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THE LAST WORD: Report for America helps fill statehouse gaps

Kerry Hubartt

It’s no secret that newspapers have been struggling in recent years. The News-Sentinel ended daily publication in 2017, transforming its identity to News-Sentinel.com online and keeping alive its print product with a presence in the Monday-Saturday Journal Gazette

Pew Research published a report in July that showed employment at newspapers across the country had plunged 47 percent from 2008 to 2018. But even in reduced staffing and changed formats, local newspapers still try to do what they can to give their readers local and state news both relevant and important to their lives.

One area of coverage that has always been important to local readers is the Indiana General Assembly and the issues and laws handled by our elected representatives at the Statehouse. But a report published by Pew Research five years ago showed statehouse coverage from newspapers had declined by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, the most recent figures available.

For several years The News-Sentinel employed a full-time reporter for that task who lived and worked in Indianapolis to file stories regularly on the work being done by our Indiana legislators, especially those elected to serve our area. Eventually, however, the expense of that position became prohibitive, and the newspaper had to rely on reporting by telephone or coverage The Associated Press could provide. That has, unfortunately, been the case for many newspapers in Indiana and around the U.S.

The good news is that The Associated Press reported last week it is adding 14 statehouse reporters across the country, including one in Indianapolis, for 18-month-long jobs through a collaboration with Report for America, a group dedicated to local reporting. The two organizations will collaborate to create those new reporting positions to cover state government.

Report for America is a national program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. According toreportforamerica.org, it is an initiative launched in 2017 by the GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit media organization. It is designed to connect an emerging group of young journalists to local news organizations.

Last week’s Associated Press story explained that Report for America “recruits reporters and pays part of their salaries, putting them to work at existing news organizations. It has funded reporters at newspapers, online publications, radio and TV outlets, and other news organizations such as the AP.”

Funding comes from a large number of organizations, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Facebook, Google News Initiative and Ford Foundation.

The Poynter Institute reported on poynter.org that RFA works across the country “in a Peace Corps-like model to create positions and joint funding.” Besides Indiana, the AP’s collaboration with RFA will bring more coverage to Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah as well. The positions will begin in June and will be mostly funded by the AP and RFA. The AP says it will make the coverage from the new positions available for free to other media in those states.

“The significance of state government keeps going up, up, up, and the number of statehouse reporters keeps going down, down, down,” Steven Waldman, RFA’s co-founder, told Poynter. “So we have a severe accountability crisis when it comes to state government,” which, he told AP, determines much of the public policy affecting the lives of Americans.

RFA says 60 corps members are currently working in newsrooms in 28 states and Puerto Rico to fill critical gaps in local coverage. Corps members gather in RFA’s online space — a closed social network for corps members — to collaborate, share their work, and participate in a supportive community. The organization gathers corps members together by video monthly for training or roundtable discussions.

It is gratifying to know both that local newspapers and other media will have more coverage available on the issues important to their readers at no additional expense and that young journalists have another entry point into the profession that offers training and support as well.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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