the campers in Joe Biden’s big tent, particularly those who, like me, were skeptical of Biden, I found that the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few of us expected that this president—given his record, a knife’s-edge Congress, and a crisis that makes it hard to look an inch beyond one’s nose—would begin to be talked about as, potentially, transformational.
Biden, after all, was a conservative Democrat who has exuded personal decency more than he has pushed for structural decency. One conservative publication labeled him “the senator from MBNA” for his friendliness to credit-card companies. He conducted the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in a way that hurt Hill, for which he later expressed regret. He voted for the Iraq War and eulogized the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. He began his 2020 campaign telling wealthy donors that, in his vision, “nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”