Co-founded by veteran journalist Charles Sennott, who co-founded GlobalPost and founded the GroundTruth Project, and Steven Waldman, who co-founded the multi-faith religion website Beliefnet.com and authored the Federal Communications Commission's landmark report Information Needs of Communities, the organization aims to shore up local newsrooms by making reporting part of a national service program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, daily and weekly newspaper publishers employed about 455,000 people in 1990 — a number that had fallen to 173,000 by January 2016. In 2015, Waldman released a report funded by the Ford Foundation that argued for the creation of a national service program for journalists.
Supported by Google News Lab, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting and Reveal Labs, the Solutions Journalism Network, and the Emma Bowen, Galloway Family, John S. and James L. Knight, and Select Equity Group foundations, Report for America offers one- to two-year fellowships, covering half a reporter's annual salary of about $40,000, while the participating news outlet and a local donor split the other half. Reporters who make the cut start with eight days of training before joining their host newsrooms and must fulfill a service requirement, such as mentoring student journalists, during their fellowships.
"People are applying for the same reason people want to go into the Peace Corps: There's an idealistic desire to help communities, and there's a sense of adventure," Waldman told the Times. "They want to try and save democracy. People keep saying that."
Three fellows — called corps members — began working in Appalachia in January, with nine more to be deployed across the country in June. Eighty-five newsrooms applied to host one of the nine reporters, describing a crucial beat that needed filling, the Times reports. In regions where newsrooms are full of empty desks, an additional reporter can have a significant impact. For example, Will Wright, a reporter placed at the Lexington Herald Leader through the program, helped break a major story simply by attending a community meeting in eastern Kentucky and talking to residents who had been without running water for days. Soon afterward, the person in charge of the water district retired, and the state found $3.4 million to fix the water system.
"You don't need a twenty-year veteran investigative reporter to have this impact," said Waldman. "It's so barren out there that just being on the ground can have a really big impact."