A Q&A with Maggie Messitt

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting. 

This week, we have something a little different. It's an interview with Maggie Messitt, the national director of Report for America. You've probably heard of Teach for America. Well, Report for America is sort of like that -- an initiative to place and fund burgeoning journalists into local newsrooms to fill crucial coverage gaps in this unstable media landscape. The deadline to apply to be part of this year's group is Friday. So we thought this was a perfect moment for you all to hear from Maggie in order to learn about the great work Report for America is doing and see if it might be an opportunity for you. Enjoy!

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

I wouldn’t actually say that I broke into journalism until I reached South Africa in 2003 and invested myself in local news in the new democracy. I was 24. I’d written for my college paper. I’d covered city hall one summer for the Beacon-News in Illinois. And I had amazing experiences in Washington, interning for Dateline NBC, Face the Nation and CBS Evening News. But covering rural communities in eastern South Africa is where I really found my home as a journalist.

2. There’s a lot we can ask about Report for America, the program for which you serve as the national director. But before we get into specifics, can you please walk us through what Report for America is? How does it work? Basically, what should we and our readers know about this fantastic initiative? 

Report for America is a national service program that places emerging journalists in newsrooms across the country to address issue-based or geographic coverage gaps. We believe in journalism as public service, and we’re working to ignite that same spirit in emerging reporters seeking to serve under-covered communities. Unfortunately, with so many layoffs and the disappearance of small papers, critical coverage gaps are not difficult to find. There are far too many. This is why we aim to place 1,000 journalists in newsrooms across the country by 2023.

Newsrooms go through a competitive application process to become a host newsroom, and journalists do the same. These journalists are employed by the newsrooms, but they are also Report for America corps members. As such, they not only commit to full-time jobs, but also ongoing training and community service projects focused on youth-created media. 

Report for America pays for 50% of the corps member’s salary and the remainder is split between the newsroom and local funding sources.

In 2019, we will be placing 60 journalists in newsrooms – applications for which are due Feb. 8th.

3. What was the origin of Report for America? What inspired its creation? How did the idea come about? 

In 2011, an FCC Report revealed that the real crisis in journalism was actually in local accountability reporting. The lead writer of that report was Steven Waldman, a former U.S. News & World Report staffer and founder of BeliefNet. Earlier in his career, Waldman had written a book on the passage of the AmeriCorps law and spent significant time in the national service movement. The hybrid of these experiences led him to eventually write a report that called for the development of a national service program to address the crisis in local journalism. 

Two years later, Waldman joined forces with The GroundTruth Project and its co-founder Charlie Sennott to launch Report for America. And, in January 2018, we placed our first three journalists in Appalachia.

4. One thing we’ve seen in curating job listings every week is how many seem to be based in either New York or Washington, which very much limits the candidate pool and might not serve all readers. Why do you think that is? How is Report for America trying to combat that problem? Why has Report for America chosen to focus on those underserved markets?

Well, first and foremost, Report for America is trying to serve the broader base of readers you mention. We don’t consider ourselves a jobs creation or placement program. We are out to address critical coverage gaps so that community members can better understand the issues that affect them. Ultimately, this is about making sure journalism – a critical component of our democracy – continues at all levels. And, in some cases, to make sure that someone is focused on quality accountability reporting. 

Whether it’s Will Wright, our reporter covering Eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald Leader, who broke (and stayed on) a major water story; or Michelle Liu, our reporter covering criminal justice for Mississippi Today, who exposed an unprecedented spike in state prison deaths, we need people on the ground focused on communities and issues that affect those who live there. 

As for why we don’t see these positions in most national job listings – other than the flood of exciting positions we listed on Journalism Jobs a few weeks ago – I can only assume it’s because local has been hit hard, as Waldman’s FCC Report made clear. But, also, I can only assume the increased draw to Washington and New York has caused local editors to look elsewhere to recruit.  

5. It’s been a terrible couple weeks for the journalism industry, with layoffs rocking quite a few newsrooms. Local journalism has been particularly hit hard by the changes to our business. Why is local journalism so important? What is lost when it goes away? Why has it been so much more difficult to sustain than national journalism? What’s Report for America’s role in all this?

The loss of local journalism means you’re less likely to know the candidates when you go to vote. It means, when your community loses access to clean water, it’s less likely to be addressed. Your community is more vulnerable to corruption. The list goes on.

The ad-based model is no longer sustainable, particularly at the local level. This is where we start to also see another great divide between the rich and the poor in America. Communities with less disposable income attract less advertising. Less advertising means fewer pages, less frequency or the complete loss of printed news. If a paper manages to survive, it might only do so with one or two reporters.

6. Part of the Report for America model is that you will chip in up to $20,000 of a reporter’s salary, with the rest being covered by the newsroom itself and “local funding.” What is “local funding?” What sort of sources have been open to helping newsrooms fund journalists? Have any conflict of interest issues popped up while trying to procure that funding?

Local support is critical for the success of local news. This investment comes from a range of foundations. In Appalachia, for example, the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation recently awarded support for two Charleston Gazette-Mail reporters—Report for America corps members—to increase coverage in the region. In Chicago, the Joyce Foundation supported the placement of two reporters to cover the south and west sides of the city—communities that have long gone undercovered.  

Securing grant support for journalism is no longer new. Public radio and non-profit newsrooms like Mississippi Today and Honolulu Civil Beat survive on this kind of fundraising. We are helping to extend that model. 

7. How important is a reporter’s personal background to being a successful local reporter? Many of the best local journalists have institutional history in the area they cover and are able to write and report with the benefit of that perspective. How much does that factor into your decision-making process with Report for America? How necessary is a journalist covering politics in, say, Tacoma, Wash., actually be from Tacoma, Wash.? 

Institutional history comes with time and investment. We’re looking for great reporters eager to invest in a community and their beat. Half of our journalists in 2018 returned to their home state. The other half moved to communities where they needed to acclimate themselves to the culture and history of place. Both situations have their strengths and their disadvantages. Ultimately, great reporters know how to build sources and stay on important stories. You do not need to be from Tacoma, Wash., to invest in the community and its needs. 

8. What needs to change about hiring practices in newsrooms?

I don’t think the crisis in journalism is about newsroom hiring practices—even though I do think newsrooms should work more to reflect the communities they serve. I do think young reporters set their eyes on Washington and New York far too early in their career. The impact one reporter can have at the local level is immense. We are seeing that play out with our reporters in Eastern Kentucky, in the west side of Chicago. In each of the communities where we’ve partnered.

9. The media industry obviously has a diversity problem, which is itself a problem and then has many trickle-down effects, including on the coverage. Will Report for America make an attempt to try to ensure a diverse pool of reporters? What can be done to not only keep reporters employed and thriving but to also diversify the journalist pool so that the media industry reflects society at-large?

Three-quarters of our current corps members are journalists of color and/or women. They were selected from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants for 13 positions. Talented journalists rose to the top through a competitive review and interview process. At the end of that process, we provided each newsroom with three to six candidates that fit its needs. From there, they interviewed each and selected, just as they would hire any other staffer. 

So, in the end, it’s up to the newsroom to decide if they’re going to consider gender, race and class. We’re looking for skills and competency. We’re looking for great clips—and it doesn’t really matter where they were published. Great reporting is great reporting. However, we have a placement in 2019 that’s covering Native American issues. I would like this reporter to reflect the community. So we’re actively networking to seek out great Native American candidates. We have two positions that would benefit from Vietnamese-speaking reporters and six positions that require Spanish-speaking reporters. We’re reaching far and wide to draw those candidates to apply. This requires intention.

As for keeping reporters and thriving – I believe Report for America can play an important part in this. 

10. You lived in South Africa for eight years, running a community newspaper there and founded a non-profit educating women journalists. What made you go to South Africa initially? Why did you get involved with journalism there? What did you learn, and think is resonant for American media as well?

I was every parent’s worst nightmare. I made my way to South Africa with a one-way ticket to take a job that wound up requiring a Plan B. I was a grad school dropout who really only wanted to do one thing: to write. So I started to freelance. I lived in the South African lowveld and was really the lone foreign reporter in a region with little to no local coverage. When there was local coverage, it was typically published in a white South African paper that represented only a small part of the entire community. The more I reported, the more I knew I should not be the only person covering these issues, and that there should be a paper that reflects the community it serves. So I applied for a grant from the Media Development and Diversity Agency of South Africa to research training possibilities for small print media. This eventually led me to opening a school for women who wanted to become journalists and to launch a paper that served two former apartheid-era homelands. 

In doing so, I found myself having frequent discussions and impromptu community meetings around the role of journalism in a new democracy and the need for the community to invest—even in a small way—in assuring that it becomes a permanent fixture of the community. 

Read all of our Q&As here.

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